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‘Make natural forests untouchable’

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Last November, Attilio Pacifici, the head of the EU Delegation in Uganda led seven other ambassadors from France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Austria on a mission to western and northern Uganda to have firsthand experience of the level of pressure Uganda’s natural resource assets such as Bugoma forest (Hoima District) and Zoka forest (Adjumani District) are currently facing. In an email interview, Pacifici told The Independent’s Ronald Musoke why the mission was important.

What were your impressions when you visited some of these forests during your expedition?  

This visit was a joint mission to the west and north of Uganda where we had the chance to visit iconic forests like Bugoma and Zoka but also national parks like Murchison Falls. During this mission, we were honoured with the participation of high-level government officials and we had the opportunity to jointly exchange with very committed civil society actors on the ground.

The visit demonstrated the risks faced by some of the last protected forests in Uganda and the need to step up efforts to protect them and preserve the ecosystem services they provide. Our main message was and remains that development can and needs to go hand in hand with environmental conservation.

Conservation has a strong economic value, which needs to be promoted, and we are here to support this agenda. That is why in all our engagement, we have stressed the importance of striking the right balance between environmental protection and economic development.

I know you are aware from what you saw that deforestation is happening at an alarming rate across the country, even when the country has robust laws governing forests. What, in your opinion, will it take to control this problem?

Tackling the challenge of deforestation will require a holistic approach and high level of commitment from governments, development partners, private sector, civil society organisations, the media, ordinary citizens; all of us.  I am sure you know that already Uganda’s forest cover has plummeted from 24% of its area in 1990 to about 12.5% today.

This is a big challenge that requires collective action. It is also important that government should provide strong, consistent and broad support to the forest management authorities and the law enforcement agencies. For one, we have to make the natural forests untouchable in every sense of the word.

We have to make the traditional sources of biomass energy very expensive while ensuring that alternative sources of clean energy are made available and cheaper to meet the most basic household needs. Once degraded, the cost of restoring a natural forest is colossal. It is not as easy as planting a couple of trees because as you know in Uganda the natural forests have historically had vast and varied species unlike in Europe where the species are limited.

At a regional level, a formal mechanism should be established, to regulate cross-border trade and movement of forest products in the regionThe problem of unregulated trans-boundary forest management and trade has resulted into forest products illegally acquired from one country being a legal import in the receiving country. This makes it difficult to regulate trade in forest products.

The EU has been supporting a project called the SPGS as one of the possible mechanisms to grow back and also conserve Uganda’s forests. Looking at the rate of deforestation that has been inflicted on the country’s forests over the last 16 years (since 2004 when this scheme began) vis a vis the trees that have been planted, how would you rate the success of this project?

The Sawlog Production Grant Scheme (SPGS) has been implemented in Uganda over the last 16 years supporting the establishment of over 80,000 hectares of quality commercial plantations and woodlots across the country. In terms of contribution to the forest cover vis-avis deforestation, SPGS contribution remains limited.

However, the main objective of the SPGS project is to promote quality wood products and ensure that plantations are managed to provide saw logs for timber, building and utility poles, and fuel wood. Providing alternative sources of wood from fast growing tree plantations is a way of reducing pressure on natural forests on both private land and Central Forest Reserves (CFR) but it is not an end in itself.

Our support has been fundamental in creating a critical mass of plantations that provide valuable raw materials for industries and generate rural jobs. The plantations have been established in deforested areas complying with international sustainability practices. SPGS is now a model which is being replicated in many other countries such as Rwanda and the DR Congo.

Today, most of the industrial wood used in Uganda is sourced from plantations – and this has played a leading role in reducing the pressure from natural forests. But this is not enough. Protection of natural forests cannot be substituted with establishing commercial plantations of a few tree species, as is currently the case. We have to make sure that the natural forests—what is left of them—is untouchable.

What is your opinion in regards to some conservation experts who think monocropped forests are a defective idea of forest restoration?

My personal view is that this is an inevitable evil. However, monocultures as such need not be a problem – provided that they are not large contiguous areas and are part of carefully designed sustainable landscapes that include areas for conservation of biodiversity. Even at large-scale, the plantations can be fine when they are established in a mosaic manner with ecological corridors improving the conservation function.

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Original Source: THE INDEPENDENT

Corporate Accountability

Signs of harmful projects with financing from development institutions are spotted in Uganda…

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By Witness Radio Team.

