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Save Mabira Forest! we can live without sugar

Sep 3 • 4097 views • 6 Comments on Save Mabira Forest! we can live without sugar Africa, birds, birdwatching, Conservation, Nature Uganda, politics, Society and culture, Travel, Uganda

To everyone’s horror – but few people’s surprise – the President has decreed that ‘the degraded part’ of this ancient and fabulous forest, protected under international law, should be cut down. And for what crucial development project?

The president says the current scarcity of sugar warrants giving away the Forest.  Ugandans aren’t silly (and they love discussing current affairs); everyone thinks  that the President is just using the high price of sugar as an excuse.

The Mabira issue is in every paper and on TV every day. Conservation organisations have come together to issue a statement with Nature Uganda supported by Friends of the Earth and Uganda’s National Association of Professional Environmentalists.

So, the President (against the wishes of many in his Cabinet) plans to give away one third of the 30,000 hectare rainforest to SCOUL (the Mehta Group’s Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd), a producer with significant operations in the area, near Jinja. A planned giveaway was opposed in 2007, culminating in a demonstration that left three people dead and a boycott of Mehta sugar. The victim people often talk about was Indian, the same ethnic group as Mehta’s owners. This man strayed into the angry demonstrators and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and beaten to death. Thus not only do we have the very real possibility of violence, but I’d hazard a guess that increased racism against Indians is likely, and will last well beyond this debate.  Rumour has it there are soldiers guarding Mabira forest.

The President claims opposition politicians and activists who supported the giveaway in 2007 are to blame for the current sugar scarcity. On August 13, he said “how can Uganda import sugar? This indiscipline should stop. We have defeated armed terrorists. We cannot accept to be defeated by unarmed terrorists.”

In the last few weeks, the price of sugar in Uganda has risen dramatically, from 2,500 shillings* / kilo to a high of 7,000 shillings / kilo and has since dropped to approximately 3,500 shillings / kilo and  today the inflation rate is at 21.4%, the highest in 18 years. The rising cost of living is affecting everyone and everything: high fuel costs, high commodity prices, a badly weakening shilling and economic strikes, walk to work campaign, and strikes by taxi drivers, traders, teachers and doctors. *(Normally I’d convert this into dollars / sterling but that’s losing meaning as the shilling continues to fall).

A Jinja tea estate

This deceptively beautiful green is a tea plantation. The two trees are all that remain of this section of Mabira Forest

The most obvious challenge (well, to me with my conservation hat on) is environmental: Mabira is home to 300 bird species, including the endangered Nahan’s Francolin, the Papyrus Gonolek and nine endemics (species not found anywhere else in the world). Mabira is the only remaining large natural forest on the northern shores of Lake Victoria.

Uganda has 4.9 million hectares of forests and woodlands cover, according to the National Forestry Authority. Mabira is categorised  as a ‘protection forest,’ crucial for safeguarding watersheds and catchments, biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes. In 2007 the World Bank, the National Forestry Authority and an inter-ministerial committee all advised against the Forest giveaway.

Environmentalists say the revenue lost to government by giving away part of the Forest for sugar growing, in terms of carbon credits, is estimated at US$316m. The value of the land is estimated at US$5m and the value of the wood at US$568m. That means the Ugandan public stands to lose almost US$890m, about 1.5 trillion shillings, equivalent to 25% of the 2011-2012 national budget, as a result of the government’s plan to degazette part of the Forest, according to the NGO, Environmental Alert.

Note: this is just valuing the land and the timber, how do you value a catchment area for Lake Victoria, Lake Kyoga and three rivers including the River Nile? What about the lost livelihoods of local people who are dependent on the Forest? How do you value biodiversity? A species? What will the impact be on tourist dollars?

If the President gives away this Protected Area, what about the others, where will be next? In 2010 he announced he would let the Madhvani Group build a golf course right in the middle of Murchison Falls Protected Area. “Where is the pollution from golf? Where are the fumes?” He is reported to have said. Thankfully that idea got mothballed.

The Mabira issue is not just an environmental one, it gives a fascinating insight into Ugandan society. Some of the other issues, discussed in this week’s media:

Alternative solutions to addressing the lack of sugar have been offered:

Let the president take the land offered by the Baganda kingdom offered as an alternative to Mabira in 2007. This isn’t the first time the Baganda kingdom has offered alternative land for sugarcane growing. If the issue is to increase sugar production, then the kingdom’s offer will suffice. Otherwise, insisting on Mabira would imply there are ulterior reasons to giving away the natural forest land, since sugarcane can grow almost anywhere.

The Church of Uganda is also said to have offered land for the same purpose.

Other people have suggested plots of land right across the country; in fact many say that Mabira is not good land for sugarcane growing: there is too high a water content in the cane and a comparatively low ratio of sugar extracted (all while polluting the local rivers and using disproportionately higher levels of electricity).

Here are key parts of an interview with respected commentator Godber Tumushabe, Executive Director of ACODE (Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment).

Q. What will be lost and gained if the Forest is given away?

Apart from being a vital water catchment area from Lake Victoria, if you’re building dams around River Nile* you do not want to do anything in the hinterland that will disrupt the hydrological feature. Forests are considered to be one of the major carbon sinks, if you then destroy a forest like Mabira you would have destroyed a very important sink very close to the capital city with a fast-growing industrial sector. We have not developed the technological capacity to cope with adverse climate change and ecological disruptions. We would lose the climate modifying element of an important forest like Mabira.

*The new Bujagali hydropower project is being constructed close to Mabira, due to come online within the year. Currently, the country is experiencing major power outages throughout the day. Lack of capacity, inefficiencies at the providers, high cost of fuel, increasing population size are all blamed.

Economically, agricultural communities around Mabira depend on the forest’s resources, and are therefore highly vulnerable.


In an interesting twist, today Mehta say they don’t want the forest land and never asked for it. The Indian business community are understandably worried about how the proposed giveaway affects them and have come together to form their own lobbying group. Even without any protests, Indian businesses must have been losing revenue these last two weeks.

We watch the news with interest! Now what will the President do?

Information sources

Extracts from The Independent magazine  Aug 26 – Sept 1 2011

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6 Responses to Save Mabira Forest! we can live without sugar

  1. lizziema says:

    Good article Charlie, must have involved quite a bit of research.

    • charliebeau says:

      The Ugandan media is generally very good, there are some excellent publications and I got a lot of my info from there. It’s one of the great things about UG, that freedom of expression is respected. (We do have trashy tabloids like Red Pepper tho, bit like News of the World, etc)

  2. sophia says:

    Hi there, I have been visiting your blog. I liked the article. Congratulations for your work!..Enjoy your stay in Uganda, make sure you are covered with an Expat Health Insurance . Have a good weekend ahead.

  3. The Muzungu’s Best of 2012! says:

    […] in the heart of Mabira Forest, Griffin Falls campsite is a charming little […]

  4. […] A tall and solitary mvule tree made me wonder what this landscape would have looked like 20, 50 or even 100 years ago. Was it once part of Mabira Forest? […]

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