Lands minister Daudi Migereko last week made a startling statement. He told conservationists that protecting forest cover alone does not bring about development unless forests as natural resources are put to better use. Mr Migereko’s reasoning is that while forests are God-given, they should be turned into income generating resources.
He told conservationists at a workshop: “It does not make sense for the environmentalists to say, ‘do not touch our forests’. Trees also outgrow their usefulness and die.”
The minister is wrong. The benefits of forest cover, including hosting treasured wildlife and key eco-tourism attractions, cannot be gainsaid. Mr Migereko should, instead, be promoting tree planting and forest conservation. The state of Uganda’s environment is worrying – that is why in 2007, environmentalists put up a spirited fight to save Mabira Forest from being given away, and cleared to give way to sugarcane growing.
Worse, the National State of the Environment Report 2012 released in April 2014 indicates that Uganda’s forest area is being lost at a fast rate of 1.8 per cent per year. Between 1995 and 2005 mapping, Uganda’s forest area reduced from 24 per cent to 18 per cent of the country’s land area.
This results from rampant encroachment across the country. In 2013, for instance, National Forestry Authority officials who were on a fact-finding mission in Kyenjojo District reported that conmen were selling forest land at between Shs200,000 and Shs500,000 per acre to unsuspecting people who cleared the forest for cultivation.
About a quarter of 5,431 hectares of the forest land had been encroached on that year alone.
This scenario plays out in several parts of the country, a development that calls for widespread awareness raising to plant more trees. This requires our leaders to neither encourage encroachment nor downplay the importance of natural tree-cover.
It ought to be remembered that one of the most celebrated things about Uganda is its natural greenery and stunning scenery. It is a country gifted by nature. It is the reason Sir Winston Churchill called it the Pearl of Africa. It is the reason travel publications and websites consistently name it among top global tourists destinations.
Minister Migereko and peers should ensure that the government protection agencies work hand-in-hand with environment bodies to protect our forest reserves.
The debate over proposals to cut down natural forests for plantations, sugarcane growing, or other developments, must stop. Let’s focus on promoting tree-planting and more sustainable forest management.