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Uganda weighs up value of its forest reserves

Palm oil revenue preferred to biodiversity

NatureUganda (BirdLife in Uganda) are among a number of organisations putting forward their defence to the Ugandan government over the apparent ‘give-away’ of forest reserves for large-scale production of sugarcane and palm oil.

The events follow months of speculation surrounding the government’s attempts to push for forest ‘give-aways’ in the country, whereby government licenses allow private companies to convert gazetted forest reserves for intensive agricultural use.

Losing these forests, particularly the Mabira Forest Reserve, would have enormous repercussions for both people and wildlife in Uganda. said Achilles Byaruhanga, Executive Director of NatureUganda (BirdLife in Uganda). As a result, we are working hard to ensure the government understands that holding onto these sites is of utmost importance, both in terms of conserving biodiversity and in terms of poverty reduction and economic growth.

Mabira Forest Reserve is listed by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The forest contains over 300 species of bird, including the Endangered Nahan's Francolin Francolinus nahani.

The forest also supports nine species of primate, a recently identified new mangabey subspecies in Uganda, Lophocebus albigena johnstoni and a new species of Short-tailed Fruit Bat. The fact that we are still discovering new species of large animals in this forest is a pointer to its value for biodiversity. commented Byaruhanga. The forest also serves as catchment for many of the region’s rivers, providing freshwater for over one million people before joining the Nile.In late 2006, news of the proposed licence issues by the Ugandan government was first reported in the national media. There followed wide criticism and public protest when it was reported later that the government had sacked the entire board of the National Forestry Authority (NFA), after they unanimously refused to carry forward the license requests and forced the Executive Director of the authority to resign under alleged similar pressure. Yes, we’ve been saddened by the government’s lack of procedure and clarity in how they have gone about trying to give-away Mabira and other sites, said Byaruhanga. But this is in part a reflection of how little we, as a nation, understand the economic value of retaining our natural resources. Our government was working on the premise that there are two choices: industry versus conservation. This isn’t necessarily the case.

The economics of retaining Mabira…
Studies have shown that the potential revenue from tourism alone at Mabira was in excess of the costs of managing the Reserve. Mabira Forest Reserve is located within 50 km from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and is surrounded by four major towns used by tourists.

Other economic losses involved in ‘giving-away’ Uganda’s forests are thought to include lost revenue from selective logging, a local impact on livelihoods and possibly from changing climate; the forests help maintain central Uganda’s wet climate – removing them could bring about drier weather negatively impacting on crop yields, conservationists have argued.

Uganda has also been hit by a power crisis due to declining water levels in Lake Victoria as a result of poor environmental management. added Byaruhanga. We have to be wary of anything that aggravates this crisis such as cutting down the remaining forests in the catchments. Encouraging signs…
In recent weeks a number of regional newspapers have reported that Uganda’s President Museveni has directed the Ministry of Environment to establish whether it is environmentally and ecologically logical to degazette Mabira Forest.

It’s an encouraging development and shows that the government might be listening. The next step is for us to put forward solid reasons for holding onto Mabira by showing its enormous value as an economic resource to Ugandans. said Mr Byaruhanga of the announcements.

NatureUganda are now conducting a more in-depth economic valuation of Mabira Forest Reserve, based in part on the technical information developed as part of BirdLife’s Important Bird Area (IBA) Programme.

4th July 2014