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Buvunya - Standing beneath the towering trees of Uganda's threatened Mabira rainforest, farmer Godfrey Ojambo shrugs in despair and bewilderment at plans to cut down this national treasure and hand it over to a sugar corporation.
From feed for his cows and firewood for his cooking to the rainfall for his crops, Ojambo says he is just one of thousands of people living around the tropical forest who depend on it for their livelihood.
“Here the forest is life,” said Ojambo, who is also vice-chairman of a local group helping to manage part of the forest.
“We don't know how we could live without it, but they still want to give it away,” he added sadly, waving at the majestic trees.
All around, the dense undergrowth hums with the sound of insects and birds.
The forest is home to a vast array of rare plants and animal species with almost 200 kinds of butterflies alone and over 250 birds.
But despite helping rescue the forest from illegal logging when he seized power in 1986, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni now says a recent sugar shortage that saw prices rise and shops rationing the sweetener justifies the giveaway.
Under his plan a quarter of Mabira's 29 000 hectares will be passed to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (SCOUL).
In 2007, Museveni was forced to back down from an identical plan after moves to hand over 7000 hectares of Mabira to SCOUL, owned by a local Indian tycoon, sparked deadly riots in Kampala.
That attempt prompted the US to criticise the government's failure to address public perception that “super-wealthy Indian businessmen were benefiting from sweetheart business deals in exchange for financial support during elections,” according to leaked diplomatic cables.
Mabira is one of the few remaining scraps of rainforest in Uganda, located about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of the capital Kampala. It was officially designated a protected forest reserve in 1932.
“We have a problem of sugar shortage... and the president is agreeing with the people's demands that we need more sugar,” Tamale Mirundi, a spokesman for the Ugandan president, told AFP.
Mirundi defended the president's decision saying there were “no trees” in the part of the forest that the president planned to give away as they had never recovered from earlier deforestation.
“This part of Mabira is degraded, it does not contribute anything to the environment,” Mirundi said.
Conservationists, however, dismiss claims that there are degraded areas in Mabira, and say the plans will have a major impact on the region's ecosystem.
“Mabira is an important catchment area for rivers including the Nile,” said Onesmus Mugyenyi, deputy executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment.
“Any move to diminish the forest would affect the whole ecosystem and water catchment area of Uganda and the whole region,” he said.
Mugyenyi said that conservationists were determined to block any moves to give away Mabira, warning that attempts to do so could rekindle the popular anger that was seen in 2007.
“This could spark off a major riot or uprising against the government,” Mugyenyi said. “When you hear the resentment coming from different circles, you understand that there is real anger.”
Ugandan opposition protests in April over soaring food and fuel prices provoked a harsh clampdown from security forces that left at least ten people dead across the country.
In the face of popular outrage and even dissent from within his own ruling party over the planned giveaway, Museveni has softened his stance and says he will now seek parliament's permission to give away the forest.
But with the leader of Uganda's largest tribe offering land elsewhere for sugar production, those living around Mabira say that the government has still not explained why they need to clear the forest.
“There is a consensus from people living here and the environmentalists that Mabira should not be cut down,” Ojambo added.
“So why is the government so desperate to give it away?” - Sapa-AFP
Population increase cannot be sustained if Uganda wants to retain its remanant wild areas. Why have squatters in the forest not been removed as they are the one who deforested part of the "protected" forest. Why has the deforessted area left without a helping hand?
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