Two decades ago, Namanve forest reserve lost most of its land to an industrial park, which is underway. But the Government took a wise step by reserving 1,200 hectares of the former reserve along the shores of the lake to hold soil and check erosion. Today, the situation is changing with Government losing firm control over the 1,200 hectares to a group of invaders.
By Gerald Tenywa
The name of the road leading to Namanve forest in Bukasa village is 'asante'. It is a Swahili word for 'thank you'. This name was coined by the early settlers because of the scenic view of Namanve forest nearby.
But when I went there last weekend I was thankful that I do not stay in the neighbourhood of Namanve. The air smelt of death as hundreds of machete wielding servants of greed poured into Bukasa's part of Namanve Forest in eastern Kampala.
They were cutting the trees and parceling out land among themselves. As terror against the trees reign, the neighbours took cover at their residences and helplessly watched from a distance.
"I do not understand how self-seekers can mobilise themselves and destroy this beautiful forest," Moses Byaruhanga, a boda-boder rider near Namboole said.
"There are many speculators who want free things. When there is any faint hope of getting something free, they will pounce. If the Government does not come out strongly, the forest is going to go and chaos will escalate. How is the Government going to stop them from grabbing land elsewhere?"
Sources say the fresh encroachment on the forest is about 700 hectares. In the last two years, a group calling itself veterans camped in about 500 hectares of the forest; the entire forest is almost gone.
Namanve's bad history haunting Ugandans
In the colonial era it was a forest reserve where trees were planted to avert floods and also provide fuel for running steam engines.
At the time of civil unrest and political turmoil in the 1970s during Idi Amin's era it was a dumping ground for dead bodies. In the 1990s, it was partly degazetted for industrialisation.
But in more recent years, it has become a battle ground between land grabbers and the powers of environmental institutions getting eroded.
As the encroachers play their wild games in Namanve, Kampala City could be losing hold of the remaining green belt to the east of Kampala. Without, a botanical garden or Zoo, Kampala should hold on its remaining green belts such as Namanve.
The usual quiet of this part of Kampala, according to Byaruhanga, was rudely interrupted by the group unknown to many of the area residents. He says the self-seekers showed out of the blue and took many local residents unaware.
In a short time, they cleared many of the trees that sheltered the shores of Lake Victoria and the swampy patches leading into the lake.
Byaruhanga says the group left after cutting down trees a week ago and returned mid-week and sold the logs. This time they decided to camp in the forest, and by the time New Vision went to Bukasa Forest, the invaders were cutting more trees and selling plots to willing buyers.
One of the invaders who only identified himself as Serugo was willing to sell this writer a swampy plot less than a quarter of a football playground at sh1.5m.
Previously, the land was going for as low as sh100,000. As the land brokers increase in number, the land prices are increasing. But when Serugo was asked about the land agreement the buyer would use to defend my interest in case of any contest, he referred the writer to someone identified as Afande.
Afande was not on the ground at the time. He also pointed out that the buyer would have to part with sh20,000 in order to be registered by Afande. I later learnt that Afande is an army veteran.
Tree planters worst victims
For Duncan Turyatunga, the chairperson of Namanve Central Forest Reserve Tree Planters Association, it is not only about losing a beautiful view of the lake.
He was offered land by the NFA to plant trees and his venture was promising him and hundreds of his colleagues billions of money.
The chaos that is unfolding in Namanve Forest Reserve is not only leading to huge economic losses to the Government or tax payers’ money, but the trust of the ability of the Government to protect people and their property is getting eroded.
Government inviting trouble
According to John Eresu, the former MP for Kaberamaido and a resident of Namanve, something is gravely wrong. He says the Government law enforcement agencies such as the Police and the National Forestry Authority (NFA) mandated to manage the forest reserve have become sterile.
“The Government is displaying a lot of weakness when it comes to enforcement of the law,” says Eresu. “What is going on is outright thuggery. The failure of the Government to swing into action is baffling.”
Soon after Eresu smelt looting in Namanve, he contacted the Police and other agencies to intervene. To his surprise, the encroachers have become bold and working as if the laws governing forests no longer exist.
“The Government is failing in its duty to protect private and public property,” says a local politician who did not want to be named. “The trees being destroyed belong to private tree planters. The Government also has the responsibility of protect the lake from siltation.”
He added: “It is strange that hooligans are in charge of this place and people cannot listen to civic and Government leaders. The local people have also gone into the forest yet they had respected the boundaries of the forest for many decades.”
Musa Nabende, the Regional Police Commander said he is still waiting for a report from the NFA and the Environment Protection Force.
“Our duty is to provide back up to the Environment Protection Force,” he said.
In a separate interview with the head of the Environment Protection Force, Taire Idhwege said: “We do not simply pull out guns to shoot because we are holding guns. The encroachers have a court judgment in their favour which is holding our hands.”
Last week, Andrew Kaweesi, the Kampala Metropolitan Commandant held a meeting with the encroachers at Bukasa and assured them that the Government would compensate them in case they get evicted from the reserve, according to the encroachers.
Michael Mugisa, the executive director of NFA, said a meeting is being organised with various arms of the Government, including the Police, Ministry of Works that is intending to construct an inland port in the forest land and the Ministry of environment.
“The encroachers have many letters, some of them were proposals in preliminary stages and others may be false,” said Mugisa, adding that they were going to investigate further and take action.
“The encroachers have a wide network, but we are going to do everything possible to break it down.”