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Deal with culprits: 20,000 activists write to Museveni over destruction of Bugoma Forest

About 20,000 environmental activists comprising individuals and non-governmental organisations want President Yoweri Museveni apprehend individuals and companies that continue to destroy Bugoma Forest located in Bunyoro Kingdom, western Uganda.

In their recent letter to Museveni, the signatories say Bugoma Forestis, “Being exterminated by Hoima Sugar Ltd facilitated by the questionable actions of some government officials from the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD), National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), National Forestry Authority (NFA), the Judiciary, 2 Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Uganda Police Force (UPF), the National Physical Planning Board and others. Hoima Sugar Ltd is destroying Bugoma forest with impunity based on illegal land titles as well as Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) certificates of approval.”

Some of the organisations that have written to Museveni are; Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), Water and Environment Media Network (WEMNET), Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), Environmental Conservation Trust (ECOTRUST), Uganda Tourism Association, Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) and Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest (ACBF)

More others are; Tree Talk Plus Joint Energy and Environment Projects (JEEP), Association of the Scouts of Uganda, Inter-Generational Agenda on Climate Change (IGACC), Slow Food Uganda, Jane Goodall Institute Uganda, Green Climate Campaign for Africa Citizens’ Concern Africa (CICOA) and Civic Response to Environment and Development (CRED)

Read on:

RE: PETITION TO STOP THE DESTRUCION OF BUGOMA CENTRAL FOREST RESERVE

The above refers The undersigned signatories and others not included due to space constraints take this opportunity to thank you and your government for providing leadership to our country amidst the existing challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic and others. We also thank you for your continued efforts to spearhead the campaign against environmental destruction, land grabbing and other problems as part of your constitutional mandate to ensure good governance, transparency and accountability in the country.

The over 20,000 signatories to this petition are local people and their leaders from over 30 Bugoma forest host villages/lower local councils (L.C.1 and L.C.2). The signatories hail from the districts of Kikuube and Hoima. Other signatories include partners to the Bugoma forest host communities. As local communities, we live and survive on the natural environment and the destruction of Bugoma forest is hurting us. We therefore write to you today to express the concerns of over 50,000 local people including children, women, youth, the elderly and others who live in Kikuube and Hoima districts around Bugoma forest.

Your Excellency, Bugoma forest, located in Kikuube district in Bunyoro sub-region, is being exterminated by Hoima Sugar Ltd facilitated by the questionable actions of some government officials from the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD), National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), National Forestry Authority (NFA), the Judiciary, 2 Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Uganda Police Force (UPF), the National Physical Planning Board and others. Hoima Sugar Ltd is destroying Bugoma forest with impunity based on illegal land titles as well as Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) certificates of approval.

The company is also violating the Kikuube District Physical Plan of 2020-2040 and others. In their illegal activities in Bugoma forest, Hoima Sugar Ltd is being protected by UPDF and other government agencies, either by commission or omission. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the MLHUD issued a freehold land title and leasehold land title to Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom (BKK) and Hoima Sugar Ltd respectively. NEMA also issued an ESIA certificate of approval to Hoima Sugar Ltd to destroy part of Bugoma forest before the opening of the boundaries of Bugoma forest.

Further, Hoima Sugar Ltd is currently in Bugoma forest cutting it down without any approval from the Kikuube District Physical Planning Committee. This is in violation of the 2010 Physical Planning Act as amended. Unfortunately, both the National Physical Planning Board and the Kikuube District Physical Planning Committee have failed or ignored to stop Hoima Sugar Ltd’s ongoing illegal actions at the expense of Bugoma forest and surrounding communities.

The undersigned signatories therefore write this petition to request and demand for your immediate intervention in this matter. We demand that you use your executive powers to stop the ongoing activities of Hoima Sugar Ltd and other self-seekers that are destroying Bugoma forest. Objective of the petition The main objective of the petition is to request you to urgently stop the destruction of Bugoma forest by Hoima Sugar Ltd and and other land grabbers in Bugoma forest. We also request you to investigate the omissions and commissions by the government officials who gave out part of Bugoma forest to Hoima Sugar Ltd. We believe that the destruction of Bugoma, other forests as well as other critical ecosystems such as wetlands, lakes, rivers, national parks, game reserves and others are as a result of corruption in government. Below we present our concerns.

