By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
President Yoweri Museveni says the scarcity of sugar warrants giving away one third of Mabira forest to the Mehta Group to grow sugar. Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) Executive Director Godber Tumushabe spoke to Mubatsi Asinja Habati about the cost of giving away part of the forest.
What will be lost and gained if Mabira Forest is given away?
Mabira like any other central forest reserves provides an important ecological function. Apart from being a vital water catchment area for Lake Victoria, if you are building dams around the River Nile you do not want to do anything in the hinterland that will disrupt the hydrological feature. Forests are considered to be one of the major carbon sinks, if you then destroy a forest like Mabira you will have destroyed a very important sink very close to the capital city with fast growing industrial sector.
From the climate point of view, as a country we are likely to suffer major climate disruptions because we are technologically backward. We have not developed the technological capacity to cope with adverse climate change and ecological disruptions. We would lose the climate modifying element of an important forest like Mabira.
Economically, we have many agricultural communities around Mabira some of whom depend on the forest reserve for its resources; if you destroy this forest the communities would lose their livelihood. Secondly this country has a major problem with energy, and over 90% of our population depend on biomass as a source of energy so no matter how much development you make in terms of projects in the foreseeable future that is not going to be tenable. The kind of biodiversity of the natural forest like Mabira cannot be found anywhere so you cannot relocate or replant the forest.
Of course you can increase sugar production but that cannot be so important for you to lose the economic, ecological and environmental benefits of a natural forest such as Mabira. SCOUL will benefit, the politicians will benefit because they are able to get these companies to support them in their election financing but as Ugandans, we lose more in destroying Mabira forest than we gain.
In 2007, Ugandans said Mabira should stay intact but the President says, given the sugar scarcity, it is time to let go of Mabira to get more sugar. What does that say about the president?
It is wrong for him to be arguing that we destroy forest reserves and replace them with sugarcane. I think it’s also unfair to Ugandans for our President to be acting like the public relations officer of a corporation because promoting investments means that you actually put in place policies that enable various actors to be able to take advantage of the environment that you have created.
But for the president to be out there fighting with Ugandans that Mabira should go to Mehta, he operates more or less as a PRO of Mehta than the President. He should let institutions like Uganda Investment Authority do their work. He cannot reduce the issue of sugar scarcity to Mabira and Mehta. He has to put the debate to higher level.
What’s that higher level?
He should say; as Uganda, this is our target for sugar production. We want to be producing say 200,000 metric tonnes of sugar per year and for us to do this we need to get maybe 100,000 hectares of land and therefore where do we get this land. That’s the way he needs to operate so that the agencies that are involved, UIA, Ministry of Trade, NEMA, Ministry of Agriculture, etc, should be the ones coming up to say where do we get this land and examine the rules that govern accessing that land. This is different from what we seeing on ground.
It is a discussion between one company and the President who has selected the land. Here the president can easily be accused of self-interest because, as a Ugandan, I would ask myself what is in it for the President? Is it really about increasing sugar production? Why should he be fighting for a company called SCOUL? Why can’t they buy land elsewhere? Mabira is a resource that belongs to the people of Uganda which government holds in trust for the people of Uganda. The President has no right to go and giveaway a resource that belong to the people of Uganda and the people are saying no.
What do you think of this idea of giving investors free land as “incentive” to do their business in Uganda?
If the process of identifying the land, setting aside, and giving it away was transparent I would have no problem with it. But the fact that government acts in a very opportunistic manner by targeting individuals and almost pushing everybody to the wall, I think, that is the problem. It has implications for our governance as it has now created a situation where every investor thinks he has to talk to the President to get free land. The President cannot operate as a desk officer for Uganda Investment Authority, which employs people paid by tax payers to deal with investments.
He should deal with the strategic long term future of developing the whole of Uganda. Given the nature of the crisis we are facing in the economy in terms of jobs, salaries, electricity, prices of goods, etc the President needs to spend more time addressing those issues rather than trying to arbitrate which investor has to take which plot or acre of land.