Forest managers working under the National Forest Authority have expressed worry over the persistent encroachment on forest reserves which they attribute to ‘illegal’ land titles.
The commission of inquiry investigating matters of land mismanagement on Tuesday morning heard that private individuals, medications firms and government institutions continue to own titles in protected areas, steadily depleting Uganda’s forest cover.
While appearing before the Justice Catherine Bamugemereire led commission, John Giribo, the Sector Manager in charge of Lwamunda zone in Mpigi district, said that a significant acreage of the Kajjansi, Nonve, Kyewaga, Naluwaga, Kasozi and Wakayembe central forest reserves in the districts of Mpigi and Wakiso are being claimed by people with authentic titles.
Some of the individuals claiming rights on the land have gone as far as suing NFA while others in positions of power have threatened NFA staff.
“Up to 30% of Kalangaro forest reserve has been encroached on. The Marine Training School and PGB (Presidential Guard Brigade) are among the encroachers. When I talked to the commandant of the Marine training school, he said he only answerable to his top authorities who brought him there,” Giribo said in his testimony.
He added; “I wrote to my Supervisor about the situation but it has been two years and I have never got a response.”
Giribo also revealed to the probe that 60% of the 738 hectares that make up the Nonve forest reserve in Kakiri, Wakiso district is possessed by private owners.
Among the individuals he named to be in possession of land titles in Nonve forest reserve was property businessman Haruna Semakula of Seema Properties.
“Haruna Semakula has multiple titles totaling to 49 in the forest reserve in Block 226 to 228. The documents we obtained later showed that he sold these plots out to other people including Wakiso RDC Ian Kyeyune,” Giribo added.
Kyeyune owns 16 hectares in the said forest while a one Musisi Mustafa owns 9.8 hectares as well as another individual identified as Mpata Joram Owegage (with 2.1 hectares) who in October 2015 sued NFA challenging its ownership of the land.
When Giribo reported the case to Kakiri police after seeing surveyors conducting surveys within Nonve forest reserve, he said in his testimony that the surveyors were arrested but released days after.
He said the police file number (SD 28/14/06/2014) under which the case was opened disappeared and that none of the surveyors recorded a statement.
Lead commissioner, Justice Bamugemereire asked; “Who are these people that you reported to the police only to find them in the forest again?”
“At one point I was intimidated by a senior government official who called me in his office and told me ‘Even if you do what, we can’t leave the forests to trees and frogs’,” Giribo responded, requesting that he discloses the details to the commission in a private session.
According to Giribo, National Medical Stores (NMS), National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and a Chinese construction company have also encroached on protected forests, the latter having set up its camp while building the Entebbe – Kampala express way.
Pauline Nambi previously served as a forest supervisor under NFA for Kakiri in Buikwe district. She too narrated to the commission the troubles she encountered while attempting to stop private surveyors from planting demarcations in Nonve forest reserve back in 2014.
“I found surveyors doing their work in the forest on my way to community sensitization. When I confronted them and asked why they were surveying in a forest, they said they had a boss for whom they were working,” Nambi said.
“The surveyors were four but I noticed that inside the forest, there were several other people who were armed with pangas. I reported the matter to police,” she added.
While the four surveyors were apprehended, Nambi said they were freed a week later.
Despite the threats that her supervisory role presented, she says she was understaffed and the resources provided by NFA weren’t adequate enough for the 3 staff personnel to ably execute their work.
“Work had begun to get difficult for me; given the fact that the encroachers outnumbered us (staff) and we were poorly equipped. We often walked all day, touring the forests since the motorcycle was in bad shape,” she said.
One of the encroachers (Mpata) who had started constructing a house in the forest disregarded Bambi’s caution to stop, advising her to stop wasting time on land that had long gone.
Following the forceful demolition of the house by NFA, Nambi says; “His lawyers wrote a letter warning me against going back to his property and threatened to prosecute me. He demanded for an apology from me for malicious damage of property and trespass.”
It was however during the afternoon session that the hearings got heated up. The commission grilled Wakiso district RDC Ian Kyeyune to explain why he owned land in a gazetted area.
Kyeyune in response said the land was offered to him for free by Haruna Semakula who is his distant uncle but insisted he (Kyeyune) had no knowledge that the land was situated in a forest reserve.
“President Museveni had been promising me a job but kept bouncing me back and forth so I got stuck with debts from a loan I had got to settle court cases after I lost elections. I spent 2 years without a job so Haruna gave me 40 acres as a gift in April 2014 which I sold off at Ush164 million a month after and bailed myself out,” Kyeyune said.
Asked why he didn’t do due diligence on such a huge chunk of land before acquisition, Kyeyune said he trusted the uncle and instead blamed him for giving him land well knowing it was on a protected area. He shocked the commission when he said that occupying forests by Ugandans was inevitable as the population continues to grow.
Kyeyune denied the fact that this was an act of briberly claiming he was serving as an RDC of Namayingo district at the time not Wakiso.
A furious Bamugemereire put Kyeyune to task to explain why he would sacrifice the country’s forests for his wrong personal choices (elections) which he couldn’t answer to.
Both Nambi and Giribo recommended that all titles situated in forest reserves be cancelled to strengthen forest conservation.
As a way of restoring the lost forest cover, Giribo said NFA has been issuing private licenses to firms to replant trees in the respective forests as well as collaborating with community based organizations for management.