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Is it worth replacing part of Mabira with sugarcane?

By Vision Reporter

Added 5th September 2011 08:00 PM

EVER since chewing sugarcane for its sweetness was discovered thousands of years ago, the appreciation of sweet tastes by humans has increased the demand for sweeteners and in the process fuelled sugar production constrained only by soil fertility, land availability and biddable labour.

EVER since chewing sugarcane for its sweetness was discovered thousands of years ago, the appreciation of sweet tastes by humans has increased the demand for sweeteners and in the process fuelled sugar production constrained only by soil fertility, land availability and biddable labour.

Peter Mulira

EVER since chewing sugarcane for its sweetness was discovered thousands of years ago, the appreciation of sweet tastes by humans has increased the demand for sweeteners and in the process fuelled sugar production constrained only by soil fertility, land availability and biddable labour.

The sugarcane plant was discovered in New Guinea before human migrations introduced it to other parts of the world starting with India where it was first converted into its crystalline form five thousand years ago.

Arab traders introduced sugar to the Mediterranean areas while Christopher Columbus is known to have introduced the plant to central and South America from the 1520s onwards. Once the plant hit Europe, the demand grew which encouraged the slave trade that enriched many people.

While the demand for sugar has always reflected industrial growth throughout history, the consumption of this sweetener has, at the same time, played a detrimental role in people’s nutrition.

In the United States, sugar consumption jumped from 26lb (12kg) to 135lb (61.2kg) per person per year during the last 20 years as compared to 5lb (2.2kg) per person per year in the 19th century.

This unprecedented rise in sweetened intakes has led to employment in the US as sugar-related industries have multiplied but this economic benefit has been accompanied by a parallel increase in cardiovascular and other diseases which were virtually unknown in the 19th century. This is evidence of a direct correlation between sugar and deterioration in health.

Indeed medical research has established that sugar can suppress the immune system, contribute to hyperactivity, depression and concentration problems. It also increases the incidence of coronary heart attack, promotes tooth decay and osteoporosis. The list is endless.

It is against this background that we have to consider the comparative advantage of replacing part of Mabira forest with a sugar plantation.

Mabira Forest Reserve is a natural forest which is listed by Bird Life International as an Important Bird Area. It is, therefore, a haven for bird watchers all over the world which makes the forest a singular tourist attraction.

Eco-Tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner in the country and Mabira forest receives 62% of all eco- tourists visiting the country.

Mabira’s potential as a major tourist destination is confirmed by the fact that the Alam Group, assisted by partners from the Netherlands, is in the process of building an eco-lodge in the forest worth $2m. Growing sugar cane on part of the forest is likely to affect this project and our seriousness in protecting our natural heritage will come under international scrutiny.

According to one study the ecological and economic losses resulting from destroying part of Mabira forest would be devastating. This study shows that the plan will endanger 312 tree species, 287 bird species and 199 small animal species and new species continue to be discovered. The report goes on to point out economic losses will include lost revenue from logging apart from reduced revenue from eco-tourism.

Other damages resulting from degrading of the forest as seen by experts will include reduced water flow of the surrounding streams and rivers, change in rain pattern, which will in turn affect agriculture, cattle keeping, and electricity supply and thus retard economic activities in the country.

If the water levels of Lake Victoria continue to drop, the proposed hydroelectric projects such as Bujagali and River Sezibwa power plant will be rendered meaningless.

In addition to these potential disturbances one could add that any partial destruction of the forest could also violate major global conservation agreements to which Uganda is signatory such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) which Uganda ratified on August 8, 1993.

Among other things the Convention requires member countries to establish and maintain protected conservation areas. Mabira give away amounts to partial destruction of a protected conservation area.

Two reasons have been given for the give away. First it is claimed that cultivation of the proposed 7,000ha with sugarcane will create employment for 3,500 people. But almost all these people are likely to be planters and sugarcane cutters who earn a meagre sh100,000 per month whose total income a year will amount to a paltry sh3,500,000. We should disregard this ground.

Secondly, it is claimed that the plan will lead to more sugar being produced but this is not born out by past experience. At the time of independence in 1961, Lugazi was producing 50,000 tonnes of sugar per year on 9,000ha which rose to 57,000 tonnes by the time the complex was expropriated in 1972.

In 1982 the African Development Bank extended a loan for a rehabilitation project whose target was factory to produce 60,000 tonnes on 9,072 ha in six years. When the project ended in 1988, the company was producing a mere 128,092 tonnes and an expert’s report noted “.....not much land development occurred.”

The experts attributed the under performance to unsuitable varieties of sugarcane, pest disease, drought, processing of under mature cane, factory stoppages due steam production problems and electrical power problems and steam boilers which performed below capacity.

In other words, land was not the problem. Indeed Scoul is not short of land when it is considered that the ADB project covered 11,343 ha of which 630 ha was under forest and that presently production is under 40% of capacity.

With all the above in mind the conclusion is inescapable that we should save Mabira forest.

The writer is a lawyer



Is it worth replacing part of Mabira with sugarcane?

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