About half of Mabira forest has been invaded by illegal loggers
Mabira Forest is the symbol of life for people in central Uganda but illegal loggers are threatening its existence, writes Gerald Tenywa
I left Kampala City for Mabira forest reserve about 50kms away when the flawless sky promised no mischief. By the time I got to Nagojje trading centre in Mukono it had rained heavily. My guide, Lubega Ngondwe, who is also an elder at Nagojje, pointed out that this was not strange since it rains without warning almost every day regardless of the season.
The rain turned my work of tracing illegal logging activities in the 32,000-hectare Mabira forest into a nightmare. The boda boda (motorcycle) danced like a possessed witchdoctor on the slippery muddy road. I held on tight to the back of the seasoned rider as he struggled through the winding road towards Kasala village.
At the edge of the forest, we noticed fresh tracks created to remove the heavy logs out of the forest. It did not take us long to encounter abandoned logs, which my guide Ngondwe blamed on the work of illegal loggers.
I kept thinking that this is meant to be a sanctuary for trees and wild animals like monkeys, but now they are being cut down indiscriminately.
Not far away, the sound of a pounding axe working against a tree could be heard. As we moved closer to check, we encountered scattered logs in the vicinity of the illegal logger.
We tiptoed, but moved swiftly across the wet forest floor undetected. Soon, we caught up with him. Behind him there was a huge stump. He looked scared.
His hands could no longer hold the axe and he dropped it as he attempted to flee.
“Do not run because you are surrounded,” Ngondwe ordered as he moved closer and the barechested culprit submitted. “Do you know the harm you are causing to mother nature?”
The illegal logger identified himself as Jackson Wanzala, a resident of Namirembe, a nearby village.
“I know you Mr. Ngodwe of Nagojje. Be merciful to me and forgive me. I am a bodaboda rider at Lugazi, but things have not been moving well and I decided to try my luck at charcoal burning,” Wanzala pleaded.
“It is my first time and I found this tree felled by a colleague who allowed me to burn charcoal in this place. I know all this is wrong, but hard conditions have pushed me into this.”
For Ngondwe, Mabira is the symbol of life for people in central Uganda. He says it helps in the formation of rain, supporting the majority of farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture. It also harbours endangered birds such as the Nahan’s Francolin and is a catchment area that feeds lakes Victoria and Kyoga and rivers Sezibwa, Musamya and the Nile.
Ngondwe pointed out that the 20-year-old Wanzala is one of the illegal loggers seeking to get personal benefits at the expense of the public. He ordered him to dress up and warned him never to return to the forest. Wanzala, according to Ngondwe is a small fish.
After this, Ngondwe led us to another village where charcoal burners have set up kilns in the forest. One of them had fresh soil covering the wood and another had well-arranged logs about to be covered with soil. The charcoal burners had fled.
Getting illegal loggers and charcoal burners is as slippery as the road leading to Kasala and Wabulongo on a rainy day.
Other areas under illegal logging are Kyajja, Bukuku, Bubiro, Ntunda, Kimwanyi in Namulaba, Wasswa and Kasokoso, according Ngondwe. About half of the forest, including the strict nature reserve where trees are kept as mother trees and for research, has been invaded by illegal loggers.
“The bigger problem is outsiders,” says Ngondwe, adding that the part of the forest where we encountered Wanzala had already been destroyed by a company processing plywood along Jinja Road.
“They cut the trees and even when authorities are informed they do not respond immediately.”
He added: “Sometimes it is difficult to confront timber traffickers, especially at night because they often have armed escorts.” Socio-economic conditions to blame A decade ago, Ngondwe says the Government realised that it could not be everywhere to check illegal activities in the forest, but the local people know the illegal loggers and nobody could extract timber from the forest without their cooperation.
The Forestry Department, which has now turned into the National Forestry Authority (NFA) entered into an agreement with the local communities to jointly police the boundaries of the forest.
But now the marriage between NFA and the communities is on the rocks as the communities get frustrated by the lukewarm response from local and central Government. “People from as far as Mukono and Kampala with chain power saws poured into the forest.
They also gave good money to the village youth for ferrying timber. After making a lot of money, the progressive youth also bought machines, which they are using to cut down the forest,” says Ngondwe.
He added: “The places around Mabira used to depend on bananas and coffee, but all this has been wiped out by diseases such as the banana wilt and the coffee wilt.
