Private sector players in tourism as well as conservationists have launched a protest against plans by a sugar company to cut down part of the 411 square kilometre Bugoma forest.
This follows a recent court ruling which gave Hoima Sugar Limited green light to use 22 square miles of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve for sugarcane growing. Benedict Ntale, the Vice Chairperson of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), said sugarcane growing should not be done at the expense of natural resources.
Ntale expressed these concerns during a recent press conference held at Hotel Africana.
“Masindi High court judge Wilson Masalu Musene ruled that the land in contention did not belong to the National Forestry Authority (NFA) and that the Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, Solomon Iguru Gafabusa did not commit any fraud in acquiring the title or in transferring ownership to Hoima Sugar Limited,” he said.
“If that forest goes, we expect the area to lose patterns of weather as well as revenue from tourism, sugarcane development should not take place at the expense of natural resources, there is enough land in Bunyoro to accommodate sugarcane growing without destroying vital natural resources,” Ntale added.
Conservationists say the decision is not only a threat to Uganda’s ecosystem and endangered species like chimpanzees, but will also hurt tourism activities which are a source of revenue for communities and the country at large. Bugoma forest lies to the west of the Kyenjojo-Hoima highway, approximately 10km southwest of Hoima and 10km east of Lake Albert. It is isolated from other protected areas and surrounded by small holdings and settlements.
To its west is Kyangwali refugee camp, which meets the lowland of the Rift Valley, a gently sloping area that drains towards Lake Albert. The forest reserve has been cut off the Budongo forest range, with reserve patches of Bajawe and Wababya forests being the only corridors remaining. The forest is a victim of encroachment by both smallholder and large scale farmers, especially of sugarcane.
Bugoma is a habitat for over 500 chimpanzees, 201 recorded bird species, and a special species of primates called the Ugandan mangabeys. Costatino Tessarim, a private tour operator who owns Bugoma Jungle Lodge within the forest said he invested Shs 900 million in 2017 after getting assurance from the State Minister for Environment; Mary Goreti Kitutu that being a central forest reserve, Bugoma was safe under the hands of government.
“It is our surprise that today we see other investors in the area being discouraged and our own investment that we have already set up being threatened,” Costatino said.
He says there is already an ongoing process to develop new products in the forest for tourists that have immense potential of increasing revenue. Among these is the Uganda mangabey nature walks which are due to be introduced in the forest in 2020. A 2012 chimpanzee census discovered that 10 percent of Uganda’s chimpanzee population thrives in Bugoma forest.
“Water sources in the area are decreasing. What will the situation be in two years to come when even that little that has remained is lost?” he added.