Lakeside communities trapped under the
guise of fighting climate change

Four communities making up 7,500 people settled within the forest reserve in Mayuge district, three along the lakeshores and one within the forest.

Otewu John never thought he would end up in a life of crime. But when the 56-year-old’s garden of 20 years was slashed and he was forced from the land, he found himself resorting to illegal fishing, lacking the small amount of money needed to invest in a more expensive legal fishing net but needing to provide for his 9 children.

The fisherman first moved to the tiny remote village of Walumbe along the shores of Lake Victoria in 1984, searching for prime waters in which to fish for tilapia and other species.

He soon landed upon a better opportunity, discovering a huge expanse of seemingly unused land within a 9,000-hectare forest located deep in Mayuge District, Uganda. There, many other villagers were already planting small gardens among the trees, growing maize, cassava, potatoes and other crops to sustain their families and sell for small profits.

For decades, hundreds of people provided for themselves from these gardens and other resources obtained from the forest, including firewood, grazing land for their animals and sources of freshwater. But when the the National Forestry Authority leased  the land to Norway-based Busoga Forest Company in 1996 to plant pine and eucalyptus trees for timber export, these people, who had no official land titles, were forced from their gardens. About 830 families were evicted from about 360 hectares of land that they used to farm, according to David Kureeba, a Program Officer at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, which conducted a research and advocacy campaign about these communities.

Busoga Forest Company’s tree plantation in Mayuge District is one of 6 large-scale forestry projects in Uganda, with deals taking up a total of 47,339 hectares.

Many of the people had migrated to the forest to work on a government beef farm and center to fight the parasitic sleeping sickness during former President Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s. Others came escaping warfare in the north in 1987. When the current government came into power, the area was re-gazetted as a forest reserve, but “the gazettement was kind of informal,” Kureeba said.

So the people remained, many claiming not to have been given terminal benefits after the government projects closed. People continued to come. Between 2002 and 2010, these villages grew by an average of 53 percent, according to a 2011 Ministry of Water and Environment report.

Today, there are four communities making up a total population of about 7,500 people located within the reserve, three along the lakeshores and one within the forest.

The National Forest Authority (NFA), the government body entrusted with managing forest reserves, contends that the area was gazetted as a reserve in 1948 and therefore these people are landless encroachers who “just forced themselves on the land which was not theirs,” according to Steven Galima, NFA Natural Forests Coordinator. But complex land laws in Uganda do give some rights to people who settled on land 12 years before the 1995 Constitution came into place.

In April, the government through NFA and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) began degazetting about 3,000 hectares of the 9,000-hectare Bukaleba Forest Reserve along with areas in the nearby South Busoga Forest Reserve, partly to find land to resettle dozens of villages that were evicted from the South Busoga area decades ago, Galima said.

The land currently occupied by the Bukaleba forest communities will be degazetted, as well as the 200-meter buffer zone alongside Lake Victoria that must be maintained to reduce pollution and conserve the environment of the lake, according to Stuart Maniranguha, the Kyoga Range Manager at NFA. Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa and shared by three countries that depend upon its resources, but pollution by the growing populations living near the lakeshore has severely polluted the water body and reduced its fish populations, a key economic resource.

Bukaleba Village and Forest

But when NEMA completes the 200-meter demarcation within the next several months, the people living along the lakeshore will be made to leave their homes according to Naomi Karekaho, NEMA corporate communications manager, whether they get compensation for the value of their lost land and crops or resettlement on degazetted land will be determined by the Office of the Prime Minister in time to come.

While National Forest Authority officials said the four villages that exist within Bukaleba are not likely to be among those resettled, the beneficiaries are still being identified, according to the Mayuge District Chairman, Hadji Omar Bongo, and the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development Public Relations Officer, Owbo Dennis.

Bongo also claimed that these forest communities will also be officially allocated a small portion of land within the degazetted area to sustain their livelihoods, a struggle that has been ongoing for eight years. Currently, the villages are fighting over a 500-hectare allotment that has been dominated by just one of the four communities.

