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Ugandans save the Mabira Forest from sugarcane plantation, 2007
Uganda in East Africa has a large rainforest area, the Mabira Forest, that has been protected since 1932. In 2007 Ugandan President Yoweli Kaguta Museveni announced a plan to hand over one-third of the Mabira rainforest to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL). The plan was to turn the forest into land for growing sugarcane.
The Sugar Corporation was owned jointly by the government and the Mehta Group, an Indian-Ugandan family. The government estimated that 3500 jobs would come from sugarcane production along with 11.5 billion Ugandan shillings for the treasury in taxes.
Two days after the announcement, activists met together to oppose the plan and decided to launch a campaign, the Save Mabira Crusade, including peaceful demonstrations. The activists believed that deforestation would promote climate change that would be dangerous to the economy. Also, the Mabira forest is a place where people worship the spirits of their grandparents. Environmentalists said the move threatens the existence of rare species of trees and birds, will promote soil erosion, and is likely to reduce rainfall.
The director and other officials of the National Forestry Authority resigned to protest the government’s plans, saying that other, non-forested lands in Uganda could be used for sugarcane production.
The coalition opposing deforestation grew to include the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE – Friends of the Earth Uganda), led by Frank Muramuzi; a woman member of parliament, Anywar Atim Beatrice; the Kabaka (king) of Buganda and Buganda indigenous people, the Anglican Church of Mukono, and other civil society groups. Both the Kabaka (King) of Buganda and the Anglican Church offered alternative land that they owned to be used for growing sugar. The Kabaka also petitioned the Constitutional Court to stop the government’s move.
The campaigners collected declarations by organizations against the deforestation, and circulated a mass petition. They lobbied the government and began to picket, while also reaching out to police. They called for a sugar boycott of sugar produced by the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited.
Campaigners planned a long walk from the capital, Kampala, to Jinja district where Mabira forest is located – almost 83 kilometers. The walk began quietly in Kampala city with approximately 1000 demonstrators carrying placards and tree branches and singing. At the beginning of march the police first tried to convince them to stop. When activists refused to stop, the police tried to stop them by force and arrest the leaders.
Suddenly demonstrators and the police started pushing each other. Police shot their guns into the air. The police arrested some of protest leaders and started beating them. Some demonstrators started to fight back, threw stones, and injured one policeman. They also set fire to vehicles.
Police then shot into the crowd, with at least one fatality. Police also arrested about 20.
In a breakdown of law and order a mob formed, running through the streets of Kampala. Noting that the Mehta Group is composed of Indian Ugandans, some charged that Indians were to blame for the threat to the forest. The mob destroyed some Indian businesses, threatened some who were gathered in a Hindu temple, and beat at least one Indian to death.
Military police were called in to back up the regular police; they came with tear gas and armed vehicles and spent hours breaking up groups and directing them to go home.
The movement grew rapidly. Even the same day as the march that was broken up, 12 April, shops in Kampala closed as a show of solidarity for the protesters (and also in fear that looting might break out). Demonstrations grew in other towns. In Kampala many people hastened to place on their cars’ bumpers a sticker urging that the Mabira forest be saved.
The state-run newspaper New Vision criticized the government’s proposal to use the forest, revealing division within the government on the question.
Under the pressure of rising opposition, in 22 May Environment minister Maria Mutagamba announced that the government would seek an alternative site for sugarcane development, but that a cabinet committee would need to review the needs.
By 19 October it was clear that the campaigners had won and the Mabira Forest, at least for a time, was saved. It was again threatened in 2011.