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Mutagamba’s timber ban

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati & Julius Businge

Prices go up but experts say she is barking the wrong tree

On a busier day Bashir Mutebi, a timber dealer, would be negotiating deals to sell timber to Sudanese and Kenyan traders, and retailing to dealers in Kampala. Usually, he would sell an average of 300 pieces of timber locally and load 3 trailers of timber for export to Sudan and Kenya.


But almost a month after Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba slapped a ban on cutting timber from both private and public forests in the country; Mutebi hardly fills a trailer and sells between 20 and 30 pieces of timber a day. He attributes the decline in timber sales to the ban which has led to supply distress and increase in price.

The Water and Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba stunned the timber markets when she abruptly announced a three-month ban on timber cutting starting on March 6. In her directive, the minister also said all importers and traders in chain saws and hand saws used in pit sawing will be registered as a quick way to regulate the cutting of timber.

Observers of the forestry industry have described the ban as a knee-jerk reaction designed to buy the minister time to draft guidelines for revenue collection from the pit-sawying business. Traders like Elvis Mukomazi, of Nakasero Market say registration is likely to take a lot of time and frustrate his business.

Mutagamba admits she is closing gaps in revenue lost to illegal loggers.

“Illegal harvesters have robbed District Local Governments of vital revenue due to non-payment of taxes, they have caused the drying up of water sources due to depletion of catchment areas, and cutting young trees does not allow the regeneration of forests. Who tells you the ban won’t work?” Mutagamba told The Independent.

But she says timber cutters had become uncontrollable and were over-harvesting forests due to poor planning, weak regulation and inappropriate processing technology.

A government policy paper on forestry estimates that 800,000 m3 of logs are cut each year, a rate of timber harvesting that exceeds sustainable cutting levels by a factor of four.

Timber prices have gone up. In its main market in Ndeeba in Kampala, the most commonly used timbre; the 4×2 piece of softwood called Kirunda used in constructing ramparts on construction sites is selling at Shs 7,500 from 6,000 before the ministerial ban.  A 6×2 piece of timber goes for Shs 10,000 today compared to 8,000 before the ban. For Pine, a 6×2 piece of timber costs Shs 35,000 today up from Shs 25,000 registering an increase of Shs 10,000. Similarly, the price of a 4×2 piece of timber that previously cost Shs 20, 000 now goes for Shs 27,000 registering an increase of Shs 7,000.

Charles Tumuhimbise, who has been in the timber business for 15 years says the 14 days the minister gave for collection of all timber in forests were not enough for him to collect all his timber because his workers were harassed by military personnel deployed in the forests by National Forestry Authority (NFA) and District Forest Services to execute the ban. At the end of the 14 days Tumuhimbise had 2,500 pieces of timber left in the Kibaale forests.

“The government did a bad thing,” Tumuhimbise says, “We have licenses to do this business but they just gave us two weeks to have transported all our timber something we have failed to do because that time was not enough.”

Mutebi agrees: “You come from nowhere and stop us from transporting our timber; that we can’t accept.”

Many appreciate Mutagamba’s need to protect Uganda’s fast disappearing forest cover; which is currently at a rate of 90,000 hectares annually but Most forestry sector players say the minister did not consult them before announcing a ban on timber cutting.

Members of the Natural Resources Committee of parliament have asked the minister to rescind the ban but she says that’s impossible. Some timber dealers say they will organise a demonstration against the ban.

Another dealer, Tumukunde says he had just recruited 20 pit-sawyers from Kabale to cut timber he had bought from forests in Kibaale district, western Uganda. “You can imagine I had given each of them 200,000 as part of their labour and none of them paid it back,” he told The Independent.

Incidentally, the National Forestry Authority says forests are fast disappearing in Kibaale, Hoima, Masindi and Kyenjojo Districts due to reckless deforestation.

“The sad thing is that in forests where trees are cleared for timber, cultivators have occupied hampering efforts of reforestation,” says Kaita Gonza, the spokesman of National Forest Authority (NFA).

Challenges in sector

Almost 10 years after handing the care of Uganda’s forests to the NFA and the District Forestry Services (DFS), the sector is still grappling with challenges of the past.  Corruption, poor law enforcement, unclear boundaries, encroachment, and political interference have led to the fast disappearing of both private and public forests.

Experts estimate that Uganda is losing 90,000 hectares (three times the size of Mabira forest) in forest-cover, annually. Of this, 83,000 hectares are said to be lost on private land while 7,000 hectares is lost in Protected Areas managed by NFA and Uganda Wildlife Authority. It is projected that at this rate, the country will lose its forest cover in the next 40 years.  The increasing incidence of extreme droughts, floods, erratic rains, lightning strikes, killer landslides and receding water-levels show that rapid depletion of forests is leading to ecological and economic disaster.

Interference

According to NFA, the problem becomes complex when institutions in charge of regulating timber trade are not given chance to do their work independently. The district forest office is tasked to use forests to generate revenue for the district since graduated tax, because their main source of revenue, was cut off. The district authorities end up conflicting with NFA as they cut timber from central forest reserves since timber on private land and in trustee of districts has greatly disappeared due to overharvesting.

“Performance of district forest officers is measured by how much revenue they have collected from forests at the end of the month. There is nothing like conservation,” says an official from the ministry of Water and Environment.

Both NFA and District forest officers are engaged in a blame game and rampant timber trafficking makes the chain of custody is very complicated. “You cannot easily trace which timber is coming from a particular area of the country and again most timber dealers transport their timber at night as they dodge taxes,” says Gaster Kiyingi, a former employee of NFA now working with Tree Talk project.

Timber trade in Uganda is mainly in the hands of private dealers. It is hard to get accurate statistics on the amount timber traded in the country since sometimes licenses to timber cutters are offered with kickbacks. At the same time the market is flooded with illegal timber.  “You will have a situation where a commissioner for forestry cannot cause arrest of a lorry carrying illegal timber because it is being escorted by armed security personnel or the moment it is impounded the lorry and timber will be removed the following day moreover with threats on your life. What do you do? You just sit in office as a football spectator,” says a source at NFA.

To get license for timber cutting the local authorities like LC1, local government intelligence officers and the district chairman have to be aware. The same applies to transportation of timber.  The timber dealer has to get a movement permit indicating where the timber was cut and the destination. The permit is issued by the district forest officer. But in spite of these rules the government has been losing revenue as the cutters evade taxes and offer kickbacks to forest officers to move freely. The district charges between Shs 100,000 and 300,000 per truck loading timber. In peak times ten trucks of timber can leave a district that is heavily forested.

But Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) says it is not bothered by the ban on timber cutting since it does not generate a lot of revenue. Sarah Birungi Banage, the URA assistant public and corporate affairs commissioner told The Independent that revenue collections from local timber dealers contribute only 0.08% to the total collections. “Suspending timber business for three months will not have a significant impact on URA revenue collection,” Banage said.

URA does not collect taxes from timber exports but charges tax on imported timber. Banage said last year 132 timber dealers exported timber worth Shs 20.305 billion to different countries.  Last year 859 Ugandan timber dealers imported timber worth Shs 13.532 billion from which URA collected Shs 4.837 billion in taxes. For domestic taxes, in the year 2011, URA collected Shs 2.488 billion from local timber dealers; where Shs 1.834 billion was collected from VAT, Shs 107 million was collected from individual tax and Shs 546 million was PAYE.

More trouble in forests

Apart from timber cutters and charcoal burners, Uganda’s forests are threatened by encroachers who wiped out South Busoga forest and are targeting forests in Bunyoro.  NFA estimates that some 350,000 people have illegally settled on forest reserves.

“Over 80% of the encroachments in the protected areas have been backed by some local politicians who usually trade forests for votes. This has encouraged the encroachment in many forest reserves since even those who had left the forest came back,” says Gonza Kaita, NFA spokesman.

As Mutagamba was issuing a ban on timber cutting, some 15,000 people had settled themselves on forest reserves in Sembabule district and it took a presidential order to have them evicted.

Between 2005 and 2006 NFA had begun removing encroachers from government forest reserves but the President directed the NFA to halt the eviction until further orders. Since then the number of encroachers have tripled in Kibaale, Hoima, Masindi and Kyenjojo Districts. Even the Local Council leaders have since started selling forest reserve land to migrants who think forests land is cheap.

Beyond the ban

Observers say the minister needs address the political will to protect forests at district level and beef the NFA skeleton staff on the ground. The 120 environment police officers she recently set-up cannot police the 500 Central Forest Reserves that NFA manages. The forest sector is inadequately funded. The donor money that come to NFA is earmarked for tree planting and given to investors who have the land and patience to wait for 25 years to harvest the trees. NFA is also struggling with building its image after alleged corruption scandals which have made donors jittery to invest their money since a former forest boss was discovered to have up to about Shs 900 million in cash in his house.

Sometimes NFA officials have been killed as they go to enforce decrees on illegal timber activities. In 2009 Alfred Ezaaki, a forest supervisor and Emmanuel Asiimwe, a forest guard, were hacked to death by suspected pit-sawyers in Jubia forest reserve in Masaka. In the same year suspected illegal timber cutters in Buikwe, Mukono district at the edge of Mabira forest set ablaze an NFA forester patroller and his wife and a 3-year-old baby.

There are also loophole lies in the administration of the forestry sector. Only 15% of Uganda’s forest cover is managed by the statutory body National Forestry Authority, the other 15% is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority while the 70% is managed by local governments. Most of the locally managed forests belong to communities or private individuals and these forests are fast disappearing.

Local governments manage forests as a source of revenue not for their ecological importance. “Masindi district has tendered out the collection of revenue from charcoal. How can you stop someone who has signed a contract to collect tax from timber cutters or charcoal burners for a year?” wonders Kiyingi.

Vanensio Byabashaija, the chairperson of the timber dealers in Ndeeba said the minister’s directive will hurt timber dealers and timber prices will continue going up unless his group is supported with planting inputs like seeds and capital to do tree planting which will increase the amount of timber on the market and stabilise the prices in future.

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