The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has defended the ongoing rice growing and sand mining activities in Lwera wetland despite uproar from area leaders, civil society organizations and the general public.
A number of people have in recent years questioned the viability of ongoing activities in the wetland, which to many, is the last line natural filter and protection for Lake Victoria. The wetland crosses through the districts of Mpigi, Gomba and Kalungu.
But NEMA executive director Dr Tom Okurut says that although the public may have an ignorance-based bias on the utilization of wetlands to satisfy man’s needs, it doesn’t make the activities illegal as many presume.
Okurut observes that NEMA has carried out several studies on how these activities can commendably be carried out without tampering with the biodiversity of the area. The studies form the basis of the approvals for any such activity.
In the case of rice growing, Okurut says that they carried out several studies on the topography, tested the soils, and carefully made an Environmental Impact Assessment which all proved that the activity could be carried out in the area.
"Let me use this opportunity to educate the Ugandan population about the decisions that make, we make them based on science, ok. Lwera wetland is big, certainly where water is flowing is there, there is a river, then there is a section where there are larges deposits of sand and there are sections which are actually dry with different soil structures. We look at the soils - that is where the rice is growing [and] we can describe it as marginal soils. So that part of Lwera we did an analysis of the soil and the water interface is at the end." said Okurut.
"The ministry of Agriculture are the ones who requested that; can we utilize this part with a view of improving the soil? Can we use it for rice growing? First of all, it is there and there is no economic value to anybody in those areas there. Of course, we did a study on whether with enhanced capacity and support to the soil can gain a comparative advantage by growing something that is of commercial value. That is why we permitted rice growing." Okurut added.
His remarks come at the backdrop of an ongoing campaign championed by civil society activists under Citizens Concern Africa to stop activities in Lwera. They have petitioned the president to intervene and stop rice growing carried out on a leased 700-acre piece of land in the Lwera stretch by a Chinese Company, Zhong Industries Ltd.
Okurut has however trashed their petition saying that Lwera is not the first wetland where the government has permitted commercial rice-growing citing Doho and Kibimba. He adds that the project has created job opportunities for the area population.
"This is not the first place we have licensed rice growing in a wetland. Maybe people have not travelled. Just in Uganda, if you go to Kibimba, Kibimba has been growing rice since 1970 and it is in a wetland. Doho in western Uganda is in a wetland. There are others that we have licenced and they are growing in a wetland. This is a pedestrian thinking of reasoning. We’re not fools and in any case, there is a full buffer of wetlands before the thing [rice project] goes on it. 3000ha goes up to Bukakata and now we want to convert that land into economic land so the community can also benefit from that wetland by adding value [through] growing rice. We gave licences for mining sand, it was the same thing." he said.
In the same development, he confirmed that NEMA has since issued five permits to different companies to carry out responsible sand mining as the country desperately need the resource. On the contrary, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) executive director Frank Muramuzi says the activities are likely to cause more harm than good.
Muramuzi argues that given the fact that Lwera drains directly into Lake Victoria and the use of agro-chemicals like fertilizers, the activities are putting millions of lives at risk. He further questions why current leaders are selfishly exploiting almost every resource without considering the needs of the future.
"They should avoid growing rice in a wetland. I think that is an activity that is not wanted in a wetland. When you go there and you have cleared a big chunk of land, you have removed the wetland, that wetland is the one that goes through Lake Victoria, it naturally filters the water that goes into the lake - those chemicals, whatever comes with floods, the faeces. First of all, you have affected the biodiversity but also you have not regulated the movement of the water. You have [allowed] dirty water into the lake." said Muramuzi.
Lwera wetland has for long been utilized by locals as a source of materials for construction, crafts, furniture, and food in addition to grazing cattle among other activities. However, its commercial use leaves a number of questions.
During his Operation Wealth Creation tours, President Yoweri Museveni also questioned the said activities, hinting on the possibility of halting them. In fact, last week while presiding over the West Nile Investment Symposium at Muni University in Arua, Museveni ordered that all people including investors and subsistence farmers encroaching on wetlands and forests should get out so as to minimize environmental destruction.
Meanwhile, Okurut says the authority has also embarked on supporting research on sand mining and rice growing in different wetlands in Uganda and has so far put up funds to environment students at university.