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Tree farms; a mixed bag

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

NFA’s tree planting campaign may fetch fortunes in carbon credits, but residents displaced by the green farms are yet to find a home

The beautiful, endless, lush greenery of young forest captures the eye as one enters Kikandwa trading centre. It goes all the way to Mpologoma, Kisita and Kyamukasa villages in Kassanda North, Mubende district, and follows the valley, cutting through undulating hills as Nabakazi stream flows into River Katonga.

8,104 hectares of man-made forest, Namwasa Central Forest Reserve (CFR) was leased to the New Forests Company (NFC) to plant commercial trees in 2004. So far NFC has planted 5,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus trees in Namwasa.

National Forestry Authority also leased close to 20,000 hectares of land to the UK-based NFC to plant forests in Mubende, Kiboga and Bugiri districts. NFC was to invest US$47 million (about Shs 133 billion) in 10 years. Since 2005, the company says it has planted 12 million pine and eucalyptus trees on 9,300 hectares, employing more than 1,400 people.


NFC plants and harvests timber in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Rwanda, with forests totaling around 90,000 hectares in these countries. In July, the company signed a 49-year concession to harvest and replant 12,000 hectares of Nyungwe National Forest in Rwanda. In Uganda, NFC runs an electricity pole treatment plant, supplying the rural electrification project.

“All our timber products are for the domestic Ugandan market and all poles treated and sold by New Forests Poles are sold for electricity transmission in Uganda,” said NFC’s Head of Corporate Responsibility, Kate Sharum.

NFA hopes that leasing forest reserves to private commercial planters will rejuvenate Uganda’s diminishing forest cover, feed the country’s timber, plywood and other forest product needs, and generate additional revenue in taxes and the international trade of carbon credits.

Residents upset

But residents on land within or neighboring the forest reserves are crying foul, alleging that they have been illegally evicted – without compensation – to make way for trees. They argue that what government authorities call forest reserves is ancestral land on which many were born and raised as home.

Residents report that since 2007, over 17,000 people in Kiboga had been evicted from Luwunga Central Forest Reserve – sometimes violently – by NFA, NFC, police and other security personnel. In March 2010, Hudson Andrua, then executive director of NFA, ordered squatters in Luwunga Forest Reserve to stop growing food there and prepare to leave.

Villagers challenged this. They said they had working LC systems, permanent houses, crops, schools, churches, etc so they would not relocate. Some of the schools – like Seeta Primary school, Kambugu Primary school and Seeta Health Centre in Kibiga sub-county – were government-owned. Would government build schools in illegal settlements?

Violence has resulted. In July last year, NFC workers were attacked and seriously injured by residents of Luwunga Forest Reserve, after they cut down crops to force people to leave.

Oxfam International, a global development aid NGO, has backed the residents. In a Sept. 21 report Oxfam accused NFC of “violently” evicting over 20,000 villagers in Namwasa and Luwunga Forest Reserves, to pave way for tree farms. Oxfam argues that by denying the residents notice and due compensation, the company contravened international practices regarding resettlement and development.

There have been other evictions in Busoga, Elgon region, by Forests Absorbing Carbon-dioxide Emissions (FACE) Foundation, a Dutch organization.

Oxfam Country Director Ayman Omer told The Independent that Oxfam was not against NFC’s investments and recognized the resulting revenue, employment and social development.

“However, this investment needs to be accountable and transparent, not endangering the livelihoods of the poor. Our report was not looking at the legality of people on the land, but at their rights. You cannot just evict them without giving them alternative livelihoods,” said Omer.

“NFC signed the International Organizations Practice to get money from banks and has to observe those practices as it does its business. If they are evicting encroachers, international practices require that they compensate them, no matter what.”

Oxfam found the term “encroachers” to be offensive.

“This is a dangerously loaded term that pre-judges people’s rights and dehumanizes them, making it easier to justify violent actions. And it is a highly misleading term, because the people maintain that they did in fact have lawful entitlement to the land and were testing that argument in ongoing legal cases,” the report argued.

Exaggeration?

NFC has denied the accusations. Sharum said Oxfam had exaggerated not only the number of people evicted, but also the manner in which they were handled.

Sharum told The Independent that the company recognized only 32 families which legally demonstrated that they had been resident in the area before 1992 – when a Presidential directive was issued evicting people from the forest reserves – as eligible for compensation. The rest, she said, were “encroachers”.

In a Sept. 21 letter, NFA said the evictions were all carried out peacefully and blamed for the delay in resettling the entitled families on the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, whose mandate it says was to provide compensation.

“NFC made several offers to provide compensation to NFA, but they were declined because government policy wants all resettlement and land compensation to be managed by the Ministry of Lands, not private investors,” Sharum said.

NFA’s Public Relations Officer, Moses Watasa, defended the evictions denying that they were brutal or violent.