The growth of a country is discerned by great leaders and innovators who see opportunities out of darkness and transform their areas from nothing to success. Those are great leaders whose interest is to see the developments in their countries and the well-being of their citizens.

Every single day, countries all over the world receive investors that acquire loans, grants, and donations to implement mega projects that are seemingly expected to develop host countries. countries and investors borrowing the money Often, countries and investors portray how these projects improve the livelihood of the browbeaten, au contraire, they have left many broken families, poor-dirty homesteads, and shattered dreams.

Uganda is one of those countries, whose citizens have paid a price for reckless or unsupervised and profit-led international investment. In a bid to implement its industrial policy, the country has welcomed both foreign and local investors with interests in the fields of extraction, industrial agriculture, carbon credit tree plantation, mining, infrastructural projects, and many others.

It has received billions of dollars from different financiers including commercial banks, Pension Funds, and International Development Finance Banks or institutions, among others. For instance, the World Bank has invested more than 20 Billion Dollars since 1963 and currently

Every project comes with its own chilling story. More often their stories are unheard by the World. Witness Radio – Uganda surveyed some projects in Uganda. This study revealed agony, illegal evictions, abject poverty, environmental degradation, and loss of life among others, as some of the consequences suffered by the would-be beneficiaries of these international funded projects across the country.

In the capital of Uganda, Kampala, over 1750 families were forcefully evicted from a city suburb, Naguru, for Naguru- Nakawa housing estates.  11 years down the road the project that was highly hyped is to take off on the grabbed land. Pleas from the victims of the eviction to regain their land have all fallen on deaf ears.

About 80km away from Kampala is the island district of Kalangala surrounded by the World’s second-largest lake, Victoria, and known for palm growing. When the palm-oil project was introduced to residents they were given the impression that it would improve their livelihoods and create job opportunities.  Instead, it has dumped thousands into poverty after their land was grabbed by BIDCO, a Wilmer international-funded project. People lost land and now work on plantations as casual laborers. The neighboring communities are accusing BIDCO workers of sexual and gender-based violence.

In the South-Western District of Kiryandongo, multinational companies including Agilis Partners Limited, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, and Great Seasons SMC Limited with funding from The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom, and Common Fund for Commodities among other financiers are forcefully evicting more than 35,000 people. The eviction has been on since 2017.

Workers that worked on a World Bank Project in Soroti, in the far east of the country, are accused of sexually harassing minors. Several young girls were defiled and left pregnant. Despite the government being aware of this none of the pedophiles have been brought to book, the World Bank-funded project in the Eastern Town of Soroti left several underage girls defiled and impregnated.

In late 2020, residents of Kawaala zone II woke up to the hail of armed men and graders evicting and destroying their properties to implement a multimillion-dollar project funded by the World Bank. The project is being implemented by the Kampala Capital city Authority (KCCA) on behalf of the government of Uganda.

The above-listed and other projects, on the other hand, continue to perpetuate violence and judicial harassment against leaders of Project Affected Persons (PAPs) and community land and environmental rights defenders because of their work that resists illegal evictions and destruction of the environment among others.

Although project implementers such as government entities accuse local communities of occupying land targeted for projects illegally, in most cases victim communities have rights over these pieces of land because their settlement on the same land can be traced to have happened generations ago.

No matter how people are negatively impacted being by these harmful projects, financiers continue to release more money to the government and investors. The banks aim at profit margins other than the livelihoods of the people. In Bulebi village, Mbazi parish, Mpunge Sub County in Mukono district, Akon’s futuristic city is about to lead to the eviction of over 1000 residents whose entire lives have been built on their land.

In April last year, American rapper Aliaune Damala Badara well known for his stage name AKON visited Uganda in search of land for constructing the city. On the same business trip, he met President Museveni Yoweri Kaguta and expressed his interest in building a futuristic city with its currency. The president ordered the Ministry of Lands, housing, and urban development to look out for free land for his city.

However, on 7th Jan 2022, the Uganda Land Commission showed the Minister for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development “Hon Judith Nabakooba” land that was proposed for the Akon city. According to the Uganda land commission, the land is Freehold Volume 53 Folio 9 measuring I square mile.

This has sparked outrage amongst the affected as they were never consulted or consented to allow the project in their community. According to community members that Witness Radio interviewed, they said they heard the distressing news of Akon city through the Media.

