World Rainforest Movement

Uganda: Oil palm plantations that brought high winds and low wages

The accelerated destruction of rainforest and indigenous woodland in Uganda, making way for palm oil and sugar production, follows an all too familiar pattern that has been seen in other parts of the world, especially South Asia.

Widely reported (in the local media) was the government release of five thousand hectares of protected woodlands from its statutory care to BIDCO, a palm-oil producing firm that originates in South Asia, in 2001. These forests, on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria were then removed in short order.

Currently, there is a new storm brewing over a proposal to hand seven thousand hectares of virgin forest to the east of the capital to a sugar manufacturing outfit that already owns thousand of hectares of plantations nearby.

Uganda straddles the Equator in the heart of the Great lakes region, and holds a natural extension of the rich Amazon-like biodiversity of the Congo to her west. Her long periods of state-inspired political violence have given her a mixed legacy. On the one hand, there remains a pervasive sense among the elite and political class that the 1966-1986 period of war and insurgency as well as subsequent disturbances have left the country “backward” and faced with a responsibility to “catch up” with the rest of the world.

This has given rise to a particularly pernicious form of self-righteous economic planning-by-diktat, where anyone questioning the grand scheme for development is immediately dubbed “unpatriotic”; being secretly enamored of the previous brutal regimes; and/or just plain stupid.

In my own experience, I recall our President Museveni retorting “Are you a romanticist? Do you want to go back to Nature?” in response to my probing about the philosophical basis of his “development” plans for the country.

That was back in 2001, in a radio interview during the then presidential elections. Unfortunately, the quality of official public discourse around the issue of the environment has not evolved much further since then.

Dr Margaret Kigozi, head of the Uganda Investment Authority (the principal agency for attracting foreign capital), is on record as having dismissed opponents of the hydroelectric dam project being planned for our river Nile as being “obsessed with frogs and butterflies”.

More recently, the Government Minister for Investment asked angrily “aren’t Palms trees?” in response to my repeated questioning, in a bruising radio interview, of the wisdom of the decision to give BIDCO a free hand in hacking down large areas of ancient woodland to make way for their palm plantation.

On the other hand however, Uganda was actually “left behind” in the scramble by global capital to convert the natural assets of the poor Southern countries into “investment” fodder. The country remained relatively more green (a situation similar to the Congo and Southern Sudan, all of which is now under threat) than other parts of the South that were deemed at the time “stable” enough for rapacious foreign investment. This is an enduring irony of the situation we find ourselves in.

And so we are really only at the beginning of this process. There is plenty of eco-wealth to be ravaged and plundered by these international short-termists, and there is plenty of avarice, ignorance and self-righteousness at government level to make access to it incredibly easy.

A few brave souls in the Uganda forestry department opposed these developments from the start. They even found allies in unexpected quarters (such as DFID, the UK development arm), when they argued that the promised jobs were virtual “slavery” and therefore no fair exchange for the loss of these forests. They were ignored.

There is nothing new in this process of destruction. The workings of the globalised financiers are not new anymore. The only issue therefore, is what can be done before it is too late, or before the cost of potential restoration is too high?

The answer lies in the strengthening of activist’s voices that are trying to first of all access and publicize all new information related to these scandals; to be able to work together on a forum that enables actions (such as court injunctions, demonstrations, media education campaigns and community education) that will politically raise the cost of such policy-making.

This will take organized people pooling their skills and information. Already, we are starting with a media expose on how the Ssese Islands are being destroyed by high winds and low wages since the forests of the Bwendero Peninsula were cut down. BIDCO have reportedly requested another three thousand hectares of the remaining forest. They say they were promised a total of ten thousand hectares, and keep the Ugandan government jittery by threatening to pull out if this promise is not fulfilled. The threat to the forests is only growing larger.

It is important to learn that we are not alone in these efforts, and what we can learn from the efforts of others faced with the same challenge.

By Kalundi Serumaga, e-mail: Kalundi Serumaga spent many years as a community activist, and now works as a media columnist and radio talk show host in Uganda. He produced and presented a weekly environmental programme on national television throughout 2003. His ancestral burial grounds were part of the land recently taken over by a large-scale palm oil plantation on the Ssese Islands.

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