“Most of the encroachers in question left peacefully,” Watasa said. “It was only about 15 young men threatening violence, armed with spears, arrows and machetes, and they were later arrested,” Watasa said. He said at a meeting with Minister of Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba in September 2009, the residents had asked for a grace period up to the end of March 2010 to leave.

Like NFC, Watasa also said that Oxfam had exaggerated the number of people affected.

“NFA registered only 7,800 people. So Oxfam appears to have “manufactured” the extra number. We also think Oxfam doesn’t know the boundaries of forest reserves so is not competent to allege that government “brutally” evicted people from ‘their land’. Talking to NFA would have their report,” the NFA official said. “Oxfam doesn’t realize that people in such situations often exaggerate. Some have alleged that people were killed and raped, which is untrue.”  But Omer said the Oxfam report calculations based on the 7,200 signatures of evicted households in a High Court petition challenging the eviction. “When you multiply that by 5 which number with average number of people in a Ugandan household, what do you get?” Omer wondered.

Forests under threat

Watasa quoted Minister Maria Mutagamba as saying that “encroachers were a big threat to Uganda’s forests that must be discouraged from occupying protected areas.” But the increasing pressure exerted on land by Uganda’s growing population means that this is inevitable. Currently growing at the rate of 3.2 percent per year, Uganda’s population is projected to reach 130 million by 2050, meaning pressure on forest land will only increase. According to Watasa some 350,000 people have encroached protected forests.

NFA says the rate of loss of forest cover is already worrying. John Diisi, NFA’s Coordinator of GIS/Mapping, said out of Uganda’s 3.6 million hectares of forest cover, 80,000 hectares is lost each year. In the 15 years between 1990 and 2005, Uganda’s forest cover reduced by 24 percent.

The situation is even grimmer since protected forests and game reserves only make about 30% of Uganda’s forest cover, the remaining 70% being on private land, which are more vulnerable given the rising demand for timer and food production. NFA says Uganda is left with less than 300 hectares of mature industrial plantations, shifting “pressure to ecologically sensitive natural forests in protected areas”.

While this poses a serious threat to fragile landscapes (steep hills, lakeshores, river banks and wetlands), biological diversity (wild animals), environmental health (especially in urban and industrial areas) and water sheds, the public is yet to appreciate the importance of forest cover to the survival of the ecosystem.

Culprits

Ninety-six percent of Ugandans depend on forest firewood or charcoal for domestic fuel, according to the 2002 Population and Housing Census. But while previously community settlement and institutions like schools, prisons, army, posed the main threat to forest cover as they chopped down trees for fuel, agriculture, housing, etc, development projects are a growing danger.

The case of Mehta Group’s attempt to clear 7,100 hectares of Mabira Forest for sugar cane is one such instance, but there are others. Industries for lime, tobacco, tea plantations, etc, consume a lot of wood.

Onesimus Mugyenyi, deputy executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), says government is the leading depletor of forests.

“Look at Butamira Central Forest Reserve being cut down by Kakira Sugar Works for cane growing; there are proposals to give Kalinzu Forest Reserve to tea growers; demand by investors for protected areas is increasing,” Mugyenyi told The Independent.

Mugyenyi said government’s use of laws to de-gazette forests for sugarcane plantations, as in the case of Butamira Forest, was itself illegal since the law says a permit cannot be issued to change the use of gazetted land to activities incompatible with the reason for which it was gazetted.

Worse still, he the manner in which concessions to harvest forests are awarded is marred in corruption and other illegal activity.

“But individuals are also culpable as in Western Uganda natural forests on private land are cleared to grow maize and get charcoal.”

No more food

Back at Namwasa Forest Reserve, out of fear, neighbouring residents have stopped growing food crops, planting trees instead to avoid eviction.

“Many of us have resorted to planting trees on our land to coexist with the foresters and build far away from here,” said Paul Ssentongo of Netulidde village, whose land borders the Namwasa NFC plantation. “We cannot even build permanent houses so close to the forest.”

“Before the mzungu came the area where you see that tree plantation had our gardens and grazing fields. When he started planting the trees we were stopped from grazing and digging there,” says Mary Nakalule of Nakasozi village, which also borders the forest plantation.

On its part NFC has constructed a secondary school, classroom blocks at 13 primary schools, teachers’ houses, a health centre, 9 shallow wells, a road and a subsidized tree nursery for interested communities surrounding Namwasa plantation.

Carbon credits

NFA’s tree planting campaign is targeting the billions promised by the carbon credits market. For instance Rwoho Forest Reserve, estimated to be worth $6 million, is so far the biggest in the World Bank’s carbon program in Africa. North Rwenzori Forest Reserve is worth $3.5 million in carbon credits.

“Even individuals with private forests are benefiting from carbon financing arrangements,” said Watasa. This is why in the contest between communities and investors, NFA tends to side with its tree planting investors. Yet Oxfam feels the rights of communities have to be upheld.

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