In 1983, the Government marked out 6,000 hectares from the forest for the Benet permanent resettlement thus banning them from roaming allover the reserve.
By Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda
For many years, the question of landless people in Sebei sub-region has remained unresolved, but now, the Government has come up with practical steps to solve it once and for all.
The origin of the problem
The problem of landless Benet community in Sebei sub-region stems from the gazettment of Mt Elgon Forest Reserve in 1938 by the colonial government.
Between 1938 and 1983, the Benet were allowed to continue living any where in the forest reserve. However, their population and activities increased over the period of time affecting the reserve.
In 1983, the Government marked out 6,000 hectares from the forest for the Benet permanent resettlement thus banning them from roaming allover the reserve. The Government then tasked Kapchorwa district administration with handling the land allocation to the Benet community evicted from the forest reserve. The Kapchorwa district administration established a district land allocation committee to distribute the land to the Benet community, however, the committee left out most of the Benet-Ndorobo people.
Instead the committee allocated themselves, relatives and friends chunks of the land that would otherwise have been for the Benet-Ndorobo people.
During the 1983 land allocation, the committee exceeded the 6,000 hectares by 2,250 hectares, thus allocating 8,250 hectares.
In 1993, the Mt Elgon Forest Reserve was upgraded to Mt Elgon National Park. This came along with stringent rules/ policies for conservation. In 2002, the 6,000 hectares was formally degazetted by an Act of Parliament, leaving out the 2,250 hectares. In 2011, communities in Sebei sub-region once again began pressuring the Government for further degazettment, this time targeting the part called, ‘the London portion'.
The move to find a solution
The Government after receiving petitions from the people, set up a technical inter-ministerial committee to assess the impact of degazetment of the, ‘London Portion'.
The committee began its work on March 21, 2011. The committee comprised the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the National Forest Authority (NFA), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE), Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities (MTA), District Local Governments (DLGs) and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
The committee report noted that the environmental impact of degazetting the London potion would severely affect the fragile ecosystem of Mt Elgon National Park. The team realised the area was the main source (catchment area) of four major rivers namely; Siti, Kere, Kaplegep and Chepuyakanyet supplying water to lower Ngenge, some of the wetlands of Teso and the rivers contribute to the sustenance of Lake Kyoga.
Degazettement of the London portion, therefore, risked exposing the four rivers, hence drying up in the long run and affecting hundreds of people in lower Sebei and parts of Teso. Part of the London portion is a soft wood plantation worth sh45b at harvest time which would be affected when settlements are established in the neighbourhood.
The technical team concluded that the London portion is a sensitive part of the Mt Elgon ecosystem serving as a catchment area for four rivers and several streams as well as being the source of two gravitational water schemes; it should, therefore, not be degazetted for settlement.
UWA and the technical team instead marked out 318 hectares of Mt Elgon National Parkland in Kapsekek Parish of Bukwo district for resettlement of the Benet. The Government after further verification in 2015, agreed to recognise the people living on the additional 2,250 hectares as well.
The Government is, therefore, on track in its commitment to resettle the landless people in sebei sub-region.
The Office of the Prime Minister has completed resettlement of 254 households (1,960 people) on the 318 hecatres in Kapsekek Bukwo district.
The Government would like to assure the Benet-Ndorobo community and other landless persons that they will all be resettled in the highlands and not the lowlands of Sebei sub-region.
The 1,960 Benet people who were recently resettled on the highlands of Kapsekek in Bukwo district will soon be given land titles and iron sheets for their permanent homes. The remaining landless Benet people and others living in camps of Kisitu, Kwoti, Rwanda/Kisangani, Cheberen, Titim and Teriet numbering 6,096 people will equally be resettled on the highlands and not the lowlands of Sebei sub-region.
The Government has already released sh9b for their resettlement. They will also receive land titles and iron sheets for their permanent homes.
We will continue to consult and engage the leaders of the Benet community and other landless persons in the identification of suitable land within the highlands for their resettlement.
Ultimately, the goal is to resettle our people, while at the same time, ensure that the Mt Elgon ecosystem is preserved for the current and future generations.
The writer is the Prime Minister of Uganda and Leader of Government Business