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Bugoma destruction is adversely affecting Kikuube communities

A sugarcane plantation belonging to Hoima Sugar

A sugarcane plantation belonging to Hoima Sugar

Once a thick tropical rainforest with tall huge trees, the largest part of Bugoma Central reserve forest in Kikuube district is now a plain area after continued destruction of the forest by human activities such as lumbering, charcoal burning and agriculture.

A drive inside the villages in Kabwoya and Kyangwali sub-counties where the forest is found presents a sight of logs of trees felled to the ground and plantations of maize, beans, irish potatoes and sugarcanes now occupying areas where trees once were.

The part of the forest to Kyangwali through Nyakabale where trees used to create dark shades in the road is now just an easy bare walkway because all the big trees there have been cut down with only the small ones remaining. However, all this is going on under the watch of armed security officers from the army and National Forestry Authority (NFA) who are stationed there in the disguise of protecting the forest against encroachers.

These heavily guard the plantations, lumberjacks and charcoal burners and limit access to the forest to any unknown persons. Desire Nkurunziza, the chairperson of Nyairongo village in Kyangwali sub-county, says he has clear information and evidence that NFA sector managers and supervisors allow some people to go into the forest to cut timber and burn charcoal after being bribed.

“It seems like some government officials don’t want Bugoma forest to exist because they are collecting a lot of money from it. I say this because you cannot be cutting timber from it without paying for a license from the district or burn and transport charcoal without paying a fee to the authorities,” he says.

Apart from the lumbering and charcoal burning, trees have also been cleared to create space for gardens. Nkurunziza says an acre of land in the forest is rented out at Shs 300,000 per season by the army men and NFA officials for which no receipt is given out so that there is no evidence of this wrongdoing.

“The last part of the forest which was still intact was also rented out a few weeks ago and it is soon going to be cleared. When it is time for harvest, these farmers still pay a fee to the NFA guards in order to be allowed to transport their crops out of the forest.”

Nkurunziza’s efforts at saving the forest have always come at a cost as he has been arrested and imprisoned three times on charges of trespass and inciting violence; though whenever he appears in court, no one shows up to accuse him of the said crimes and the judge eventually dismisses the cases.

In 2008, the residents with guidance from NFA formed the Collaborative Forest Management (CFM) which signed a memorandum of understanding with the forestry authority to manage the forest jointly and for the community adjacent to the forest to benefit from it.

According to Paul Mugisa, the chairperson of the CFM, this partnership went on well until 2018 when the NFA staff in Bunyoro stopped collaborating with them and barred any local from stepping into the forest even if for simply collecting firewood.

Hellen Kabanyoro, a resident of Kaseeta village, says they have now resorted to using dry maize stems for cooking because if they are found in the forest even collecting firewood, they are severely harassed and beaten by the soldiers.

“As women, we are so much affected by the fact that we can no longer get raw materials for handicrafts from the forest yet we would make them, sell them and earn some money to pay school fees for our children and buy household items,” Kabanyoro says.

She adds that at the backdrop of all this, there is massive destruction going on in the forest right now and they are constantly asking themselves where the ones digging, burning charcoal and lumbering in the forest untouched get the permission to do so.

HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT

Since the forest was a habitat for wild animals such as chimpanzees, monkeys, foxes, snakes and baboons, its destruction has made such animals to loiter into communities hence creating human-wildlife conflicts, which the residents claim Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has not helped them address.

“Currently we have animal conflicts because animals like chimpanzees and monkeys which were initially living in the forest are now roaming in the communities because they have no forest to stay in. Recently they attacked a village and destroyed people’s gardens and when the chairman reported, UWA officials came and advised the residents to just agree to stay with the animals and no compensation was made for the crops destroyed by the animals,” said Lamula Asasira, who lives adjacent the forest in Nyairongo village.

More worrying for the residents is the looming climate disaster which is likely to befall the region already being witnessed in the change in rainfall patterns and long dry spells. Most people in the region depend on subsistence farming for food and such conditions are likely to cause hunger.

Hassan Mugenyi, the chairman of the Save Bugoma Campaign in Kyangwali sub-county, notes that water levels in the area have also started going down where rivers like Rutowa and Ohwa which have their sources in the forest have started drying up especially during the dry season, making it difficult for the communities to get water. He adds that strong winds which destroys crops, especially cassava and bananas, have become rampant since the forest used to act as windbreaks.

Equally worrying is that the destruction of Bugoma comes at a time when the country is in final stages of extracting oil from the Bunyoro sub-region which is expected to start in 2025. These oil activities have been projected to generate one million tonnes of carbon annually.

The forest reserves in Bunyoro should, therefore, absorb those emissions before other forest reserves in other parts of Uganda.

“In 2019 when we were being sensitized about the oil activities, we were told that this forest will be vital in absorbing the carbon emissions but if it is being destroyed, how are we going to live in this area when the oil production starts?” Asasira wonders.

The continued destruction of Bugoma has not only hurt nature but also left communities grappling with high rate of school dropouts, especially among the boys as most have ran away from home and dropped out of schools to go work in the forest as lumberjacks, charcoal burners and gardeners in maize plantations within the forest where they earn quick money.

For the girl children and women, the situation is even more disheartening as area leaders claim that men who have recently come into the area to work in the forest especially from areas of Busoga, West Nile, DRC and Rwanda have raped and defiled women and girls leaving
some pregnant. Some of these men rent within the communities while others have temporary shelters they stay in within the forest.

According to Rovinsa Namatovu, the chairperson of the Women council in Nyairongo village, so far six girls and an elderly woman have been raped by the men who come to cut down trees in the forest who attack them when they have gone near the forest to collect firewood or when the girls are on their way from school in the evening.

“There is even a girl as young as seven years who was raped but the man ran way before he could be arrested. The child spent weeks in Hoima regional referral hospital getting treatment. What is sad is that these men are untouchable that even if we report them to the authorities, they are never arrested or if they are arrested, they are immediately let go, Namatovu lamented. Both Asasira and Kabanyoro also attest to these rape and defilement allegations.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The Observer, NFA spokesperson Juliet Mubi couldn’t talk much about the allegations of continued destruction of the forest because the issues of the forest land demarcations are still in court. She, however, said that there is an area near the forest which is under Hoima Sugar Limited, and not NFA management; so, those activities could be happening in the areas where they (Hoima Sugar) are managing.

“There is an area which is not under our management where we have also seen a lot of illegal activities. But forest management is a daily exercise. We do routine patrols and when we find any illegal activities happening, we arrest the culprits, take them to court and there are some who have been convicted,” she said.

WAY FORWARD

Mugenyi says 30,000 residents signed a petition to parliament to save the forest and protesting Hoima Sugar Limited’s alleged encroachment on it. They also want the responsibility of conserving the forest to be rested in the residents. But seeing the continued destruction of the forest with no government action to save it, they have started a campaign of planting trees on their own land such that they try to mitigate the negative effects of losing Bugoma.

“We started this campaign about a year and a half ago with support from different civil society organizations and Buganda Kingdom where we have so far planted over 28000 trees in the sub-counties of Kabwoya and Kyangwali which are adjacent to the forest. We have planted indigenous tree species such as Prunus Africana, Warburgia Ugandensis and Tamarind which existed in the forest as well as fruit trees like avocado, mangoes and jackfruit which people can depend on for a livelihood,” he says.

Mugenyi, however, appeals to the government to support this initiative by providing them with free tree seedlings and to also come up with other interventions of helping the residents who used to benefit from the forest whose livelihood has now become difficult.

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