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Mabira discussion needs a balanced approach

By Vision Reporter

Added 12th September 2011 03:00 AM

A LOT has been said about the proposal to give part of Mabira forest (18%) to Scoul to increase their production. The environmentalists have been the most vocal on the proposal. We need a well informed debate. The issue at play is we need more sugar production.

A LOT has been said about the proposal to give part of Mabira forest (18%) to Scoul to increase their production. The environmentalists have been the most vocal on the proposal. We need a well informed debate. The issue at play is we need more sugar production.

Moses Byaruhanga

A LOT has been said about the proposal to give part of Mabira forest (18%) to Scoul to increase their production. The environmentalists have been the most vocal on the proposal. We need a well informed debate. The issue at play is we need more sugar production.

Currently, sugar production in Uganda stands at 300,000 tonnes while demand is estimated at 340,000 metric tonnes.

This production has increased over time. In 1986, Uganda was producing only 10,000 tonnes of sugar while consumption was 110,000 tonnes. The extra 100,000 tonnes was being imported. Like many other sectors, the sugar industry had been run down during the years of turmoil.

The world production of sugar stood at 168 million tonnes with exports being 56 million tonnes in the 2010/11. This shows many countries are self reliant on sugar as only 33% of what is produced is exported. In fact, countries like Uganda, with a good climate, should strive to export sugar and not to import it.

The question we should ask is, apart from providing the crystals in the tea cups whose prices went astronomical in the recent past, what does the country benefit from the sugar industry?

We have had teachers demanding a 100% pay rise. In order to increase the pay of public officers, we have to link it with taxes. Today, primary teachers’ salaries are about sh350b annually. Uganda Revenue Authority records indicate that in the last financial year, sh410b was collected from the sugar industry in form of taxes. One can say the taxes from the sugar industry were able to pay salaries of teachers in one year. So, as teachers demand for a higher pay, you can raise more revenue if one increases sugar production.

The sugar industry offers 20,000 jobs with about sh65b paid out as salaries and wages annually. Besides, the industry is now generating and selling to the national grid about 20 mega watts of electricity. So the benefits of increased sugar production will, among others, lead to increased jobs and earnings. There are those who have been saying that instead of giving land to one company why not give it to many Ugandans as out growers? Good question.

The answer is simple. Sugarcane is a low value crop compared to other crops now that everything grown in Uganda has a market. For instance, one earns an average of sh500,000 annually from an acre of sugarcane. On the other hand, from an acre of maize, one can earn sh1.2m each season using today’s price of sh600 a kilogram of grain assuming one harvests two tonnes from an acre. Since there are two maize seasons in a year, the annual earnings would be sh2.4m.

The same is true of rice and other cereals. For the perennials like coffee and bananas, one can annually earn sh3m (Robusta) and sh4.8m respectively. (For bananas I have used an estimation of 4,000 a bunch at farm gate harvesting 100 bunches monthly. It is, therefore, clear that for outgrowers to remain in sugarcane growing is condemning them to poverty and one cannot be sure that they will remain there for long without switching to other crops with better returns. In the past, many outgrowers remained in the industry just because alternative crops did not have a stable market like they have today.

Therefore, since sugarcane is a low value crop, it is better when it is grown by the processor on a large scale because the processors gains from the sale of sugar and now electricity and not on the value of sugarcane.

Others have been saying that why not import sugar. Well, part of the problem we are facing today is of a trade deficit where we import more than we export. This is partly the reason why the shilling has weakened against the dollar making imports like fuel more expensive.

It is estimated that the demand for sugar will increase by 130,000 tonnes in the next five years. If we rely in importing to meet the demand, at the current price per tonne of $800, we will be spending $104m annually to import that amount hence making the dollar depreciate further. Besides, the jobs, taxes, power generation will go to the country producing the sugar and not to us importing it.

We should also be strategic in a sense that sugar is these days being turned into bio-fuels. When those countries producing sugar decide to sell less and turn their sugar into bio-fuels what will Uganda do to meet its sugar demands?

Some people have talked about environment in respect to releasing part of Mabira for sugarcane production. The tragedy with the environmentalists is that they always watch when the environment is being degraded in this country. When we were drafting the NRM election manifesto last year, we looked at the proposal from technocrats on tree planting. They had proposed that we plant 100 million trees in the next five years.

I asked one of them what this meant in terms of hectares and the answer was that it translated into 90,000 hectares. My second question was what the rate of deforestation in the country was and the answer was 89,000 hectares annually. My reaction was that why plant in five years what we destroy in one year?

These are your environmentalists. For the NRM, when we get figures, we interpret them for the benefit of the country. With the above, we planned in the manifesto to plant 200 million trees annually equivalent to 180,000 hectares, which is double what we destroy annually. Where are the people who are vehemently fighting for Mabira when Uganda is losing trees equal to 89,000 hectares annually, almost two-and-half times the size of Mabira which is 37,000 hectares?

The question we should be concerned about is how do we make the pledge in the manifesto of planting 200 million trees annually a reality including planting what would have been lost if 18% of Mabira were given away?

To kill ourselves on Mabira while we are losing two Mabiras annually is burying our heads in sand or carrying water in a basket. I have read an opinion from EU ambassador in Kampala saying Uganda can get carbon credit by protecting the forests. In other wards some one is saying that the poor countries should protect their forests for some little stipend as the big boys industrialise and pollute the world. Who determines the carbon credit paid to counties like Uganda? Is it not the industrialised nations?

Then there is talk that some people offered some land. How come this land is always available when the issue of Mabira comes up? Why can’t the owners put it to some use including growing sugarcane and selling it as outgrowers or even processing the sugarcane into sugar? We need a balanced approach in discussing Mabira.

The author is a Presidential advisor

Mabira discussion needs a balanced approach

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