Uganda’s Mbale Forest on Brink of Destruction In Favour of Development

By Javier Silas Omagor  

  • For decades, Mbale central forest reserve also known as Mutoto forest has environmentally been an ecosystem of regional and national importance as well as a livelihood source for many lives.
  • In 2015, the National Forestry Authority, (NFA), gave Mbale town a go ahead to take over at least 400 out of 520 hectares of the reserve to expand the town once granted a city status.
  • Conservationists are calling upon the government of Uganda, development partners and the national institutions intervene to save these forests in cities across the country because Uganda needs more trees than buildings

                                                                                                             

“This forest is our generous mother; giving us fresh oxygen, food, herbal medicine, shade, firewood, timber and environmental heritage all seasons,” Irene Khakasa, a 35-year-old single mother of 6 children told this publication.

Khakasa, is thankful to the threatened forest for being a “reliable source of a living for many informal families that live near it.”

For decades, Mbale central forest reserve also known as Mutoto forest has environmentally been an ecosystem of regional and national importance as well as a livelihood source for many lives.

Situated along Mbale–Tororo highway, 5 kilometres off the central business district (CBD) the forest reserve is nearing its extinction with the council authorities already having purchased its relocation site.

Emma Watundu, a resident is worried that if the forest is cut down, even the streams and the river that snakes through it will be affected.

“Whenever there is a water crisis in town, people from neighbouring areas turn to this ever–flowing river in Mutoto forest for water, and now all that will be damaged by this Council’s move to destroy it,” Watundu said.

A walk in the threatened Mutoto Forest Reserve in Mbale city

In 2009, Mbale Municipal council, present day Mbale city administration, purchased 430 hectares of land in Bulambuli District to ‘relocate’ Mbale forest reserve to pave way for the expansion of the town in preparation for a city status.

In 2015, the National Forestry Authority, (NFA), gave Mbale a go ahead to take over at least 400 out of 520 hectares of the reserve to expand the town once granted a city status.

The decision to go ahead with clearing the forest was “formalized by city council under the previous administration and we have also secured land in Bulambuli district to transfer this forest,” Musa Kasaija, former industrial division speaker, said.

Mbale city environment department says the forest reserve giveaway debacle has pitied them in between a rock and hard place. 

“Personally, I, would love the forest reserve to remain intact since it helps in many ways including absorbing carbon produced from the industrializing city and lock it there,” Rhoda Nyaribi, the Environment officer for Mbale city, said. “But then again, we need that land for development so something must give”.

The environment officer worries that the industries being set up at the industrial park and the ever-increasing number of traffic in Mbale city means more greenhouse gasses is produced and a forest would come handy in helping absorb it.

Nyaribi, is adamant, her office cannot do much to save Mutoto forest that is on its way into extinction in favour of city expansion with degazzatment plans in advance stages.

Nyaribi’s assertion can be traced back in 2019, when Mudimi Wamakuyu, the Elgon County MP tabled a motion for the deggazzetment of all forests in Ugandan cities which was supported by former Mbale Municipality MP, Jack Wamai Wamanga Wamai in the 10th parliament.

“People should not worry, some part of the forest will be left especially at the river bank of the water body that snakes through the said forest reserve,” former MP Wamai reasoned.

The former lawmaker, says he frankly wants the forest to be destroyed so that Mbale city is no longer “congested and concentrated within the CBD.”

Now, conservation groups and forestry experts have warned that destroying even just a part of the forest’s diversity would lead to a loss of fresh air, fauna and flora, and affect the mitigation of floods in the city during rainy seasons.

“We consider this plan not only detrimental to Bugisu which is already a disaster-prone region but also to Ugandan government plans to improve its dwindling forest cover,” Innocent Dibba, a conservationist based in Mbale said.

Forest have shrunk from 24% of Uganda’s total land area in 1990 to 9% in 2015, because of land disputes and deforestation, according to State of Uganda’s Forestry report.

However, this has since improved further from 9% to 12.4% forest cover in the country, according to the NFA.

Forest Cover in Uganda between 1990 – 2015

Dibba, believes that when its eventually destroyed to pave way for the “so called development,” Eastern region’s overall fragile and depleted forest ecosystem will simply be irreparably compromised hence more natural calamities.

The reserve, which covers 523 hectares, is the largest remaining private forest planted by the colonial government before self-rule was introduced in Uganda.

Mbale Resident City Commissioner (RCC), Pamela Watuwa, questions the move to have the forest transferred to as far as 50 kilometres away in Bulambuli district a distance she says may not be environmentally viable to help Mbale city.

Many locals and environmental activists who spoke to our reporter share the same school of thoughts with Watuwa.

It plays an enormous role in Mbale city environmentally, key among which includes mitigating floods, production of timber and land for agroforestry farming by small–scale farmers plying their trade in the forest.

It is also home to several species of insects which are essential plant pollinators, stray animals such as cats and dogs, including an estimate of 225 species of birds and species of trees dominated by eucalyptus and pine.

“To throw away the forest reserve would be to throw away rain, biodiversity and prudent green cover highly needed by a growing modern-day city,” John Baptist Nambeshe, Opposition Chief Whip, said. “It would also be to throw away Uganda’s reputation on the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 13 which is about climate change action.”

An arial view of Mutoto Forest Reserve in Mbale city Photo By Javier Silas Omagor

Nambeshe also worries for Uganda’s forest ecosystem and wildlife front conservation commitments, if forests within the cities in the country are now being targeted by what he described as mafias with insatiable for public resources appetite.

It should be noted that, Nambeshe who is now Manjiya county MP in Bududa district, was the area LCV chairperson when the deadliest landslides in the recent past hit and killed several people.

He cautions that if authorities in Mbale do not defend, protect and preserve this forest, what happened in the neighbouring Bududa could repeat itself.

Sarah Netalisile, the Namisindwa Woman MP is rooting for quick interventions by government and other key players.

“It is necessary that the government of Uganda, development partners and the national institutions intervene to save these forests in cities across the country because Uganda needs more trees than buildings,” Netalisile said.

Hakim Watenyeli, an elderly resident, told our reporter that degazetting the reserve commonly known as Mutoto forest is an idea being championed by greedy land grabbers who want to benefit themselves stressing that most established cities such as Nairobi, Sydney, Washington and others all have forest reserves within.

“Instead of erasing this forest let them focus on satellite city formula where construction of commercial buildings is concentrated in already open places such as Nakaloke, Nauyo – Bugema, Busamaga, Mooni, Namatala and others,” Watenyeli advised.

He recalls that among many reasons the colonial administration opted to plant Mbale Central Forest within the town was compelled by perennial floods that used to storm and paralyze business in town during rainy seasons and that this might end up one of the consequences of destroying the Mutoto forest.

The same threatened forest also hosts Bugisu’s famous circumcision shrine which attracts hundreds of thousands to Mbale city every even year including local and foreign tourists.

“Tempering with that forest will spell doom to so many good things including tourism which is one of our top foreign exchange earners as a region and country,” Watenyeli warned. 

This story was first published on the New Vision

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