Narrow escape for reporters in Bugoma forest
Bugoma Forest, Uganda

“You were very lucky because they were waiting to catch you,”

David Bainematsiko, chairperson, Kololo village, Kyangwali.
  • For the last three months, Hoima Sugar Limited has been demolishing a part of Bugoma Forest for expansion of sugarcane growing.
  • As the charcoal burners convert the big trees into charcoal, bulldozers from Hoima Sugar are advancing to convert the landscape into an expansive sugarcane plantation.
  • Gerald Tenywa and Ismael Kasooha brave streams and fallen trees, the police and a mob in this feature supported by InfoNile

By Gerald Tenywa

The sun beamed down and sweat rolled off our guide as we hiked into Bugoma forest in Kikuube district. The day was still young as we penetrated into the heart of the wilderness. As songs of melodious birds resounded in the forest, our guide told us that Bugoma was speaking to us.

Our hope was that the hike would lead us to the part of the forest where Hoima Sugar Limited is cutting down part of the pricy forest to establish a sugarcane plantation.

For the last three months, Hoima Sugar Limited has been demolishing part of Bugoma for expansion of sugarcane growing.

Civil society groups in Bunyoro speak out against the deforestation in Bugoma forest.

The walk was not for the fainthearted. We braved streams and fallen trees that were blocking our tiny path into Bugoma. After more than an hour, our guide told us that we were close to the “red line.” Not far away is where the territory belonging to Hoima Sugar Limited begins and there are soldiers deployed to avoid intrusion. There was an open space left by illegal loggers. This is what we needed to launch our drone. It is through the drone that we expected to see Hoima Sugar’s mischief from above. On two aerial expeditions, the drone landed with only images of the beautiful forest.

There were feelings of emptiness written on our faces. But communities’ complaints about what they were about to lose in Bugoma, which is a source of water, firewood, and mushrooms made us resilient in the journey to the truth.

Our next stopover was Nyairongo in Kabwoya sub-county in Kikuube where residents had called for a meeting. They were decently dressed, but they had lost their calm.

Desire Murenzi, the chairperson of the village, who inquired about why Hoima Sugar Limited was demolishing Bugoma was arrested by soldiers and released half a day later in November 2020. He says the soldiers allegedly mistook him for an illegal logger and intercepted him.

He complains that he was following hundreds of illegal loggers and charcoal burners — who had earlier entered into the forest.

Murenzi says security should pick interest in the charcoal burners and illegal loggers because they have come from distant districts, such as Masindi, Mayuge, Iganga and Buikwe.

“What are the soldiers after?” he wondered.

How come the soldiers have abandoned the residents that are vouching for the protection of Bugoma Forest and are instead backing the destroyers of nature.”

Desire Murenzi, Chairperson Nyairongo Village

Kabwoya sub-county speaker at Kaseeta in Kikuube, Rovisa Namatovu, said Bugoma is a rainmaker, which in turn supports agriculture. She also pointed out that Bugoma is a source of mushrooms.

“We have been earning money from selling mushrooms which helps us to keep our children in school,” she said.

In the distance, the team from Vision Group could see two clean-shaven hills in Bugoma forest that have lost trees, due to the activities of Hoima Sugar. The company has also established an access murram road across the valley separating two hills in Bugoma.

The team from Vision Group used hand-held cameras and a drone to take photographs and videos of part of the destruction with the speed and precision of surgical doctors.

The villagers who led Vision Group to Rutoma-Kibale had indicated that the soldiers guarding Hoima Sugar Limited were only a distance away. So, we had to work quickly to avoid being arrested.

As the drone landed, a mob with sticks intercepted the team from Vision Group. We later found out that they were villagers who thought we were land grabbers. One of the journalists from the area “bought” our freedom. He explained to them that we are helping the people in the fight to keep the forest. The villagers quickly changed from adversaries to allies.