Busoga Forest Company’s tree plantation is one of 6 large-scale forestry projects in Uganda with deals taking up a total of 47,339 hectares. Owned by companies from countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, most of these concessions are monoculture plantations of non-native, fast growing tree species such as pine and eucalyptus that are cut and sold as timber in Uganda and abroad. At the same time, many of the companies say they are fighting climate change through reforesting degraded lands and selling ‘carbon credits’ to polluting companies abroad. Investing in commercial forests is a national strategy to increase revenue and wood-based products to the Ugandan people, according to Galima from the NFA.

But while such projects are intended to inject economy and development into poor, low-resource areas, in many places, including Mayuge, their presence has often ended up depriving the most marginalized communities of their livelihoods without adequate efforts to replace them. People already living on the margins of society end up further ignored, and with even less.

One of these villages is Walumbe, population 1,500, a tiny landing site of grass-thatched houses nestled in a 200-meter buffer zone between Lake Victoria and wall of perfectly spaced trees marking the Busoga Forestry Company plantation.

After their forest gardens were slashed, residents of Walumbe resorted to fishing to sustain their lives. But lacking enough money to invest in legal fishing gear such as nets that do not harm small fish, the fisherman say they are forced to use cheaper illegal nets and thus face the constant threat of arrest.

Without money for strong boats or lifejackets, the waters aren’t safe. This year, one fisherman was eaten by a crocodile. Residents first found his shoes, then his torso.

“You fish on the gunpoint now,” the fisherman Otewu said.

238,033 hectares of land acquired by foreign investors

The Land Matrix has tracked 238,033 hectares of large-scale land acquisitions in Uganda since 1990, with most deals concluded since year 2007.

Land Deals in Uganda

A Flourish data visualisation

Most of this land was allocated to 25 transnational deals by investors from countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Mauritius, Norway, and India. Twenty-seven deals are currently in production, including another 10 domestic deals by Ugandan companies or the government. Investors from Bangladesh, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India are also in negotiations for another 12,500 hectares of land mainly for export agriculture.

Busoga Forestry Company (BFC) obtained a 50-year lease of 10,054 hectares in Mayuge District in 1996, according to the Land Matrix. According to John Ferguson, the managing director of Busoga Forestry Company, the total area BFC plants in Mayuge is 6,300 hectares, and the remaining 2,700 hectares goes to conservation along with the 500 hectares for community activities.

Busoga Forestry Company Land-use

A Flourish data visualisation

Busoga Forestry Company is a subsidiary of Green Resources AS, a private Norwegian company established in 1995. Green Resources claims to be East Africa’s largest forest development and wood processing company, with 38,000 hectares of forest in Uganda, Mozambique, and Tanzania, a sawmill in Tanzania and electricity pole and charcoal plants in the three countries. The company manages 15 plantations including two in Uganda and in 2016 had net sales of $5,673 according to its 2016 Environment and Social Impact Report.

On its website, the company says it is one of the first companies in the world to benefit from carbon revenue from its forests. Under the international REDD+ scheme, carbon-emitting companies that contribute to climate change have an option to “offset” their negative emissions by buying “carbon credits” from tree-planting initiatives elsewhere in the world.

This year, BFC will sell about 325,000 tons of carbon, including 65,000 tons from Bukaleba, to the Swedish energy agencies under the United Nations advanced market operated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, according to Ferguson of BFC.

But time and time again, this model has proven too good to be true. In a 2018 study published in the Global Environmental Change journal, researchers at the IHE Delft Institute of Water Education in the Netherlands found that two participatory forest conservation projects in Ethiopia that supply carbon credits as part of the REDD+ scheme had ended up aggravating conflicts over the use of natural resources among the local communities. Another 2018 studypublished in the Climate Policy journal found a “a gap between the REDD+ narratives at international level… and the livelihood interests of farming communities on the ground,” referencing also a climate finance forestry projects in Indonesia.

