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Conservationists call for Ugandan government to halt forest ‘give-aways’

World Bank Loan Agreement for Bujagali Dam will be breached! Will they act?

The fate of Mabira Forest Reserve –home to 30% of bird species found in Uganda- continues to hang in the balance as President Museveni and some elements of the Ugandan government attempt to hand over a quarter of its area for sugarcane cultivation.

BirdLife International and NatureUganda (BirdLife in Uganda) continue to argue that the economic benefits of retaining Mabira in its present form, will easily exceed the ‘short-sighted’ gains quoted by the government in the proposed forest ‘give-away’.

Mabira Forest Reserve (at over 30,000 hectares) is listed by BirdLife as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and contains over 300 bird species, including the Endangered Nahan's Francolin Francolinus nahani. The forest is also home to nine species found exclusively in the region including Grey-cheeked Mangabey Lophocebus albigena johnstoni, a recently identified endemic primate subspecies. In order to convey the enormous value of retaining Mabira Forest Reserve, NatureUganda has undertaken an economic study of the site, which they are now putting to the Ugandan government. Among the economic benefits of retaining Mabira that NatureUganda have outlined are:1. Environmental services provided by Mabira Forest Reserve. Most notably the forest protects the water catchment area for Lake Victoria, Lake Kyoga and the River Nile. The forest also acts as a carbon sink worth $212 million USD at current carbon market prices.

2. Local livelihoods are supported via commodities that come from the forest, particularly from the sustainable harvesting of wood, food and medicines. The National Forestry Authority, the lead forestry agency in Uganda, last year estimated the value of the wood alone at $568 million USD.

3. Tourism at Mabira is another high-earner for Uganda: Mabira contributes 62% of the total revenue collected from visitors to Uganda’s Forest Reserves. Ecotourism is now Uganda’s second largest foreign exchange earner. “The economic studies that we have undertaken clearly indicate that keeping Mabira Forest Reserve for reasons of conservation, constitutes a better land-use option than sugarcane growing when total economic value is considered,” said Achilles Byaruhanga, Executive Director of NatureUganda.“If a quarter of Mabira is chopped down the effect on the remaining forest will be far-reaching, reducing the range of species, causing encroachment, erosion and siltation, and reducing its capacity to provide services, so there would be less water in rivers, less rain, less carbon intake, fewer tourists,”he added.

NatureUganda’s arguments for stopping the ‘give-away’ of Mabira Forest Reserve are supported by BirdLife International, a global alliance of over one hundred conservation organisations.

“For the Ugandan government and Mehta Group [sugar company] to continue with a venture that is so very costly in terms of biodiversity loss and in terms of economic stability, is wholly deplorable.”said Hazell Shokellu Thompson, Head of BirdLife’s Africa Division. "However, we are confident that once all the facts have been reviewed, the Ugandan government will do the right thing for the Ugandan people and stop the ‘give-away’". Uganda ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1993 and has a fairly good track record in upholding the treaty so far. The government has an obligation to continue to adhere to the agreement in the same way that many African and world nations do," he commented.“The sugar company itself also argues that it has a strict policy of environmental compliance which this venture quite obviously contradicts.” Mabira is only one of a number of ‘give-aways’ proposed by the Ugandan government, believed to be planning a bill to amend the National Forest and Tree Planting Act that would give the National Forestry Authority power to de-gazette protected forests without first going through parliament.

The ‘Save Mabira Campaign’ – in which NatureUganda and ACODE (Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment) have been key players- attracted nationwide support, culminating in a public demonstration in the capital city Kampala in April 2007. Since this time the Ugandan government has been largely silent about further discussions over the future of Mabira, in part to deter negative publicity in the run-up to the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, being hosted by Uganda on 23-25 November 2007. The proposed degazettement of Mabira has been linked to a large-scale dam project, funded by the World Bank. The contract agreement for the funding for the Bujagali Dam, on the Victoria Nile, states that: “..the Government of Uganda undertakes to conserve through sustainable management program/budget, the present ecosystem of the Mabira Forest Reserve and those portions of the Mabira Forest Reserve…”

4th July 2014