Threats to Bugoma forest

Amidst the uncertainty of oil challenges in the Albertine Graben that have opened roads and attracted all kinds of people including land grabbers to Bunyoro, Bugoma forest is being traded and destroyed for sugarcane growing and other corrupt interests. As local communities and partners working to Save Bugoma Forest, we appeal to you Mr. President, to immediately stop the destruction where Hoima Sugar Ltd has already destroyed over 800 hectares of Bugoma forest’s 41,000 hectares.

We believe that you have the mandate to use all your executive powers to save Bugoma forest for the common good and equitable development. We recognise that in the recent past, even amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, government and parliament used taxpayers’ money to compensate private land owners such as those who had demolished the church in Ndeeba, the Lusanja land claims and others. Why not use the same powers to save Bugoma forest? Bugoma forest should be saved at all costs so that it continues to play its important roles as a tropical rainforest with ecological, climatological and socio-economic functions. Notably, Bugoma forest is a sanctuary for chimpanzees which must be protected to strengthen tourism in the country.

Below are the threats to Bugoma forest:

(a) Destruction of the forest for sugarcane: We are concerned that through corruption and other illegal actions, Hoima Sugar Ltd has been given a go-ahead to destroy 22 square miles of Bugoma forest and todate, it has already destroyed over 800 hectares. Hoima Sugar’s activities were approved by NEMA without any shame.

 (b) Threats by MZ Agencies: This year (2021), without any justification, NFA consented to MZ Agencies to take 2,000 acres of Bugoma forest. There is information that institutions like NFA, NEMA and others are conniving with land grabbers to destroy forests and other ecosystems. They file court cases as a strategy to mislead the public that NFA is fighting for the common good and yet their objective is not to save the forests but rather make illegal activities legal. In the end, the said government agencies and land grabbers share their blood money. These claims should be investigated and fought.

(c) NEMA’s ESIA certificate of approval to Hoima Sugar Ltd: Hoima Sugar Ltd is basing on the ESIA certificate of approval that was issued to it by NEMA to continue destroying Bugoma forest. NEMA issued the said certificate in violation of all laws that govern ESIA processes. Both NEMA and Hoima Sugar Ltd never consulted all relevant stakeholders prior to issuance of the certificate, contrary to the relevant laws. NEMA’s actions explain why our country is suffering from heavy environmental destruction. NEMA also approved a sugarcane project in an area reserved for forestry as per the Kikuube District Physical Plan 2020-2040. This means that NEMA aided and abetted a crime.

(d) Hoima Sugar Ltd operating in Bugoma forest without an approved plan: It is absurd that both the National Physical Planning Board and the Kikuube District Physical Planning Committee plus NEMA have remained silent at a time when Hoima Sugar Ltd is destroying Bugoma forest in violation of national laws including the Physical Planning Act of 2010 as amended, the National Environment Act of 2019, the 1998 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations and others. Hoima Sugar’s activities in Bugoma forest are taking place in an area reserved for foresty as per the Kikuube District Physical Plan 2020-2040. Yet the National Physical Planning Board and the Kikuube District Physical Planning Committee have failed and/or ignored to prevail over Hoima Sugar Ltd and stop its illegal activities.

Violation of NEMA’s ESIA certificate of approval: While the certificate issued by NEMA to Hoima Sugar Ltd requires the developer to acquire a development permit before commencement of the project, Hoima Sugar Ltd entered and started cutting down the forest for sugarcane without any development permit from Kikuube district. This violation requires NEMA to cancel the said certificate of approval. Unfortunately, NEMA is corrupt and cannot enforce its own certificate. On its part, Kikuube dstrict remains helpless. They were never consulted by the developer and NEMA also ignored their submissions.

(f) UPDF guarding Hoima Sugar Ltd: It is unfortunate that the Ugandan army, UPDF, has continued to protect Hoima Sugar Ltd and to date, that protection has enabled the company to destroy over 800 hectares of Bugoma forest.

 (g) Abuse of communities’ rights: Hoima Sugar Ltd together with its workers and security groups are abusing the rights of local communities who live around the forest. Since the commencement of Hoima Sugar Ltd’s activities in Bugoma forest, women have been raped, people including local leaders and journalists assaulted and communities denied access to the forest to get local herbs and others. Communities are living in fear for their lives and land garabbing.

(h) COVID-19 risks: It is unfortunate that while the local communities have been following the presidential directives and the Ministry of Health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19, Hoima Sugar Ltd and its workers from outside the area have continued to move around the communities. This has led to increased COVID-19 cases in our villages.

