Forest protest ends in teargas and death - but a green governance movement starts to emerge in Uganda

A peaceful street demonstration against a government plan to allow the cutting down of an area of rainforest went badly wrong last Thursday, leaving at least three people dead and several wounded, with many shops and properties damaged.

James Mayers's picture
Insight by 
James Mayers
13 April 2007

The street march was just the latest event in an NGO-led campaign to stop a sugar company owned by Mehta Group converting 7,100 hectares of forest in Mabira national forest reserve into sugar plantation. It reflects an astonishing groundswell of public reaction against these plans.

Last November, another forest "give-away" case, involving reserves in Bugala and a palm oil company called Bidco, caused many forestry professionals at the National Forest Authority to resign in protest at the abuse of law and due process. Both Bidco and Mehta are owned by Asians, whilst several international investors are also involved in the plans. President Museveni is a vocal supporter of these deals. Since November the newspapers and radio have continuously explored the issues whilst NGOs have stepped up their investigations, legal advocacy and campaign work to prevent these deals going ahead.

The violence at the demonstration seems to have resulted from a combination of naive planning and heavy-handed policing. A crowd of perhaps a thousand forest protestors was joined by people who saw the opportunity for crass anti-Asian bigotry, and by others simply looking for a fight or a looting opportunity. One of those killed, and several of those wounded, were Asian. Whilst before the demonstration, many campaigners had spoken out against Mehta and Bidco, none had sought to raise such ethnic tensions.

Instrumental in the information and advocacy behind the forest reserve campaign are those involved in the Forest Governance Learning Group (FGLG) in Uganda. They come from a range of backgrounds – some are foresters in government forest agencies, or those that have recently resigned, some are influential opinion formers in academia or private bodies, some are in the media, and some are in NGOs.

Amongst the NGOs are field-based Environmental Alert, and Advocates Coalition for Environment and Development (ACODE) which convenes the group. FGLG-Uganda participants are united in their objection to the potential forest loss and to the opaque and illegal decision-making involved in these forest give-aways.

With a poor social and environmental record in Uganda the development benefits of the sugar and palm oil industries are arguably limited no matter where the land is obtained. Well-designed, properly negotiated and transparently run out-grower schemes with smallholders can potentially work well for both companies and local livelihoods.

Suitable land for these crops is potentially available in sites some way from these forest reserves, and indeed has been offered by several landholding authorities. But it is thought that the companies are eager to get hold of the forest reserve land to avoid the time and expense of negotiations with other landholders and occupiers.

To many in Uganda, the Mabira issue encapsulates a depressing trend in decision-making in the country. In the case of Mehta, the company is alleged to have been a major contributor of funds to the ruling party over the years.

Reports meanwhile suggest that the sugar company has not declared profits or been properly audited since its establishment 26 years ago. The contracts reportedly made with Mehta and Bidco lock the government into deals that require huge compensation to be paid if the government pulls out of them.

Amongst the tactics being used in the pro-forest campaign, legal action is central. ACODE is currently spearheading four separate court cases on forest reserve issues. This work has a number of key strengths – it shows to all that rights and rules are worth fighting for, it establishes credibility of the protesting voices, and it forces parties on all sides to develop and reveal information.

The information revealed and stimulated by this work has enabled many critical questions to be asked and increasingly answered. Other tactics include a boycott of the sugar produced in the factory near Mabira – which has had considerable effect with many reports of stocks of shunned sugar. There have also been many newspaper and broadcast debates, petitions, an SMS-messaging campaign, and some very popular bumper stickers.

Whilst the deaths are shocking, and the appearance of anti-Asian sentiment indefensible, the degree of public reaction on forest issues over the last few months is unprecedented. And it is not just the well-healed of Kampala - people all over the country are annoyed, showing they care about Uganda’s forests, and letting members of parliament and others know it.

Observers talk of the emergence of a green consciousness, a social-environmental movement, a new political dynamic. They see these forestry issues getting to the heart of the governance problem in Uganda and the widespread reaction to them as one of the most emotive issues in President Museveni's 21-year rule.

With international palm oil and sugar prices rising as the demand for biofuel kicks in, events in Uganda would seem to be the shape of things to come. How long before we see similar deals on forest lands popping up elsewhere? Yet there are clearly signs of hope in the situation in Uganda too. Not least because it shows that people are quite capable of integrating environmental, social, economic and governance issues in their thinking and desires for action. Whilst sustainable development organisations are finding that "mainstreaming" environment into macro development plans is not easy, in ordinary people's heads it does not seem to be a problem.

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