Kampala - The Ugandan government has approved the clearance of thousands of hectares of protected rain forest for a sugar plantation, a state newspaper said on Wednesday.

The government is set to seek parliament's permission to clear around 7 000 of 30 000 hectares in Mabira Forest Reserve, east of Kampala, before handing it over to Uganda-based Mehta Group for sugarcane farming, according to state-owned New Vision newspaper.

Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi directed Environment Minister Mary Mutagamba to seek permission from parliament to withdraw the identified portion of forestland from a list of government-protected rain forests, it said.

Officials said President Yoweri Museveni was keen on expanding the country's agricultural and industrial base in a bid to boost his donor-dependent economy.

"This is the proper way of utilising the resources. It is easier to relocate the forest by planting trees elsewhere than to relocate a factory," Museveni's spokesperson Tamale Miriundi told reporters.

But furious conservationists have warned that further encroachment of the forest would threaten up to 312 tree species, 287 bird species and 199 butterfly species.

"This is going to be a disaster," warned a National Forestry Authority official who requested anonymity. "The ecosystem will be disturbed, the biodiversity will be destroyed and people's livelihoods will change for the worse."

In December, Norwegian environmentalist Olav Bjella quit as NFA chief after defying Museveni's order to approve the deforestation of a rain forest on Lake Victoria's Ssesse Island to create a palm plantation, saying it was against his conscience and the laws of Uganda. - Sapa-AFP