By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
The debate on giving away part of the 30,000 hectare Mabira forest for sugar production has reached fever-pitch. President Museveni says given the sugar scarcity in the country it is ideal to hand it to sugar producer Mehta Group. The reactions, from nearly all sections of Ugandan citizens, are largely opposed to Mabira forest giveaway. But the President says whether it means going to war, Mabira, one of the largest surviving ecologically vital natural forests, must be cleared.
Donors, who fund close to 30% of Uganda’s national budget, notably from the European Union are saying the forest should stay intact. In April 2007 a demonstration led by environmentalists opposing the forest giveaway left 3 people dead and several Ugandans of Indian origin were targeted because the sugar baron Mehta is of that descent. Even today at the renewed debate of giving away the forest to produce sugarcane members of the public are raising such concerns.
In an effort to save the forest, Buganda kingdom has offered three times bigger the land that Mehta needs to grow sugarcane but the businessman has turned down the offer. Religious leaders and the civil society have voiced their objection to the forest giveaway. But government does not want to listen. The sugar company that is interested in Mabira is jointly owned by government and Mehta. I am always puzzled why our leaders who have travelled a lot, especially to most European countries, never admire to implement the environmental management practices abroad at home.
Last month, I was driving on the streets of Stuttgart, one of the great cities in Germany. I was awed by its panoramic scenery and high levels of environmental care. Here, fences of green trees line up city highways giving it a beautiful natural image. Flowers along roads and buildings as well as splendidly manicured grass and gardens make the city look even more beautiful. When one moves deeper into Germany’s countryside, the attachment to a natural environment becomes more evident. As one moves to Ramstein and Mannheim (where headquarters of US 17th Air Force Headquarters is) settlements and industrial areas are immersed in “forests” of sorts; the air is so fresh.
Groups of young and old Germans enjoying the ambience of the greenbelts in the city invoke comparisons of what our leaders lack to maintain such lovely sceneries in Kampala and other Uganda’s towns. Instead we have trees that would beautify our towns, being ruthlessly cut without even replacing them. And now destruction of a major surviving forest in Central Uganda which acts a water catchment for Lake Victoria and River Nile is being proposed with impunity.
The green belts in Kampala are no more, except the city and constitutional squares which we may also wake up one day never to see again. The value for the billions of shillings spent on planting flowers for preparation of the 2007 Common Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) can hardly be traced.
If only our leaders thought a lot of how they would want to be remembered, planting trees along our badly maintained roads would be one way to make a difference giving our country a new look. Colonial agent Semei Kakungulu in the 19th century planted trees wherever he set camp in Eastern Uganda notably the mango trees in Amuru district. It beats my understanding when a leader, in the 21st century, proposes destruction of a forest for sugar (a luxury to millions of Ugandans) production, even when there is plenty of unforested land that can grow sugarcane. Statistics from Uganda Sugarcane Technologists Association show that 0.7 million Ugandans consumed sugar as of last year.
Thus, in my opinion, conserving Mabira for posterity would even make more reason. While increasing sugar production is crucial, we cannot do that at expense of destroying a natural forest, which foresters say can’t be replaced, for sugar does not make lots of sense. On average annually Uganda produces 290,000 tons of sugar but the consumption level is 350,000 tons. The deficit has always been imported. Mehta’s sugar company is the least sugar producer in the country.