Simon Bagire has lived in Kandandangobya Forest Reserve in Hoima District for more than 50 years. He has a four-roomed semi-permanent house which he constructed on a four-acre piece of land. Bagire also grows crops on the land. “I was born here and I have lived in Fort Portal all my life. I have never been threatened with eviction although I know I am in a forest reserve,” Bagire, a father of seven and a resident of Busanga village, says.
In case he is evicted, Bagire says he is willing to vacate and find an alternative piece of land. He is among thousands of people in Bunyoro region that have encroached on protected forests. There are more than 43 central forest reserves in the region covering 187,281 hectares. The region is endowed with a rich biodiversity which is in protected sites, private and communal land.
However, according to conservationists, the region is fast losing its natural forest cover. Encroachers cultivate, graze and settle in central forest reserves. It is also common for people to harvest timber, burn charcoal, collect firewood and poach animals.
The government has ordered National Forest Authority (NFA) officials to start evicting encroachers to end the persistent destruction of forests. Addressing leaders from Bunyoro and Tooro regions, the Water and Environment minister, Mr Ephraim Kamuntu, said increased destruction of forests reserves had led to drastic climatic changes. Mr Kamuntu said President Museveni wanted all encroachers to vacate the forests with immediately to preserve the forests.
In an interview with the Daily Monitor, the executive director of NFA, Mr Michael Mugisa, says they have introduced a multi-pronged approach, which includes sensitisation, mobilisation and involving various stakeholders to appreciate the magnitude of encroachment and its implications. “I am pleased that some encroachers have voluntarily vacated some forests. For those that refused, the law will take its course. We shall arrest and prosecute them because their activities are illegal,” Mr Mugisa says. Some encroachers, however, claim they acquired the land in forest reserves with approval of district land boards.
Mr Mugisa says such titles are illegal, adding that the ministry of Lands has a right to terminate them. Mr Kennedy Mugume, the assistant project officer of the Midwestern Regional Anti-Corruption Coalition, an agency in Bunyoro that curbs illegalities in the forestry and wildlife sectors, says many encroachers know that they are settling on the reserves illegally. “The boundaries of some forests are unclear. Communities neighbouring the reserves use this as an excuse to encroach on the forests on the pretext that there is no clear boundary between their land and the reserve,” Mr Mugume says.
Mirac has advised NFA to promote collaborative forest management in which communities neighbouring are directly involved in planning and conserving the forests. Conservationists have also started offering incentives to private owners of natural forests to support them to conserve forests.
Chimpanzee Wildlife Conservation Sanctuary Trust (CSWCT), a civil society organisation, which operates in the Albertine Rift valley forests, is paying 342 owners of private natural forests in Hoima and Kibaale districts. “The payment for Ecosystem Services Scheme aims at generating additional and sustainable finance for biodiversity conservation,” Mr Paul Hatanga, the CSWCT conservation project manager, says.
Under the scheme, the environmentalists pay Shs70,000 per hectare of the forest conserved per year. The four-year project, which started in 2010, is funded by The United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Environment Facility and is implemented by the National Environmental Management Authority. But in some cases, private owners are frustrated. Mr Boniface Rwangiira, the LCI chairperson of Mparangasi village in Kyabagambire Sub-county, says his neighbours do not want his forest because they say it habours baboons and monkeys that destroy their gardens.
“They have burnt it(forest) twice. They want me to cut it down,”Mr Rwangiira says. Despite warnings of eminent environmental disasters, some encroachers are unwilling to vacate. “We are not going anywhere because it is only Museveni who can evict us,” Mr Philip Bikorwa, the chairperson of encroachers in Kangombe Reserve, says.
In an effort to expose the extent, manifestations and implications in Uganda’s forestry sector, Anti-corruption Coalition of Uganda conducted an action research between 2007 and 2012 about selected forests in the Albertine corridor.
“Most illegal activities found in the sampled forests and wildlife areas were associated with corruption, including bribery and kickbacks, populist politics, … and institutional governance failures,” the report, released last July, reads in part.