In 2006 the Government of Uganda in collaboration with the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL) owned by the Mehta Group of companies announced plans to clear one-third of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve (around 70 square kilometres (27 sq mi), for sugarcane plantations. Government then proposed to de-gazette this land and transfer its ownership to SCOUL.
The deforestation plans however, were disputed within Uganda. Environmentalists and the general public in Uganda feared for the loss of hundreds of endangered species, increased soil erosion, the damage of livelihoods of thousands of local people who directly depend on the forest, and the negative impacts on water balance and regional climate.
The President and cabinet supported the plan and viewed it in terms of increased job creation. The cabinet then claimed the plan would generate 3,500 jobs and contribute 11.5 billion Ugandan shillings to the treasury. The unemployment rate in Uganda then stood at 1.90 percent according the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. Despite all effort –dialogue meetings between environmental activists and the president, government line ministries and the management of SCOUL, with clear reasons to dispute the forest give-away, the president went ahead with the de-gazettement plan.
NAPE in conjunction with other civil society groups in Kampala then formed a pressure group and codenamed it ‘Save Mabira Crusade’ (SMC) to protest the forest give-way. The group spearheaded by NAPE mobilized Ugandans across the country and beyond to protest the forest de-gazettement plan. It was the first time in Ugandan history when unity in diversity prevailed -all Ugandans spoke with one voice. The international community too, supports Ugandans in this struggle.
In February 2007, SMC organized a massive demonstration on the streets of Kampala to denounce government plan to give-away part of Mabira forest to the Mehta Group of companies. The organizers of the demonstration dully informed police and clearly indicated it would be peaceful. The police however, instead of providing security to the demonstrators, they fired live bullets, tear gas and brutally beat up demonstrators. Three people were killed including an Indian in the process. Properties worth millions of shillings were also destroyed.
Government did not accept to own the mistake, but blamed the mishandling of the demonstration on the organizers. Some members of SMC were arrested including, the Executive Director of NAPE and incarcerated. But this did not deter them from opposing the unpopular government.
Government then bowed down to pressure and abandoned the plan to de-gazette the forest. But this was short-lived.
In 2011 government again attempted to resurrect the de-gazettement plan. But NAPE and other civil society groups once again put up a spirited fight to save Mabira forest. NAPE together with representatives of other civil society groups held meetings with the President both at his country home in Ntungamo and at State House in Entebbe and the activists told the President the economic value of Mabira forest and the activist’s position to save the forest. The activists advised government to look for alternative land to grow sugarcanes. The President suggested a joint research between the activists and State House on the economic values of Mabira forest so that the findings of that research would inform government on their next step. But since then, the government has kept silent on the Mabira forest issues. For now Ugandans can say they have won the Mabira forest battle, but the war still continues. Who know! The power of money may eventually consume the widely cherished forest.
Background of Mabira Forest Reserve
Mabira Central Forest Reserve is located on the Kampala-Jinja highway at about 54 km from Kampala and 26 km from Jinja, 20 km north of Lake Victoria shoreline in central Uganda. The Reserve occupies parts of Ntenjeru, Nakifuma, Buikwe, and Mukono counties, all in Mukono district. The details of the Reserve are contained in the Department of Lands and Surveys map sheets 61/4, 62/3, 71/2 and 72/1 of 1:50,000.
Mabira Forest Reserve was first gazetted as a Central Forest Reserve under Legal Notice No. 87 of 1932 with an area of 29,592 hectares. Under Legal Notice No. 78 of 1962, Mabira Central Forest Reserve was finally gazetted with the present area of 29,964 hectares contained in Statutory Instrument 1998 No. 63.
The Reserve occupies gently undulating terrain with numerous flat-topped hills, with altitudes of 1070-1340 m above sea level. The Forest protects these hills from erosion. There are human settlements (enclaves), which are completely enclosed or partly surrounded by the Forest Reserve. The original forest cover in the enclaves was cleared at the start of this century to make room for plantation of agricultural crops such as tea, rubber and coffee.
According to the National Forest Nature Conservation Master Plan, Mabira is categorised as a protected area of Core Conservation value and one of the critical biodiversity forests in Uganda. The forest supports 9 species found in no other Ugandan forest, six butterflies, one moth, one bird and one tree) and one species endemic to Uganda. 95% of the area is occupied by Celtis-Chrysophyllum medium altitude moist semi-deciduous forest and 5% by Piptadeniastrum-Albizia-Celtis medium altitude moist evergreen forest (Langdale-Brown et al., 1964). This is the only block of medium altitude moist semi-deciduous forest type Dl (Langdale-Brown et al., 1964) in Uganda’s protected area system, a vegetation type that does not occur in any of the country’s National Parks or Wildlife Reserves.
Economic Functions of Mabira
Mabira Forest is a beautiful forest with a very high eco-tourism value. It’s the only substantial protected area with tourism potential within an hour’s drive from Kampala. In combination with the River Nile, it has a potential comparable with the best of National Parks or other tourist destinations in Uganda. It is a very strategic forest that gives a first impression of Uganda’s natural gifts (its vegetation, rivers and lakes).
Ecological and biodiversity functions
The Reserve is one of the major forests that form a ring to protect Lake Victoria. Others include South Busoga, Bukaleba, and Iziru, in Mayuge District, the small Forest Reserves of Mukono and Mpigi, Masaka, and Rakai districts. It is a catchment forest for two main rivers, the Musamya and the Sezibwa, which flow northwards into Lake Kyoga. It is also a significant part of the River Nile, and Lake Kyoga watersheds. In addition, it is a catchment forest for many small rivers and streams on which local water supplies depend.
Ugandans save the Mabira Forest from sugarcane plantation, 2007: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/ugandans-save-mabira-forest-sugarcane-plantation-2007
Civil Society Organizations Petition on Mabira: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/savemabira-uganda/