Trapped in the Buffer Zone: Uganda Communities forgotten in the fight against Climate Change

According to John Wanyu, a gastroeconomist scientist at Slow Food Uganda, an NGO that promotes the development of sustainable food communities, the planting of monoculture alien tree species such as pine and eucalyptus also uses huge amounts of water and destroys the natural biodiversity of the environment.

But the Ugandan government claims that investing in commercial forests is a lucrative venture for the developing country, which makes 30,000 shillings ($8) per hectare a year in ground rent – amounting to about 190 million shillings ($52,000) a year for the company’s 6,400 hectares. Ferguson said his company contributes 2-3 million dollars a year to the Ugandan economy in taxes alone. One hundred percent of the company’s products are sold domestically, most to the national electricity supplier UMEME as electrical poles, he said.

Bukaleba Forest trees

In 2016, eighty-six percent of BFC’s products in Uganda were sold domestically, according to Busoga Forestry Company’s 2016 Environment and Social Impact Report.

Busoga Forestry Company is not the only forest deal in Uganda. In the country, 3 of the top 4 transnational deals making up a total of 42,236 hectares are in forests, with companies from the United Kingdom, Germany and Norway investing in monoculture timber plantations located on government-run forest reserves in eastern, western and central Uganda. These deals have all been rife with similar controversies as the Mayuge deal.

Smaller land acquisitions have also affected many Ugandans. Constance Okollet, chairperson of Osukuru United Women Network based in Osukuru Sub County, Tororo district of Uganda said 100 women out of the 1,286 women that belong to her organization are now facing untold suffering after their husbands sold their family land to Chinese investors. And for some women whose family land was acquired by investors, their husbands used the money they were paid to marry more women. The rest was spent on alcohol, according to Okollet.

While much public attention has been on such deals by foreign investors, most land grabs in Uganda are actually by individual Ugandans who encroach upon protected or private lands, according to Isaac Kabanda, the Food Community Coordinator at Slow Food Uganda, an NGO that promotes the development of sustainable food communities.

For example, River Rwizi, a lifeline river for over four million people in southwestern Uganda, has seen up to 80 percent of its water dry up as a result of land taken by individual Ugandans. 200 people have illegally acquired over 500 hectares of land along River Rwizi, destroying wetlands on its banks.

Drone footage of River Rwizi dried by illegal land acquisitions

Community development?

On its website, Busoga Forest Company affirms its commitment to developing the communities affected by its projects and mitigating negative impacts of its presence such as loss of livelihoods.

Ten percent of company profits are intended to be used to develop the community. 

“Green Resources’ strategy is based on the sustainable development of the areas in which it operates. The company believes that forestation is one of the most efficient ways of improving social and economic conditions for people in rural areas and aims to be the preferred employer and partner for local communities in these areas,” the company writes on its website.

In Bukaleba village, about 120 villagers are employed in the company as slashers, sprayers, and termite killers, the village chairman Aliphonse Ongom said. But in a month, the average employee makes only 60,000 Uganda shillings – about $16 – despite claims from BFC that they pay a monthly minimum wage of 205,000 Uganda shillings, according to the company’s 2016 Environment and Social Impact Report.

Green Resources Employee Wages

A Flourish data visualisation

After conflicts with the local communities, BFC agreed to a ‘Collaborative Forest Management Programme’ in October 2011 that stipulated that 1.1 billion Uganda shillings (about $296,000) would be spent over the next five years to strengthen company-community relations and support the communities through various capacity building activities. Most of this money would come directly from the company, the agreement stated.

Dividing 1.1 billion Uganda shillings by five, it was expected that BFC would spend on average about 218 million shillings per year on community development. However, according to the publicly available Environment and Social Impact Reports released by BFC, the company spent only about 30 million shillings on community development in 2015 and 128 million shillings on the same in 2016.

Green Resources expenditure on community development

A Flourish data visualisation

However, according to the managing director of BFC, the company has been able to contribute more to community development since it finally became profitable in 2018.  The company spent about $125,000 USD (about 462 million shillings) for community development in 2018, and this year it plans to spend about $250,000 (about 924 million shillings), Ferguson said.

