According to The New Vision of May 19, President Yoweri Museveni directed that the on-going eviction of squatters in central forest reserves be halted until a technical report is submitted to him. While those who proclaim to be â€œlawful occupantsâ€ are all praises for the directive, environmentalists are waning in pain.
The total surface area of Uganda under forest cover has drastically reduced from the original 24 % to about 10% and the rate of encroachment is still unabated. The most affected is the tropical high forest, which has reduced from about 19% to merely 3% over time.
These areas are not only important as â€œforestsâ€ but are repositories for a wide range of living matter with different roles in nature.
Uganda is among the countries in the world with the highest concentration of biological diversity, and most of these are confined to tropical high forests that are now heavily encroached.
For instance, the only viable population of chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, mountain gorillas and rare birds like the foxâ€™s weaverbird, Nahanas frankoline, prigogines groundthrus exists is forest areas and inter-linked habitats.
The contribution of forest to the economy cannot be overstated. Recently, the president himself featured prominently in a documentary to promote Uganda tourism industry. Do we expect tourists who bring in lots of money to come and watch idle citizens devouring tracks of forests? What scales of economies justify that leaving â€œidlersâ€ to convert forests for grazing, settlement and peasant farming supersedes the net economic values of retaining them?
Actually most of the people who are to be evicted contribute very little to the economy in terms of taxes, compared to what each central forest reserve is worth in terms of services and products.
Besides, the global economy is shifting to strategies that conform to standards, for instance of good environmental governance.
Therefore, if Ugandan forests produce are to be accepted at the international scene, they must conform to certification standards, and this requires adherence to certain principles, of which encroachment is none of them.
Major catastrophes affecting the world are caused by loss of forest cover. Studies have linked outbreak of malaria epidemics, high incidences of skin and eye diseases, and significant reduction in agricultural outputs to global warming. That is why most governments are losing billions of money in health and agriculture sectors.
The presidentâ€™s directive could also greatly hamper efforts to conserve other natural resources in the country. For example, the intensive campaign to restore vital wetlands and evict illegal settlers could be resisted. Park edge communities may also demand to have hunting concessions because â€œcolonialistsâ€ created the boundaries of parks.
Therefore, the technical team has to make a balanced judgment of what is at stake. For example, would it be cheap to provide alternatives to the encroachers and still retain forests or vice versa. What would be the cost of mitigating hazards arising as a result of loss of services? What about the society; what proportion will benefit and how many others will suffer the consequences of encroachment.
Natural resource scientists still recommend that a two-prong approach is vital to achieve sustainable management. Incentive-based approaches (the carrot) and rigorous law enforcement (the stick). Balancing the two is difficult because people living adjacent to forests, parks and wetlands have a permanent but selfish economic interest for goods.
They can, therefore, use propaganda and deception to win political support. However, it should also be accepted that encroachers could return â€œhomeâ€ and still enjoy the benefits of living near a protected area through mutual agreement with the leading agencies.
The writer is actively involved in environmental management