(i) Using the lockdown to increase destruction of Bugoma forest: It is also regrettable that while Ugandans are staying home to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoima Sugar Ltd is using the lockdown to destroy the forest. We see many lorries coming out of the forest every day carrying hundreds of illegal sacks of charcoal and timber.

Our demands

Mr. President, converting Bugoma forest into a sugarcane plantation among other land uses that are not compatible with forest conservation is not only illegal but a danger to the environment and humanity. It is a shame that will create the worst precedent. We ask you to guard our national image by urgently doing the following:

(i) Stop the destruction of Bugoma forest: Issue a presidential directive to stop the ongoing activities of Hoima Sugar Ltd in Bugoma forest.

(ii) Open boundaries of Bugoma forest: Direct MLHUD, Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE), NEMA and NFA to urgently commission independent surveyors to open the boundaries of Bugoma forest. The surveyors should be independent to avoid corrupt government officials conniving with land grabbers and declaring the leased land to Hoima Sugar Ltd as land outside Bugoma forest. The survey should establish the physical location of the over 41,000 hectares of Bugoma forest.

(iii) Investigate corruption and connivance in the give-away of part of Bugoma forest: Institute an independent team with international experts to investigate how the 22 square miles of Bugoma forest land were given away by MLHUD and Uganda Land Commission to BKK and Hoima Sugar Ltd through faulty land titles, how NFA handled the court cases regarding Bugoma forest, how NEMA issued an ESIA certificate of approval to Hoima Sugar Ltd at a time when NFA still had cases in the court of appeal regarding the legality of Hoima Sugar Ltd’s title and how UPDF is protecting land grabbers to destroy Bugoma forest.

(iv) Use the information from the investigation as evidence to prosecute all suspected corrupt government officials in the giveaway of Bugoma forest. All suspected government officials in the give-away of part of Bugoma forest land should be prosecuted and punished in accordance with the law. There are government officials who issued illegal land titles to BKK and Hoima Sugar. There are others who tesfied in court that the land given to BKK and Hoima Sugar Ltd was outside Bugoma forest and yet todate, there is no indepdent boundary survey. There are also others who failed or ignored to implement and ensure compliance with the physical planning laws. All these should be investigated and prosecuted.

(v) Suspend all suspected corrupt government officials. Immediately suspend all suspected government officials including the Commissioner for Surveys and Mapping of the MLHUD, the Executive Director of NEMA and others whose ommissions and commissions are facilitating the destruction of Bugoma forest. The suspension should stay in force until the investigations are concluded.

(vi) Cause the Judicial Service Commission to investigate the handling of the Bugoma forest cases by court: It is clear that the Bugoma forest court cases including the NFA appeal in the Court of Appeal, the MZ Agencies case in the High Court and others are being mismanaged by both the courts and NFA. The investigations should focus on finding out why the NFA appeal in the Court of Appeal is not being prosecuted at a time when Bugoma forest is being cleared, why NFA consented to MZ Agencies to take and destroy 2000 hectares of Bugoma forest and others. The investigations should also determine why judges are dismissing Bugoma cases with outright bias in their rulings.

(vii) Order the MWE and the Prime Minister to publicise the ministerial report on Bugoma forest. For the last five or so years, the government has either failed or ignored to release the investigation reports regarding the land claims by Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom.

(viii) Stop the oil activities attracting land grabbers in Bunyoro. It is clear that oil sector activities have increased grabbing of community land and protected areas including forests, national parks, game reserves, wetlands, lakes and rivers in the Albertine Graben. Government should take judicial notice of this menace and stop it immediately. It spells doom and an oil curse to Uganda. (ix) Government should use its powers of compulsory land acquisition under Article 26 of the Constitution to save Bugoma forest and its catchment areas from land grabbers. The government should use its constitutional powers of compulsory land acquisition to save Bugoma forest from Hoima Sugar Ltd’s destruction. This should be done as a last resort after all other options including efforts for cancellation of land titles for BKK and Hoima Sugar Ltd and others in Bugoma forest have been exploited. Further, the practice of compensating people who illegally issued and acquired titles over Bugoma forest and other protected areas should be discouraged by punitive punishments against the corrupt. Once again, we thank you Mr. President and trust that you will act patriotically and urgently to save Bugoma forest from the ongoing destruction by Hoima Sugar Ltd, other land grabbers and corrupt government officials.

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