Most of the local residents now depend on growing of vegetables, boda bodas, illegal trade in timber and charcoal burning.”
Six months ago, illegal activities reduced, with the deployment of the Environment Protection Force, according to Ngondwe.
More than 50 lorry loads of timber used to leave the forest in a day before the Police intervened. Today, about 10 lorries loaded with timber leave Mabira near Nagojje and Ntunda every day.
“The number of cases of illegal logging is going up again,” he says.
“When we call the Environment Police there is either slow response, or at times they do not come at all.”
Environment police to increase vigilance
Asked about the lukewarm response from the Environment Police, Idhwege Taire, the commandant of the Environment Police pointed out that they were going to tighten the noose.
“This laxity has not been brought to my attention,” says Taire. “I thought all was well. We have confiscated more than 50 power chain saws from Mabira,” he added.
When Mabira forest is destroyed, according to Taire, hydro-electricecological system. We have attached
Environment Police to NFA, which is an independent body and I did not know that illegal activities were increasing,” said Taire. NFA says concerted efforts are needed to save Mabira
Sources within NFA who preferred anonymity say the conservation of Mabira should not be left to NFA alone. “The staff reports indicate that illegal loggers are mostly working at night,” a source says, adding that the illegal loggers have a strong network that spies on Government offi cials and they always move in the opposite direction in case of deployment.
The sources added: “There is also lack of facilitation for the Environment Protection Force. What do you do if they need you on the ground and there is no fuel?
Ngondwe said there is need for the Government, to fi nance the enforcement since some of the local people who had been mobilised to protect Mabira are drifting away.
“It is frustrating to see people who engage in criminal activities getting richer at the expense of the lawabiding citizens,” said Ngondwe.
Uganda’s deforestation rates are among the highest in the world.
Over dependence on biomass, such as charcoal and fi rewood, and unsustainable agriculture, according to John Diisi, an NFA offi cial is contributing to massive deforestation in the country. “Everybody is using wood and not much is being planted,” said Diisi, adding that
Uganda is in a crisis.
About have of Mabira forest has been infi ltrated by illegal loggers. Sources say the illegal loggers who used to operate in Mpigi and contributed to destruction of the forests that once sheltered the streams, rivers and shores of Lake Victoria are now shifting to Mabira.
Better enforcement in Mabira, particularly in areas like Nagojje and Ntunda is needed, according to Ngondwe. The long term solution, according to Diisi lies in tourism development, sharing of benefi ts from timber, aggressive tree planting by communities and the private sector for timber and charcoal.
Why Mabira should be protected
Mabira is a catchment area for rivers Ssezibwa, Musamya and Nile and lakes Victoria and Kyoga.
A World Bank agreement with the Government for construction of Bujagali hydropower dam was done on the premise that if Mabira reduces in size the water levels of the Nile would be compromised.
The agreement contains conditions for protecting Mabira and expanding its size.
Mabira is home to endangered species such as the Nahan’s francolin, endangered monkeys and houses herbal medicine that are used to treat impotence among other ailments.
Mabira contributes to rainfall formation helping farmers dependent on pineapples and vegetables to earn a living without irrigation. They say it rains throughout the year (there are no seasons).
Mabira is an important ecotourism destination. The Alarm Group of Companies has built a $5m eco-lodge near Najjembe. Mabira still has a lot of untapped tourism potential.
Mabira is the only large forest separating five growing urban areas, Kampala, Mukono, Lugazi, Jinja and Kayunga. It influences the micro-climate of the area and also absorbs large amounts of waste gases such as carbon-dioxide.
Mabira is an educational site for schools and researchers in forestry and primatology.
The forest houses pollinators such as bees and butterflies that enhance pollination of crops with farmers in the vicinity of Mabira getting higher productivity.
The country could earn a lot of money from conservation funding that is being negotiated under global environment protocols and agreements on climate change.
Mabira is a cultural heritage. The early settlers in Buganda called Nakalanga (a human race of pygmies) lived in Mabira and some people pay homage to the spirits of Nakalanga in parts of the forest.
A village in the northern part of Mabira is called Nakalanga. Griffin Falls in Wasswa village is also visited by people who undertake spiritual attachments to spirits, believed to dwell there.
What do you think?
Should Mabira be destroyed and replaced with sugarcane power generation will be compromised.