• Sun Jan 01 2012
  • Unknown people cut down part of Mabira Forest

Vincent Lubwama, a motorcyclist in Mukono, sees over 20 truck-loads of timber going towards Kampala from Mabira forest every week.
Vision Reporter
Journalist @ New vision
Vincent Lubwama, a motorcyclist in Mukono, sees over 20 truck-loads of timber going towards Kampala from Mabira forest every week.

By Gerald Tenywa

Vincent Lubwama, a motorcyclist in Mukono, sees over 20 truck-loads of timber going towards Kampala from Mabira forest every week. Behind that heavy traffic is a beehive of illegal activities. As each truck passes by, Lubwama feels the pain of a tree being felled.
In Bulanga village in Nagojje, Sunday Vision witnessed trees being felled. Some of the loggers are said to have guns and many operate at night. “It is risky to intervene because illegal loggers are always hostile to anyone who asks them a question,” a guide warned. 
The forest guards were nowhere to be seen. A short distance away, a man holding a mobile phone was squatting by the roadside. Apparently, his job is to keep watch and warn his colleagues in case of ‘danger’. According to the locals, trucks periodically drive in, workmen hastily load timber and the driver speeds off. 
Sunday Vision encountered over 30 motorcyclists ferrying charcoal and firewood from the forest and others coming from Lugazi, Namataba and Mukono transporting passengers with five litre jerry cans of fuel to run the chainsaws. 
Like Lubwama, conservationists and forestry officials are worried. If it goes on unchecked, illegal logging is likely to degrade Mabira, which is a source of national pride and the largest forest near Kampala. Mabira is also a catchment area for rivers Nile and Sezibwa and Lake Victoria. 
It turns out that much of the tree-cutting is done without approval from the National Forest Authority (NFA). A private investor, Fred Tugume, was allowed to cut trees on five hectares after paying sh400m to NFA, but a much bigger area, estimated at over 20 hectares, is being cut illegally.
Some conservationists have argued that, whereas selective harvesting of trees is an acceptable procedure in forestry management, the timing is wrong. It comes in the wake of a prolonged disagreement between the Government and environmental activists over the proposed give-away of Mabira forest to Sugar Cooperation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL) for sugarcane growing. Others argue that it has been done at a time when NFA doesn’t have the means to police the forest effectively to ensure that only authorised people cut down trees.
Whatever the case, NFA officials acknowledge that it is beyond their control. “We are losing the upper hand”, says Steven Galima, the Range Manager of Mabira Forest. 
Galima says so far about 20 out of the 29,000 hectares of Mabira is under intense illegal tree cutting. The NFA staff at Nagojje resigned in June and have not been replaced. This has given room for illegal loggers to operate freely.
Apart from Nagojje, which is located near the north-western part of Mabira, illegal activities have become rampant in the nearby Ntunda, and the eastern part of Mabira in Wakisi sub-county.  
Previous operations mounted by NFA, for example, in Ntunda have recovered timber concealed in a house belonging to an LC chairperson, proving that the leaders could be supporting illegal activities. “Can you imagine that a Government official is abating environmental crime?” asked Galima. 
Galima also points out that in another operation, his team discovered more than 20 people camped in one of the residences in the village near the forest. “How can such a big group of outsiders camp in the village and the chairman does not raise an alarm? Security operatives should also get interested because felling down trees without permission in a forest reserve is a crime.” 
In some villages, however, the community members have ruthlessly chased away anyone who tried to cut down trees in their areas.
Illegal loggers are well organised, with different people performing different roles such as spying, cutting the trees, loading, transporting and making political connections.
Sometimes they have decoys who pose as informers. They mislead forestry officials to one side of the forest while illegal logging is going on at the other side.
When that trick fails, they use violence. “Recently they beat up one of our staff and vandalised an NFA motorcycle at Bulanga,” says Galima. “Illegal loggers do not give up easily when we move in to confiscate the chain power saws.” 
The operators in the illegal timber trade are spoilt for choice when it comes to routes for ferrying out their loot. To the north of Mabira, there are roads leading to Kayunga or Nakifuma. To the East they could easily end up in Jinja and Lugazi. To the west, roads leading to Mukono and eventually to timber outlets in Kireka and Bweyogerere. 
Inadequate capacity and logistics
Currently NFA has many internal weaknesses. For instance, at the time this interview was conducted, Galima had inadequate fuel. “It was worse in October and November because I did not have fuel at all,” says Galima.He added, “Some of these issues are beyond us. But such a situation works in favour of the illegal loggers.”
Uncertainties at NFA
NFA’s new executive director has just been appointed after close to two years without one. Two years ago, Damian Akankwasa, who was the executive director, was sacked following a scandal in which he accused his wife of stealing sh900m from their bedroom in Kampala. In the meantime, donors have decided to delay their support, waiting to see how the Government sorts out NFA’s governance and accountability issues.