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Army to protect forests but critics claim hidden agenda

By Onghwens Kisangala

Three weeks ago the minister of Water and Environment, Hon Maria Mutagamba announced plans to set up tight security to curb environmental crime in Uganda.

She said her ministry, in conjunction with that of Defence have designed a White Paper to be presented to the cabinet for discussion before the force is put in place. The special task force that will be known as the National Environment Police (NEPO) is to be created from the police.

 According to Mr. Onesmus Muhwezi the director of environment monitoring and compliance at National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), NEPO is being instituted to meet the challenges of the times. “Environmental degradation and associated climate change impacts have become a global and human rights issue.  The current industrialization drive by the government of Uganda poses a big challenge to maintaining a clean and healthy environment.”

Critics of this plan say this could be a plot by the government to either secure the forests to serve their own land needs or protect them from likely infiltration by rebels. “Museveni is the kayungirizi for land in Uganda, he has to identify the land,” said Beatrice Anywar, the shadow minister for environment.

She adds, “President Museveni understands bushes in a different perspective. Every bush he sees is a potential hideout for rebels. But why not, he came to power through the bush.”

Muhwezi advances several reasons for the formation of NEPO. He says the public is now keen on the state of the environment that they live in. “Reporting of environmental crimes by the general public has increased dramatically in the recent past,” he said, “unfortunately, the response to reports is less successful due to the time lag between when an incident is reported and when action is taken.

Muhwezi says the nature of environmental crimes requires that officers are trained in the technical aspects of the environment and provided with mentoring and coaching by a technical environmental arm of government. However this is the issue that is seriously contested by deferent stake holders in the sector.

But Anywar, insists NEPO is unnecessary. “I don’t think that is the way forward, have they exhausted other avenues?” she asks. She instead points an accusing finger to the “untouchables” for destroying the environment. “If we take a look at the data of those who are destroying the environment, it is the government officials,” she says, adding, “I was very surprised when Maria Mutagamba said they are going to take on those who are clearing the forests and wet-lands. Why couldn’t she point out those individuals who are clearing our forests?”

One of the most controversial environmental incidents happened last year when President Museveni attempted to giveaway a huge chunk of Mabira forest to a sugarcane planter. The president reasoned that industrial development is better than forest conservation and argued that giving the forest to Mehta sugar producing company to plant sugarcane would be more profitable. But many Ugandans, in a rare show of solidarity, rejected the president’s idea and resisted the forest giveaway.

Anywar says NEMA has failed. “There is no way any one can convince Ugandans that the army or police are the right people to protect the environment. NEMA is deliberately letting its obligation die out and Aryamanya [executive director of NEMA] is failing to bite. Let him resign if they are putting him under pressure,” she said.

There are forest and game rangers whose duty is to protect these entities. However, according to NEMA and other agencies partnering in this project, the establishment of NEPO will not antagonize with the duties of the forest rangers but rather compliment them.

Said Muhwezi, “NEPO is not going to be a substitute to the existing natural resources enforcement units, the environment police is intended to beef up enforcement on environmental crimes beyond illegal activities in protected areas.”

Anywar believes if facilitated, NEMA could enforce these laws. “I would like NEMA to be fully independent of the security personnel and only be given more funding for them to do their work more efficiently,” she said.  While questioning the real purpose of this force she said, “Who is going to assemble that force, and to whom will it report? They just want to take control of our forests and plunder them,” she said.

In Masindi, a senior manager of Budongo Forest Reserve, the largest natural forest in Uganda, resigned two weeks ago saying the staff in Budongo was being ignored in favour of illegal operators. Press reports indicate that Mr Deziderius Irumba had protested logging that was going on in Budongo but he faced powerful resistance.

Prof. Dan Nabudere in an earlier interview with The Independent (Uganda Is In Free Fall, Issue 035) says the president wants to have military control in all places. He said President Museveni has grown to think that the solution to every problem is in the army. “He uses the armed forces as a personal institution and the police as a praetorian execution force,” said Nabudere.

Anywar agrees that NEMA is not going to be the first institution to be militarized. “The electoral Commission is under military watch and the elections are always a thing of the army. The police have been literally militarized. However Muhwezi dismisses that saying NEPO will be a small, well equipped and facilitated force that will proactively detect, investigate and respond to reported crime expeditiously. “This force will be recruited and provided with paramilitary training by the Uganda Police with support from NEMA, while their operations will be under NEMA.”

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