The 2011 agreement also promised that BFC would contract plantation management to the local communities, hold skills trainings and mobilize resources for community income generation projects, and demarcate a community tree growing zone of about 30 meters from the line of the present settlements. The agreement also promised to move other settlements such as Bukaleba and Walumbe into the larger Nakalanga village.

But as of July 2019, none of the other settlements had been moved into Nakalanga, leaving them unable to access the 500-hectare community land located around Nakalanga. There was further no evidence or discussion of such a community tree growing zone around the four villages within the forest. Ferguson of BFC said that the communities had been provided with seedlings, but while a 2018 Social Impact report provided by the company specified that 74,518 seedlings had been issued to community members in Kachung, there was no mention of Bukaleba.

According to Green Resources and BFC reports, some of the projects the company has undertaken to support the local communities include constructing three new water boreholes in 2018 in Bukaleba that benefited more than 3,000 people; providing medical supplies for two health centers with a monthly patient count of about 1,223 people, expanding a medical dispensary, maintaining more than 35 kilometers of community roads, sponsoring three girls to attend higher education, and increasing HIV/AIDS awareness with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. BFC also implemented a multiyear improved cook stoves project that trained 256 people from 8 villages in 2016. Green Resources further permits community members to harvest small sticks from the forest to use as firewood, Omoro, the Nakalanga village resident, said.

Children bringing in water at Nakalanga Landing Site

But after training a group of Community-Based Organizations in the villages, the company left without providing the promised startup capital except to a single group, said the village chairman Ongom.

Villagers further maintained that losing the land where they grew food to survive was still the source of almost all their problems and one that has never been adequately addressed by the company or the government. The government maintains that they never had rights to the land.

According to Ferguson of BFC, the company has increased food security for more than 1,823 households in its two forest reserves in 2018 through distributing cassava cuttings and groundnut seeds. In the entire history of the project, the company has helped ensure food security for more than 12,761 people, according to a report compiled by Kizza Simon, the company’s 8-year ESG Manager.

Ferguson said the company had nothing to do with any history of communities being forced off their lands. When BFC came in in 1996, nobody was on the land, and since then, the company has invested a large amount of resources to support the neighboring communities, he said.

“We don’t own the land. When they talk about people being moved, we’ve never done it; it wasn’t our company that did it”Ferguson, BFC

“NFA put out a tender for people to operate on these plantations. We applied for that tender and we were successful based on our plan for what we would do. We moved onto land that required to be planted; there weren’t any people there when we moved onto it, and the history behind it is something that NFA would be able to give a lot more insight than we can.”

A 2014 report based on more than 150 interviews by the Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based environmental think tank, found that more than 8,000 people in Bukaleba and Kachung Forest Reserves had faced “profound disruptions to their livelihoods” due to the presence of Busoga Forestry Company, including forced and violent evictions, the denial of access to land that sustained them to grow food and graze cattle, and the lack of access to forest resources.

Okomo John with one of his cows

The authors termed the situation in Bukaleba a form of ‘carbon violence’ to explain how subsistence farmers and poor communities have borne the brunt of costs related to expanding forestry plantations and global carbon markets in Uganda.

Alibhai of the National Forest Authority said the communities need to “seek help” by officially writing to the NFA to be recognized as a formal Community Forest Management group, after which NFA can support them such as by giving them trainings in tree nursery management, among other benefits.

According to Ferguson of BFC, while forestry projects have often been condemned as the “smelly family member,” the sugarcane plantations such as Kakira Sugar Works that own more than 50,000 hectares near BFC’s operations in Mayuge actually take in 15-20 times more water than trees while leaching land that used to be used to grow food crops.

“The perception of forestry around the world is that they’re seen as the bad boys for some reasons, maybe because trees are big beautiful things and how can you cut them down and yes those are the realities,” Ferguson said. “But if you look at how sugarcane is taking out the business of the gardens and where people are growing their crops, you see it’s getting dryer and dryer every year.”