Mabira Forest: Ugandans Wake Up to the Cost Of Disappearing Forests in Uganda
The road from Kampala to Jinja passing through the Mabira Forest Reserve.
Image Source: Brian McMorrow: Nile Whitewater Rafting, Jinja

Mabira Forest: Ugandans Wake Up to the Cost Of Disappearing Forests in Uganda

Forests or factories: Does industrialisation have to swallow what is left of Uganda's forests? Ray of Hope through Kabaka Mutebi.

By Gerald Businge
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First published: March 24, 2007

A journey from Kampala as you drive to the eastern parts of Uganda through Mabira forest, gives you enough reason to believe the government when it says that Uganda is Gifted by Nature -a country promotional campaign Uganda launched last year, costing billions of shillings, hoping to promote the country's tourism potential. Travelling from Kampala to Jinja, one often sees the thick green forest on both sides of the road after Lugazi town. Mabira is a moist, tropical forest covering approximately 29,964 hectares (an equivalent of about 60,000 football fields), and is famous for its tourist, climatic as well as cultural importance -especially to the Buganda kingdom. But now Ugandans are trying to come to terms with the fact that part of this forest reserve may soon have to make room for a sugar plantation, drastically changing one of the few remaining protected areas and tourist attracting gems in the country.

Forest land for sugarcane growing?
In August 2006, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the National Forestry Authority (NFA) to do a study into the feasibility of clearing 7,100 hectares, nearly one fourth of Mabira Forest, in order to facilitate the expansion of sugar growing by Sugar Corporation of Uganda (SCOUL) which is owned by the Mehta Group. The Mehta Group had earlier applied to the President's office to expand its sugar-cane production to bolster the group's Lugazi sugar products.

The Mehta group approached President Museveni, with an argument that part of the forest had been degraded and had inferior tree types, which could not produce valuable timber anyway. The company promised they would employ more people, address the prevailing sugar scarcity in Uganda and contribute more revenue to the country's coffers if given part of the forest.

The cabinet ministers of Uganda recently agreed to de-gazette part of Mabira forest to allow SCOUL to plant more sugarcane, despite sustained opposition to the Mabira give away by the public. Although Ugandan Prime Minister, Apollo Nsibambi denied earlier this past week that his government had agreed to give the 71, 000 hectares of Mabira to SCOUL, many sources claim that it is a done deal.

Why the fuss about Mabira?

Nahan's Francolin

Many Ugandans, environmentalists, NGOs and even government agencies like NFA have opposed the government's move arguing that the forest is a potential tourism destination that hosts endangered animal species, as well as 300 bird species like the Nahan's Francolin and the Papyrus Gonolek, which are popular with bird watchers. Mabira forest is the epitome of forests in Uganda. Not just because it is a big forest but its name locally means 'big forest'. NFA spokesperson Gaster Kiyingi says Mabira is one of the biggest natural forests in Uganda, acting as a water catchment area for the Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga basins. Lake Victoria is the largest fresh water lake in the world and the source of river Nile, the longest river in the world.


Mabira forest is a source of many rivers, livelihood of surrounding communities, a home to many rare bird species, plants and animals, and therefore a boost to eco-tourism in the country. Mabira forest receives more than 62% of all tourists visiting forest reserves in the country. Eco-tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner and the potential for Mabira forest as tourist destination cannot be over-emphasized.

The NFA study initially commissioned by President Museveni concluded that the ecological and economic losses from destroying part of Mabira would be devastating. The report says the plan endangers 312 tree species, 287 bird species and 199 butterfly species. Nine species found only in Mabira and nearby forests risk becoming extinct. The report says that economic losses as a result of the destruction of part of the reserve include lost revenue from logging and eco-tourism, the main source of tourist revenue in Uganda.

Mabira's great importance to Uganda
Kiyingi says that further depletion of Mabira forest will reduce the water flow of the surrounding streams and rivers and change rain patterns region wide, which in turn will negatively affect agriculture, cattle keeping, electricity supply and thus all economic activities in Uganda. The Ugandan government has given low water levels in Lake Victoria as the reason behind the country's current electricity crisis, and one would expect the nation's leaders to know better than to destroy the major source of water into Lake Victoria.

Environmentalists say that with the water levels in Lake Victoria already low, destroying part of Mabira forest is likely to lower electricity production, and proposed hydroelectric projects such as Bujagali, the River Sezibwa power plant, will be meaningless. In addition to potential disturbances to the microclimate, destruction of Mabira could also violate major global conservation agreements to which Uganda is a signatory, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992). This requires the country to establish and maintain protected conservation areas.