The community said no official from the ministry has ever approached them about their land giveaway. “Our country is full of land evictions and evictors begin in that way. There has been no official coming on the ground to officially inform us about the project and neither have we heard any official communication of compensation.” Obori said.

Residing in the attractive village surrounded by freshwaters, the community asserts this has been the source of livelihood and advised the government to get alternative land for the City.

Controversies surrounding the land giveaway and ownership of the area still exist. A section of residents have protested and vowed not to surrender their land for the City. They claim to have acquired freehold titles from the Mukono lands board.

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Corporate Accountability

Breaking: over 350,000 acres of land were grabbed during Witness Radio – Uganda’s seven months ban.

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By Witness Radio Team.

As the onslaught on civil society heightens, its space continues to shrink which has bearing on the services they render to the communities. Witness Radio, was among the 54 organizations suspended by Uganda’s National Bureau for Nongovernmental Organizations on August 20th, 2021. The actions are amongst the recent forms of attack on civil societies in Uganda. Other numerous attacks include arrests of rights activists, harassment, tortures, and office- break-ins at night by security operatives who move away with valuables.

The effects of this suspension were felt by communities facing land grabs across the country. For seven months while the organization was suspended, over 300,000 people were evicted from their land and couldn’t access specialized and prompt legal assistance.

Witness Radio Uganda, globally known for its campaign against community land-grabs couldn’t assist these victims of land grab since it risked facing further sanctions from the Bureau in case it intervened. However, last week, there was some relief, when Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs lifted suspension and certified its operation.

According to Mrs. Bulyerali Joan, the Head Legal at Witness Radio – Uganda, the organization conducted a review of the evictions that happened during the suspension. With information and assistance from some lawyers, local journalists, and community land and environmental rights defenders across the country, the evictions watchdog was able to document cases of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans that were either forcefully evicted or received threats of evictions while in its limbo.

The ban imposed on Witness Radio coupled with the disruptive impacts of COVID- 19 resulted in the surge of eviction cases, especially in areas where the organization had a presence. Throughout the ban, without access to swift and prompt legal support, the communities resorted to sharing with the world their ordeal.

She further noted that the evictions were conducted in disregard of the law on evictions. “I was shocked to see powerful people and companies take advantage of our suspension to escalate the evictions of vulnerable communities that received our assistance. The evictions did not comply with the land eviction practice directives. None of them was preceded by legal court orders.”  She noted.

According to the Land Eviction directives, issued by the former Chief Justice of Uganda, Bart Katureebe, evictions shall be preceded by valid court order, properly identifying the persons taking part in the eviction, and upon presentation of formal authorizations. The police and local authority of the area shall be notified and shall be present to witness the evictions, among others.

Based on the data gathered by the team, various communities across the country were left dispossessed by land grabbers without any form of assistance. Others have received threatening messages with intentions of dispossessing them off their land.

During the period under review, over 300,000 people across the country are believed to have been threatened with evictions, while 350,000 acres of land were either grabbed or on verge of being grabbed.

“However much, we gathered this information, we expect the cases to be higher because some evictions go unreported either due to the remoteness of the areas or other related factors.” One of the collaborators observed.

The evictions were extremely violent.  They were characterized by kidnaps, arrests and detentions, torture that often-caused unexpected grief to the communities.

Among the most affected districts include Kyankwanzi, Mubende, Kassanda, Hoima, Buikwe, Wakiso, Kikuube, and Bulambuli districts.

In some of the mentioned districts, the Lands, Housing, and Urban Development Minister toured and halted the evictions but the evictors continued unabated.

Mr. Kimazi Experito, a journalist based in Mubende, attributed the rise of evictions to the organization’s suspension which denied the evictions-affected communities access to specialized legal assistance.

He said Witness Radio has offered support to over 20 land-grab-affected communities in Mubende with legal support. “Witness radio is a game-changer that brought back lives of evicted communities to normal,” he lauded.

“Mubende is one of the fastest-growing areas because of gold and other minerals as well as factors related to fertile soils. Currently, it is one of the hotspots of evictions. Opportunists used this chance to grab land from people with full attention. Without the defenders, it’s often hard for people to get justice since local people are not much informed about land laws.” Kimazi explained.

Engineered by powerful people in public offices, multinational companies, and politicians using state machinery including the army and national police, forced evictions to continue to affect food sovereignty and threaten the role of indigenous communities to protect the environment.

