Gulu Chief Magistrate's court has ordered the auctioning of 1,877 bags of charcoal that were impounded from eight businessmen in Acholi sub-region.
The charcoal was impounded by the National Forestry Authority (NFA) personnel and the Environmental Police Protection Unit (EPPU) at checkpoints in Akurukwe in Amuru district, Layibi in Gulu city, and Bobi in Omoro district on June 27.
The suspects appeared before Gulu chief magistrate Said Barigye on Monday and were charged with three counts of illegal transportation of forest produce contrary to sections 32(1),(a), and sections 34(1)&(2) of the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act 2003 before being remanded to Gulu Main Prison.
The other charges are illegal transportation and trade in forest products (charcoal) contrary to executive order No 3 issued by President Yoweri Museveni and failure to comply with orders of an authorized person contrary to section 81(F) of the National Forestry Act.
The suspects are Peace Nsamba Buhlance, 30, a resident of Kijujuba sub-county in Masindi district, Hamidu Ssenyondo, 54, from Nansana Municipality in Wakiso district, Josepth Baliira, 50, from Kayonza village in Nakaseke district. Others are Jessica Nabatanzi, 34, Stephen Bakabulinde, Rose Nasazi, Innocent Ntinihera, and Yonasan Sebuguze all residents of Wakiso municipality.
In his ruling on Wednesday, Barigye ordered NFA to dispose off the impounded charcoal through auctioning and deposit the proceeds in the consolidated fund. He also ordered each of the suspects who pleaded guilty to their offences to pay a fine of Shs 1.1 million or serve a default 3-year prison.
He directed the release of the impounded trucks upon verification of their authentic owners. James Kamugisha, the defense lawyer in an earlier submission asked court to issue a lighter sentence preferably a fine to the accused persons, arguing that they are first-time offenders and persons with responsibilities.
He also asked court to allow the accused persons to participate among other bidders in buying the charcoal during auctioning once they are released from prison.
Barigye rejected the request on the grounds that it is illegal for suspects charged with the illegal movement and trade in forest products to participate in buying the products impounded from them. David Toskin Chebet, the state prosecutor said the sentence will be a deterrent to others intending to engage in the same illegal trade.
Former Aruu County MP turned environmental activist Samuel Odonga Otto welcomed the ruling saying it’s a victory for the region owing to the declining forest cover. He however raised concerns that the charges were much lighter compared to the damage the dealers have caused in facilitating the cutting down of trees for charcoal production.
On May 19, President Museveni signed executive order No 3 banning tree cutting for commercial charcoal production in northern Uganda. The order follows complaints from local leaders in the region over the rising commercial charcoal production that has left natural forests degraded.
According to the Global Forest Watch report, Gulu district alone lost 38.7kha of tree cover, equivalent to a 6.2 per cent decrease in tree cover from 2001 to 2021, with the largest portion of the forest cover destroyed for charcoal production and timber.