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Golfing in Murchison park

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Museveni re-opens controversy but Madhvanis have a stronger hand this time

President Yoweri Museveni’s order on April 12 that the Madhvanis be allowed to develop a golf course on one of their luxury lodges has officials of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in a fix.

Speaking at the internment ceremony of the ashes of the late Manubhai Madhvani, son of the late Muljibhai Madhvani who founded the Kakira Sugar Works in Jinja, Museveni re-opened debate on establishment of a golf course in a national park.

“I have given NEMA one month to tell me how the golf course which is just one hundred acres will damage the whole park of over three thousand square miles. Those people of UWA, if they don’t tell me, then I will know what to do,” Museveni wondered. It was a direct warning.

The Madhvanis have since 2006 wanted to develop golf courses in either the Murchison Falls or Queen Elizabeth national parks where they run high end safari lodges but NEMA and UWA have blocked them.

On Jan. 25, Marasa Holdings Ltd, the trading arm of Madhvani Group, wrote to NEMA for land in Murchison National Park which straddles the Nile, the longest river in the world. The letter signed by one A.R. Khan set terms of reference for NEMA to follow in carrying out an environmental impact assessment for the proposed establishment of a golf course in the eastern part of the park which falls in the newly created Nwoya district. In the terms of reference the Madhvanis had committed to undertake feasibility studies to ascertain the viability of establishing such a recreational facility in the park.

In a Feb. 28 letter NEMA rejected the request of Marasa Holdings Ltd on grounds that the golf course in the national park was “incompatible with the established principles for sustainable management of wildlife conservation areas that provide for minimal disruption of pristine nature of the said protected areas which is one of the key tourist attractions”.

The NEMA letter further stated that: “The establishment of a golf course is one such activity not permitted in a wildlife conservation area/national park. Hence, it is not proper that terms of reference for such studies are submitted for any prohibited activity.” The NEMA letter also reveals that Marasa Holdings Ltd did not initially consult “UWA among other stakeholders to undertake such activity in the Murchison Falls National Park”. The letter signed by Dr Tom Okurut, the executive director of NEMA, advised Marasa to look for an alternative suitable location outside the boundaries of the park to establish a golf course.

Dr Okurut has a point; most game parks that boast of golfing facilities locate them on the edge of the parks to ensure the recreational facility does not interfere with the conservation facility. However, it is not unknown for a gold course to be found within a game park.

The 9-hole, 72 ParSkukuza Golf Course is located inside the world renowned Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Its website says: “The rich wildlife sanctuary surrounding the golf course is home to the Big Five animals, a huge variety of birds and countless animals, which conspire to provide the visitor with a harmonious close-to-nature golfing experience.

“Since the course is not fenced in, uninvited spectators are a common sight; hipo, impala, warthog, and baboons to mention but a few”.

Kruger is one of the largest national parks in Africa extending 360 kilometres from north to south and 65kms from east to west to cover an area of 19,485 square kilometres (approx. twice the size of Masindi district where the 3800 square kilometer Murchison is found). Kruger has 21 rest camps, 2 private lodge concessions, and 15 designated private safari lodges. In 2010, it attracted 4.5 million visitors. Uganda attracts at least 800,000 foreign tourists annually. Kruger Park is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and adheres to the highest conservation standards.

Despite such information, environmentalists and conservationists criticised President Museveni when he first offered a piece of Murchison Falls for a golf course development in 2010.

They said it would inconveniencethe wildlife as the golf course would be fenced off and golfers could scare animals and cause their migration. Some claimed nowhere in the history of conservation has a   golf course been established in a national park.

When The Independent asked the Acting UWA Executive Director, Andrew Seguya, what his response to Museveni will be this time, he remained noncommittal and said NEMA was better placed to answer.

UWA has a new board which includes, Mani Khan, who is the director of tourism operations in Marasa. Conflict of interest, which had been mentioned even before the golf course controversy was re-opened, is likely to gain traction among decision-makers. Interaction with some of its top managers at UWA also shows that they might this time hand the Madhvanis their coveted golf course.

Museveni sides with the Madhvanis that the golf course is an additional investment that would even attract more tourists. But Uganda’s laws clearly describe the kind of investment projects that can be undertaken in wildlife conservation areas and golf courses are not among such projects.

The Madhvani Group operates at least three safari lodges: Chobe Lodge at Murchison is billed as “a niche of luxury in the wilderness”, a second lodge, Paraa, in the same park and Mweya in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Murchison Falls is one of Uganda’s most popular tourist destinations, with large populations of elephant, giraffe, antelope and buffalo.

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