A coalition of civil society organizations and environmental activists, under the Save Bugoma Forest campaign, have raised serious objections to a leaked survey report from the Ministry of Lands.

The report, purportedly outlines findings related to the forest’s status but has come under intense scrutiny from activists who allege discrepancies and inadequacies in its methodology and lack of conclusions.

“We were dismayed that the report doesn’t provide definitive finding on whether Hoima sugar encroached on Bugoma central forest reserve land. instead, it relies on illegally obtained certificate of registrations, the illegal environment social impact assessment certificate and court judgment to reach a finding that Hoima Sugar Ltd is utilizing land leased to it by Omukama of Bunyoro…without determining whether that land is within Bugoma gazetted area,” a statement from the activist reads in part.

The Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, measuring 41,144 hectares of protected land and stretching across 40 kilometres, is a lush tropical forest located in Kikuube district. 

Established in 1932 and subsequently placed under the jurisdiction of the National Forestry Authority in 2003, it stands as a vital ecological asset.

However, discrepancies have emerged regarding its designated boundaries. According to the survey report, the computed area outlined in the boundary plan amounts to 39,492.620 hectares. This discrepancy of 1,651 hectares raises significant questions, as it deviates from the originally gazetted 41,144 hectares of forest land. Unfortunately, the report fails to provide any clarification or explanation for this discrepancy.

During the survey exercise, additional claims to portions of the Bugoma Forest Reserve surfaced, totalling 28 in number. These claims include individuals asserting customary land ownership within the forest reserve and some already converted their customary rights into freehold ownership. 

“Thirteen of them were verified by the ministry of lands…while others were submitted to Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom since they all alleged to have been offered land by Omukama of Bunyoro Kingdom,” the report reads in part. 

Regarding the 5,779.7 hectares of land claimed by Hoima Sugar, the survey report noted a significant detail: a court judgment had been cited indicating that both the Omukama of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom and Hoima Sugar were recognized as the lawful owners of the land. This parcel of land is identified as comprising Folio 18 Buhanguzi Block 2, Plot 216.

Dickens Kamugisha, the Chairperson of the Save Bugoma campaign, highlighted glaring omissions in the survey report. He points out that the report fails to draw any conclusive findings regarding the initial instruction to conduct the survey, which raises concerns about its integrity and purpose. 

Furthermore, Kamugisha, who is also the Executive Director at Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), questions why the report neglects to address the perplexing issue of how the Bunyoro Kingdom came to award customary land titles within a gazetted forest reserve. to him, this lack of explanation leaves a critical gap in understanding the circumstances surrounding the allocation of land titles within Bugoma Forest.

Kamugisha further questions why individuals who were offered land by the Bunyoro Kingdom but had not yet obtained titles have been reported to be situated within the forest reserve, while those who had acquired titles after receiving offers from the same source are not addressed in the report. He views this as a potential conflict of interest, especially considering that the survey was conducted by officials of the Ministry of Land who are allegedly the same individuals responsible for granting titles in the area.

Expressing concern over the lack of transparency and impartiality in the survey process, Kamugisha insists that the survey needs to be redone. He advocates for the inclusion of independent experts and representation from local communities, civil society, and other interested parties to ensure transparency and fairness in the assessment.

Kamugisha elaborated on their proactive stance, mentioning their ongoing preparations to mobilize local communities and other concerned stakeholders. They aim to gather support for a new petition addressed to the president, urging for a fresh surveying exercise in Bugoma Forest. 

Meanwhile, Lalma Asasira, a resident neighbouring the forest, has emphasized the crucial need for government intervention to protect Bugoma Forest from the threat of destruction, citing past instances where similar forests have been irreversibly damaged. “Bugoma forest is vital for our environment. any attempts to encroach upon it must be stopped to protect our ecosystem,” noted Asasira. 

Godfrey Twesigye, the Executive Director for Water & Environment Media Network Uganda, also echoed concerns about the credibility of the leaked report, suggesting that its deficiencies may explain why the government has hesitated to release it to the public. He emphasizes the urgent need for government intervention to address the gaps identified.

Twesigye stresses the importance of clarity in the survey report, particularly regarding the current status of Bugoma Forest. He calls for transparency regarding whether the forest’s entire 41,000 hectares remain intact or if any portions have been lost, highlighting the necessity of accounting for any missing hectares and understanding their disposition. 

In 2016, the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom reportedly leased 22 square miles of land, purportedly part of Bugoma Forest, to Hoima Sugar Limited for sugarcane cultivation, under a lease agreement spanning 99 years. However, this move faced strong opposition from local communities and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).

As pressure mounted from the local communities, CSOs and environment activists, in 2019cabinet intervened, directing the surveying of Bugoma Forest. The aim was to ascertain whether the land leased to the sugar company encroached upon forest territory and to address other boundary verification exercises mandated by court orders, all with the overarching goal of conserving the forest.

The surveying process did not commence until 2020. However, it spanned two years to complete the activity, with an additional year to compile a report. The report was later finalized in November 2023 and remained undisclosed to the public until its recent leak.

The forest under scrutiny, currently facing imminent threats, boasts rich biodiversity, harbouring a diverse array of flora and fauna. Among its notable inhabitants are 24 species of mammals, including monkeys, chimpanzees, buffaloes, Uganda Kobs, and occasionally elephants. Additionally, the forest is home to an impressive 465 species of trees, 359 species of birds, 289 species of butterflies, and 130 species of moths.

A 2012 Chimpanzee census revealed that 10 percent of Uganda’s Chimpanzee population resides within its borders, highlighting its critical role in conserving endangered species.

Moreover, the forest serves as a vital migratory corridor for wildlife, facilitating movement between various game parks. Furthermore, it acts as a crucial catchment area for rivers that ultimately drain into Lake Albert and River Nguse.

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