Uganda's flora and fauna are steadily losing their natural habitat to human activities
Uganda's flora and fauna are steadily losing their natural habitat to human activities.

The Government of Uganda and its development partners, especially the European Union (EU), have invested heavily in the forest since 1990 to restore previously degraded areas. The NFA says the forest is recovering and 10 years are not enough for such a forest to regenerate and be fully stocked with valuable timber and other biodiversity resources. They also argued that Mabira forest is very important to the Baganda for many reasons. The Baganda believe that Mabira forest is the home of the Buganda's gods of rain and food. The Baganda also traditionally believe that if a strong hurricane emerges from the east, this forest will help block it and it will not make it to the Kabaka's palace at Mengo. Additionally, the forest has thousands of trees (small and big), which the Baganda and other tribes traditionally use to harvest medicine during pregnancy and childbirth.

What alternatives are available?
While it may be understandable that the Ugandan government is trying to secure an adequate sugar supply as well as economic development of the country by giving part of Mabira to SCOUL, other investors have already committed money to the forest targeting its tourism potential. The Alam Group, assisted by its partners in the Netherlands, is already building an eco-lodge worth $2m (3.6bn Uganda shillings) in Mabira to harness the forest's tourism potential.

The Alam Group, which is another heavy investor in Uganda, is not happy with the Mabira give away. "In any hardwood forest in the country, this action should not be allowed," said Zahid Alam, who is building an eco-lodge in Mabira forest. Some people have asked the sugar company to find alternative land outside the forest, or consider out growing (buying sugarcane from Ugandans neighbouring Lugazi town where the SCOUL factory is located, who would earn much more than those the company would employ after planting more sugarcane in Mabira). The NFA had recommended that SCOUL allows individual growers to supplement its sugarcane requirements, or rent land from private landowners in the area around Mabira. All these pleas seem to be falling on deaf ears.

What is more worrying for Ugandans is the fact that the Ugandan Parliament is likely to pass the effort by the Executive to de-gazzette part of Mabira for sugar planting. The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has a strong majority in Parliament. The NRM has 212 MPs in the 332 strong Parliament, while 40 are independents, 10 represent the Uganda people's Defense Forces (an arm of the Executive) and only 57 MPs are in opposition. The NRM recently warned NRM MPs to uphold strong 'discipline' and avoid voting against the party position in Parliament.

Will the Ugandan government yield to public pressure?
So what can Ugandans do to save Mabira, a forest that has been dear to many Ugandans since time immemorial? Some Ugandans opposed to the forest give away are using other strategies including SMS asking people to shun sugar manufactured by SCOUL and several NGOs have organized news conferences opposing the government's intended move. Renowned environmentalist and opposition Conservative Party President, John Ken Lukyamuzi has threatened to stage a demonstration on May 1, 2007 as Uganda marks the International Labor Day unless the Ugandan government reverses the decision.

"Losing these forests, particularly the Mabira Forest Reserve, would have enormous repercussions for both people and wildlife in Uganda." said Achilles Byaruhanga, Executive Director of Nature Uganda (Bird Life in Uganda). Byaruhanga says that Mabira Forest Reserve is listed by Bird Life International as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The forest contains over 300 species of bird, including the Endangered Nahan's Francolin Francolinus nahani.

The forest also supports nine species of primate, a recently identified new mangabey sub-species in Uganda, Lophocebus albigena johnstoni and a new species of Short-tailed Fruit Bat. "The fact that we are still discovering new species of large animals in this forest is a pointer to its value for biodiversity. As a result, we are working hard to ensure the Ugandan government understands that holding onto these sites is of utmost importance, both in terms of conserving biodiversity and in terms of poverty reduction and economic growth" Byaruhanga emphasizes.

The Ugandan government still has a chance to maneuver.
Despite Prime Minister Nsibambi's assurance that government will seek Parliament's approval before giving out the land to SCOUL, there are fears that instead of an outright lease of the forest to the sugar company, the Government of Uganda may decide to grant them a license to use the forest, just like timber loggers are given licenses.

In late 2006, news of the proposed license issuance by the Ugandan government was first reported in the national media. There followed wide criticism and public protest when it was reported later that the government had sacked the entire board of the NFA, after they unanimously refused to carry forward these license requests. A few days later Olav Bjella, the Director of the NFA, resigned citing disagreement with government over the allocation of more forest land to private companies. The NFA says that studies have shown that the potential revenue from tourism alone at Mabira was in excess of the costs of managing the reserve. Mabira Forest Reserve is located within 50 km from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and is surrounded by four major towns used by tourists.

