Rwandan farmers are stealing Uganda's fertile soils to use as manure in their gardens, Rubanda district chairperson Kenneth Jogo Biryabarema has said.
Biryabarema said the Rwandans are stealing fertile soils from Echuya forest reserve, in southwestern Uganda. The reserve, ranked Uganda's most important forest habitat due to the rarity of its flora and fauna, stretches from Rubanda to Kisoro districts near the Rwandan border and runs between Lake Bunyonyi and Mgahinga Gorilla national park.
It is home to more than 150 species of birds, eighteen of which are endemic to the reserve, including the Grauer's swamp warbler, the world's highly endangered bird.
But the future of the forest is threatened by human activity according to Biryabarema. He says that for a long time now, Rwandans have been crossing into Echuya, mining fertile loam soils which they take to use as fertilizers and manure in their gardens back home.
He says that in the process, they dig trenches that are left open and endanger the lives of wild animals, in the forest.
Biryabarema says that the forest has also been ravaged by National Forestry Authority (NFA) staff, who were deployed to protect it but instead, put up gardens in the forest and failed to guard it against afforestation and soil mining by Rwandans.
"There is a forest called natural Echuya forest reserve and it is in the hands of NFA and that forest has been ravaged by NFA staff because cut trees, they have gardens in that forest reserve and they raise animals in that forest. [Rwandans] who are near that forest come and carry fertile soils and take to their gardens as manure which is practically endangering the flora and fauna of that area. So we partnered with Kisoro local government and we agreed that that area should be upgraded from a level of a forest reserve to a national park because it is good for bird viewing. There are very many birds in that area." he said.
Biryabarema told URN that Rubanda and Kisoro district officials agreed to lobby for the upgrading of the forest to a national park as well as transfer its protection from NFA to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
"We feel it can be better protected by UWA when turned into a national park. The government can generate some money from tourists and as a district, we get some money through revenue sharing."
He added that although there are very many bird species in that area, the government is not collecting any money from people who visit it for birding activities. "It is generally the tour operators who benefit by bringing tourists for bird viewing," Biryabarema said.
Biryabarema argued that the district has no manpower to protect the forest stretch along the Rwanda border. The Rwanda side of the forest, he explained, was completely cut down and turned into gardens while that of Uganda is still protected.
Biryabarema added that they have convened meetings with local leaders from Rwanda to address the issue. He said that with the election of the lower level - local council leaders, surveillance will be increased on the Rwanda border.
"Being a big forest, they easily access because the side of Rwanda was completely cut down and they have families and homes along whereas the one of Ugandan side is still protected. So they easily access, they sneak in into the Ugandan side and carry Ugandan soils into their gardens. They don’t buy manure but they use it in their gardens as manure. We have been trying to have some cross-border meetings with the people in Rwanda, the governors and their local leadership to ensure that we protect our forests because we want to ensure that we need it and still love it and need to protect it for our future generations.
Biryabarema further said the district is facing a challenge of wild animals that destroy residents' gardens. He says that people who have had their gardens destroyed by wild animals have not been compensated for a long time, prompting them to start killing wild animals in revenge because of anger.
He added that Rubanda local government leaders proposed to Uganda Wild Life Authority to create buffer separating the part from residents' gardens but received no response.