In a short time, our four-wheel Mitsubishi Pajero roared as it conquered the hills of Kabwoya. By 6:00 pm, we hit Hoima city unaware that 21 UPDF guarding Hoima Sugar had made an attempt to pursue our team.

“You were very lucky because they were waiting to catch you,” David Bainematsiko, who is the chairperson of Kololo village in Kyangwali, said.

“If you had delayed by 10 minutes you would have landed in the hands of the soldiers.”

As the charcoal burners convert the big trees into charcoal, bulldozers from Hoima Sugar are advancing to convert the landscape into an expansive sugarcane plantation.

Sections of Bugoma Forest under deforestation
Burning trees to make charcoal

This was contrary to the briefing of environment state minister Beatrice Anywar, who told the European Union delegation that visited the area that all activities, including Hoima Sugar, had been stopped pending resurvey of the boundaries of Bugoma.

“Cabinet has stopped all activities of Hoima Sugar and the Government is going to resurvey the boundaries of Bugoma,” Anywar said.

Anywar was speaking on November 2nd 20020,  to the EU delegation, which included eight ambassadors from different countries in the EU.

The heads of mission included EU head of delegation Attilio Pacifici, French Ambassador to Uganda Jules-Armand Aniambossou, Veestraeten Rudi (Belgium), Matthias Schauer (Germany), Massimiliano Mazzanti (Italy), Per Lindgäde (Sweden), Nicolaj Hejberg Petersen (Denmark) and Dr Roswitha Kremser (Austria).

“It does not make good sense to grow sugarcane in Bugoma,” Pacifici said, adding that climate change is real and Bugoma helps out as a carbon sink for waste gases.

Early in December, William Ogaro, a commissioner in the lands ministry, put on hold the resurvey of the boundaries of Bugoma on grounds that his security is not guaranteed. He said the resurvey of the boundaries has been put off until after the Presidential elections slated for January 14, 2021.

NEMA cleared Hoima Sugar

Details from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) show that it cleared Hoima Sugar Limited to cultivate sugarcane on a grassland covering 9.24 square miles in Kyangwali, Kikuube district of western Uganda.

NEMA also allowed the sugar firm to establish an urban centre on 1.26 square miles and an eco-tourism centre on 1.97 square miles of land and restore on 3.13 square miles of Bugoma.

The top government watchdog on the environment also ordered Hoima Sugar to preserve 0.156 hectares for the cultural site and conserve 6.17 square miles as a natural forest.

This totals to 21.54 hectares of land (approximately 22 square miles) or 5,779 hectares.

Calling Hoima Sugar an environment-friendly company, Hoima Sugar Limited public relations officer Sheila Nduhukire said: “The 22 square miles that we got from Bunyoro Kingdom is not forest land. We are a green company and there is simply no way we would want to cut down a forest.”

Birth of Bugoma controversy

Hoima Sugar Limited leased 5,799 hectares of land from the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom on August 4, 2016. Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, the 27th Omukama of the kingdom, obtained the title for the land on August 1, 2016.

Even though Bugoma Forest does not appear on the list of properties returned to the King of Bunyoro, the Uganda Land Commission, which oversees government land, processed a land title in favour of the King of Bunyoro-Kitara, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru.

“What I know is that the land does not belong to Bunyoro kingdom. It is not part of the restituted properties,” Jackson Wabyona, a civil society activist, said.

“Where did the king get this land from? Was it public land? Who knew that this land was available, under forestry, swiftly processed a land title and then leased it to Hoima Sugar Limited four days later?” Wabyona said.

Bugoma’s richness

Gazetted as a forest reserve in 1932 to protect the catchment of Lake Albert, Bugoma is a tropical rainforest, which 600 chimpanzees call home. Bugoma also has the Uganda mangabey, a species of monkeys found only in Uganda. It also houses endangered bird species — the Nahan’s Francolin and the African Grey parrots.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation

Video and Image Credits: InfoNile, Megan S. Lee