The controversy surrounding the pending eviction of more than 20,000 people from three central forest reserves in Mubende District has taken a new twist with the State Minister for Environment, Dr Mary Goretti Kitutu, directing the National Forest Authority (NFA) to halt the evictions.
The minister instead directed the forestry body to embark on a process of degazetting the forest reserves to enable the affected people settle on the land peacefully.
The minister made the revelation during a meeting with local leaders and residents at Butawata Health Centre II in Kigando Sub-county in Mubende District on Tuesday.
The forest reserves, which the minister wants degazetted, include; Kasolo Forest Reserve in Kigando Sub-county (3,244 hectares), Muyinayina Forest Reserve in Kasambya Sub-county (1,067 hectares) and Lusiba Forest Reserve in Nabingoola Sub-county (670 hectares).
The three forests currently have more than 20,000 people.
She said a thorough review of government records had revealed that the parts of the three sub-counties were gazetted as forest reserves basing on political reasons not environment conservation.
“These ‘central forest reserves’ were initially under the control of Buganda Kingdom and there were people settling in them, but the then Milton Obote 1 government gazetted them as forest reserves in 1968 for political reasons after getting disagreements with Buganda Kingdom. We have crossed checked with the land registry and found out that people have authentic documents to prove ownership of land they are occupying.” Dr Kitutu said.
However, Dr Kitutu explained that the degazettment will be done after securing parliamentary approval.
“We shall follow the guidelines laid down for degazetting forests so that our people are not disturbed in future,” she said, adding: “But I implore you to practise agro-forestry and also leave the sensitive areas such as wetlands and riverbanks.”
The minister’s pronouncement attracted excitement among residents who have for years been threatened with eviction by NFA.
Mr Joseph Kaggwa Matovu, a representative of bibanja [tenants] holders association at Kasolo Forest Reserve, said government had given residents in the three forest reserves an early Christmas.
“This is an early Christmas coming in September indeed. If government has given us a go ahead to settle on our land, I am sure Parliament will not refuse to endorse the degazettement of the forests since the ruling party [NRM] has the majority in the House,” he said.
Mr Louis Mbwatekamwa Gafa, the Kasambya County Member of Parliament, said the degazettement of the three forest reserves was long overdue, insisting that the disputed land never had forests before.
“What makes a forest are the trees, but they have never existed in all those areas which NFA claims are forest reserves,” he said.
Mr Tom Rukundo Ndamira, the director of natural forests management at NFA, said the process of degazetting the three forests will commence soon but it will only be completed with a Parliamentary approval.
“As of now, these three areas are still forest reserves under NFA until when all the processes have been completed,” he said.
Mr Alex Tumwesigye, the NFA sector manager in charge of Mubende and Mityana districts, said a big number of residents in the three sub- counties occupied the disputed land when there were some trees and cut them down to construct houses and carry out agriculture.
“There could some genuine settlers, but majority are encroachers, they are just beneficiaries of the politics surrounding the whole issue,” he said.