Other economic losses involved in giving away Uganda's forests are thought to include lost revenue from selective logging, a local impact on livelihoods and possibly from changing climate; the forests help maintain central Uganda's wet climate removing them could bring about drier weather negatively impacting on crop yields, conservationists have argued.

In a recent public debate, organised by Nature Uganda, the former chairperson of the National Forestry Authority accused government ministers of failing to advise President Museveni. "We have ministers who cannot advise Museveni correctly because they fear him. This is not helping the country," John Kaboggoza says.

But the Ugandan government insists it will not give away the forest, unless it is proved the benefits of such a move greatly outweigh the ecological and economic benefits. "Museveni cannot give away Mabira without consultations," says Kagimu Kiwanuka, the Minister for Economic Monitoring, when visiting the forest reserve last month. But the current NFA Board Chairman, Baguma Isoke said this week that it is not right to put economic figures and financial comparisons to Mabira, because the ecological, and daily livelihood gained from the forest are enormous and cannot be financially measured.

Byaruhanga says that the Government has completely ignored all opportunities of finding alternative land. Agriculture only occupies 48% of Uganda's arable land, the other 52% is left under utilized, including some of the land occupied by the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL). "The proposal to give part of the forest to SCOUL is a result of inability by the company to utilize all the land at its disposal. A company should not be rewarded with a rich natural resource for its inefficiency," he says in a statement earlier this week.

Ray of Hope through Kabaka Mutebi.
The Mabira forest giveaway has awoken many Ugandans to the real costs of disappearing forests. The epitome of such realization and concern came on Friday March 23rd 2007 from the Buganda kingdom monarch who has offered to give part of his land in Kyaggwe, Mukono district (near Lugazi) to SCOUL to save the forest. According to the Information Minister of the Buganda Kingdom, Medard Ssegoona, the Kabaka is willing to give an equivalent of 7,100 hectares to SCOUL to save Mabira. The Kabaka (Buganda Kingdom) owns 155 square miles in Mukono.

"In light of what is going on about Mabira, the Buganda Kingdom is willing to offer part of its land in Kyaggwe (Mukono) to save the vital Mabira forest. SCOUL or the Government of Uganda can apply for the land on a lease basis," Ssegoona told journalists on Friday this week.

The bigger picture: Population pressure and its adverse effects on forests.
The Mabira forest saga and other giveaways of forests to potential developers is just part of the of disappearing forests in Uganda. Apart from outright handing over of forests by the Ugandan government to investors, the country's growth is set to keep piling more pressure on forests, given the increasing population in Uganda. With Uganda's population growing at about 3.4% per annum, Ugandans are set to become a liability to themselves and their motherland. With 7.1 births per woman, Uganda is only second to Niger (7.9 births per woman) worldwide on the birth rate scales. The UN estimates that Uganda will have 130 million people by 2050, almost five times the current population (28 million, 2006 estimate).

According to the NFA 2006 annual report, encroachment on forests is on the rise in Uganda. In the central forest reserve where Mabira is located, the number of people building houses, farming or grazing livestock in protected forests has increased from 180,000 in 2005 to 220,000 in 2006, a 23% increase. Proposed central forest reserves are Banga Central Forest Reserve (184hectares), Towa (1,506 hectares), Gala (894 hectares) Namatembe (241 hectares) and Mugoye (945 hectares).

Uganda's trees are giving way, one by one, to 'development'
Uganda's trees are giving way, one by one, to 'development'.

As people search for solutions to fuel, food, building and indeed income generation, Uganda's forests are incurring a heavy toll. According to NFA, illegal timber cutting has increased in many forests, many times with the support of local politicians. About 97% of Ugandans use firewood and charcoal for cooking, all of which can only be available with the destruction of a forest (trees).

Many people are aware that deforestation brings about drought and climatic change for the worse, and of the fact that forests help in preventing global warming. Many are also aware that destroying forests in the end will mean limited rainfall, less water in the rivers and lakes, and that agriculture, along with cattle keeping will be negatively affected. But more and more people, including now, those running Uganda, seem to be finding voluntary and involuntary reasons to destroy the remaining forests.

Also Read: Word on the Street: Government Redistribution of Land

By Gerald Businge
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First published: March 24, 2007
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Gerald Businge is a media practitioner and features Editor at Ultimate Media Consult in Uganda. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and several journalism and leadership certificates. He has been a practicing journalist since March 2001 and has worked at The New Vision as features writer, and has written extensively for different newspapers, magazines, newsletters in Uganda and internationally. He currently does fulltime media communication consultancy work as well as writing and editing at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd where he is a founding member and CEO. You can get his attention so long as you are interested in and you are working for a better world.