By Moses Mapesa
I am intrigued by the remarks attributed to MP Wopuwa in the press March 23, about a court injunction issued against Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) that allowed people to continue cultivating and building settlements right into the Mt. Elgon National Park.
UWA is accused of having allowed people to settle in the areas of Bumbo, Soono, Bupoto, Bwabwala of Manafwa district where there is now looming danger of a landslide that could kill over 10,000 people. The settlement was done with impunity as no injunction could have allowed continued clearance of a national park.
UWA fought many battles with the community, local leaders and High Court to stop settlement in the national park, but was condemned, criticised and even labelled anti-government by various leaders and human rights groups. If only we had all spoken with one voice and acted together, we would be planning together on how to minimise any unforeseen looming disaster.
Again people are refusing to move because they want to be buried where their grandfatherâ€™s graves are, and the MP is only lamenting. The Resident District Commissioner of Manafwa worked so hard with UWA to stop the encroachment in this area, but was overwhelmed by non-cooperation from other leaders. And even now, unless there is total cooperation from all, we shall soon see more people and property buried alive and continue with the blame game and appeals for help.
In my previous article on this subject, I said UWA mourns with the rest of the Bamasaba and cannot take advantage of a difficult situation. Now the mourning is over and we must all work together to avoid more disasters, but we can only avoid them if we speak with one voice and take collective action.
The local leaders, MPs and human rights groups are always at the forefront of â€œdefendingâ€ people against UWA. Everytime we do our job, be it in Mt. Elgon, Pian Upe, Matheniko Bokora, Lake Mburo, Bwindi, Rwenzori name it, we are said to be inhumanâ€™ â€” we care only about wild animals. Let us now collectively defend the people against these looming natural calamities.
Protected areas are not protected for wild animals or fish or water or trees per se, but for the benefit of mankind. Land use planning and settlement patterns are key in avoiding disaster. Conservation is about wise use of resources not unwise use by massive clearance of fragile areas for settlement or agriculture. I think now it is clear that we have been somewhat unwise in the use of our natural resources.
Already we have depleted our fish stocks in all the major lakes, cleared most of the wetlands, encroached on forest reserves and now we are going into oil and gas production again inside â€œprotected areasâ€. Unless we learn from the past disasters, I say more disasters will happen and even worse ones.
Now is the time to act decisively. For starters, let us get rid of all encroachment into wildlife areas (Mt. Elgon, Pian Upe, Matheniko Bokora, Murchison Falls, East Madi, Ajai and Katonga), forest reserves, wetland areas and Green spaces in urban areas. Let the boundaries as gazetted, surveyed and opened, be respected by all.
The dirty game of contesting legally set, technically surveyed boundaries by communities with the support of local leaders and some MPs must stop. Incitement by leaders and some non-governmental agencies of communities against agencies responsible for management of the protected areas must stop.
The numerous appeals and delegations to the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament accusing UWA, the National Forestry Authority, National Environment Management Authority of anti-development or harassment and reports to human rights should now happen objectively and with restraint because as has been demonstrated, nature will fight back with dire consequences.
At Uganda Wildlife Authority we will continue to do our job and are ready for action now. We work for the people of Uganda and shall continue to do our job in a humane manner. We have demonstrated this even amid utmost provocation, hostility and condemnation. We were the first agency to get to the disaster area in Bududa and are still there helping out.
We had already agreed on a practical solution to stop continued encroachment in Bududa and signed an agreement. We helped resolve the Basongora problem in Queen Elizabeth, we resolved similar encroachment matters near Mgahinga, Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth, Kibaale and Lake Mburo and have finally agreed on a practical solution for the whole of Mt. Elgon.
In the other areas, we reached practical solutions through constructive dialogue and cooperation from most of the leaders. This is what we need in Mt. Elgon and other areas to avert future disasters.
A number of times we get complaints about UWA not doing enough, of course as just one of the agencies concerned we can only make a contribution. Need I remind anybody that UWA has a specific and clear mandate?
The people of Mt Elgon can earn money through planting trees and letting these trees grow as they absorb carbon dioxide gas from the air. They can use the trees to get carbon-credits. The industries that release carbon dioxide or car owners, would pay tree-owners the equivalent of carbon removed in a given time by a tree. It is like being paid to remove garbage from oneâ€™s compound. This is the programme that we shall jointly implement around Mt Elgon to re-afforestate, earn some money and mitigate against soil erosion, flooding and landslides.
We have also sounded out a warning about disasters associated with oil and gas production in the Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth conservation areas and people are not taking us seriously. If anything, some have questioned our loyalty to government again.
In my language, we say it is the fly that loves you that sucks your wound. Constructive dialogue, mutual trust, cooperation, participatory planning that allows for sufficient feedback and coordinated implementation and monitoring is what we need to avert more disasters.
The writer is the executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority