Violence in Uganda over forest clearing proposal

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Four people are reported killed in Kampala, Uganda, amidst protest marches organised against a government proposal to cut down 7,000 hectares of forest land to expand a private company's sugarcane plantations.

Two men of Asian descent were stoned to death by a mob, and the deaths of two others were under investigation, according to police sources. A witness said that one of the Asians was attacked after he ran his motorcycle into a crowd. BBC News reported that a looter was shot dead and a bystander wounded by security guards.

Asian businesses and a Hindu temple were attacked by rioters; in response, police deployed armoured cars, used tear gas, and opened fire to quell the violence. A group of Asians trapped in the temple by a mob were rescued by police.

This forest is our heritage and cannot be given away by the Ugandan government.

—Phillip Karugaba, spokesperson for Environmental Action Network

The sugar company is owned by the Mehta Group, established by Indian immigrant Nanji Kalidas Mehta. Asian immigrants formed a prosperous trading community in Uganda before they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. Many returned following Amin's downfall, but some Ugandans view their presence and business with suspicion.

The Mabira reserve forest in south-east Uganda covers about 30,000 hectares and is home to several rare species; it has been a reserve forest since 1932. A primatologist working in the area announced in February that monkeys in the forest previously thought to be Gray-cheeked Mangabey (Lophocebus albigena) were in fact a new species.

President Yoweri Museveni's government is considering a proposal to de-notify and transfer 7,000 acres of land to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul) to expand its sugarcane plantations. A cabinet paper says the plan will generate 3500 jobs and will contribute 11.5 billion shillings to the treasury.

Arched tree root in the Mabira forest.
Source: S A Perez.

Scoul bills itself as the largest employer in East Africa, with 7,300 employees manufacturing sugar and industrial alcohol at its 10,000 hectare Lugazi estate. The Ugandan newspaper Monitor reports that Scoul's plantations have been reduced in acreage after it failed to reach agreement over existing leases with various landlords.

Scoul says that plantations at the Mabira forest will help double its annual production to 110 metric tonnes, and in a newspaper advertisement published on Thursday, said that "anti-development lobby groups" were misleading the public about the Mabira plan. In its environment policy, the company says it is committed to a managing land and wetlands resources in an environmentally sensitive manner.

The plan is opposed by Ugandan MPs because of its environmental impact. An official from the Ugandan National Forestry Authority told the news agency AFP that the plan will destroy the area's biodiversity and affect locals' livelihood.

Scoul says the forest land is already being encroached upon by subsistence farmers.

Meanwhile, the group has been offered land in Mengo and by the Anglican church in Mukono as an alternative to the Mabira plan. Scoul Chief Executive S.C Khanna says that he will consider such an alternative if the land is fertile, free of "squatters" and close enough — within 30 km of the sugar factory — so that the cost of transporting sugarcane is viable.

Scoul has increased security after multiple fires destroyed crops at its plantations.

This story has updates
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