During the same period, President Yoweri Museveni stopped any eviction without the approval of the Resident District Commissioners. However, legal experts warned that the move is to usurp the powers of the Judiciary. In a statement signed by Pheona Nabasa Wall, the Uganda Law Society President noted that the directive undermined the role and independence of courts in handling eviction matters.

That notwithstanding, “Occasionally, the residents are not given any opportunity to negotiate with the landlords. Even when the government obliges to pay landowners, neither does the government nor the evictor compensate for the damaged property. During evictions, properties that were made for their life end up being destroyed in seconds which causes lifetime misery.” Paul Kasoozi, a community land rights defender stated.

With different tactics aimed at alienating the poor from their land, it has been established that the police and the army continued to play a huge role in the largest forms of violent evictions through torture, arbitrary arrests, and detention and instilling fear and pressurizing the local communities to vacate their land on orders of the evictors.

Many of those community members who oppose land evictions end up being kidnapped, tortured, or arrested and detained to silence the community. It takes support from an organization defending communities’ land rights to intervene for such communities to get justice.

Days before the lifting of the suspension imposed on Witness Radio, communities neighboring the Katta Barracks in Bulambuli district, were violently evicted by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces under the alleged command of Lieutenant Colonel Mukiibi Julius without offering alternative resettlement.

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OPINION: Land rights for small producers: a critical solution to the world’s food systems

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Farmers work in a rice field in Dala township, near Yangon.

What it will take to build a food system that is not only healthy and sustainable for the planet, but also recognises the critical role of smallholder producers in feeding our world?

Our food systems are in urgent need of transformation, as humanity faces one of our biggest challenges yet; feeding a future population of 10 billion people with safe and nutritious food while keeping a healthy planet. Our food system has the power to tip the scales and transform the future of our planet and humankind.

This year, the United Nations Food System Summit, called by Secretary-General António Guterres is looking to propose innovations and solutions that will transform our food systems and change our current course; in 2020, as many as 811 million men, women and children went without enough to eat, according to the recent UN State of Food Security and Nutrition report.

One of the biggest questions is what it will take to build a food system that is not only healthy and sustainable for the planet, but also recognises the critical role of smallholder producers in feeding our world. The good news is, they already hold the key to tipping the scale for true transformation.

Smallholder producers, including Indigenous Peoples and local communities are responsible for producing 60-80% of the food worldwide. Most often, in a way that is healthier for people, more sustainable for our planet and based on centuries of traditional knowledge that ensures food production needs are met and available resources are used in the most optimal way. These are the women, men and communities who must be the centre of the healthy, sustainable and inclusive food systems of the future. Better supporting their role in food systems also allows a move away from models of intensive large-scale production predicated on cheap food, but at great cost to local societies and ecosystems.

So what is the most pressing challenge that smallholders across the world are facing?

It is impossible to speak about building and supporting sustainable food systems without talking about the land and territories on which the food is grown, and more importantly, who is in control of that land. While farmers and communities may have lost the ability to determine what is grown on their land through market and strong consumer preferences,  a step in the right direction towards building confidence, transparency and trust among stakeholders on what is grown and how it is grown can be the turning point for families, communities and countries’ development.

Farmers have demonstrated time and again that given the rights to the land they farm, they are good custodians of our production ecosystems. Indigenous Peoples, who occupy over a quarter of the world’s land, help to preserve global biodiversity by using their traditional knowledge and food systems. But today, they are also challenged by climate change and all forms of degradation, including lack of alternative livelihoods that leads to over-exploitation of the very resources they treasure the most.

It is also about respecting the rights of women. Women make up more than 60% of the agricultural labour force, yet despite being the majority food producers, less than 15% of landholders are women, with men controlling the family’s income generation and resource allocation. But it does not have to be the case. For example, female farmers in Rwanda co-own family land with their husbands. We need policies that advance land rights and gender equity.

New research by the International Land Coalition shows that land inequality directly threatens the livelihoods of an estimated 2.5 billion people involved in smallholder farming, as well the world’s poorest 1.4 billion people, most of whom depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Access to agricultural land has become highly unequal – with the largest 1% of farms operating more than 70% of the world’s farmland. Giving an equal chance to smallholder farmers to play their full role in feeding our world means ensuring they have access to sufficient land – which may require redistributing land from large landholders. In some cases, land inequality is not only worse than we thought but is on the rise as smallholder producers are being squeezed off their land, their human rights violated, and their production systems undermined.

The UN Food Systems Summit is an opportunity to find solutions we can work towards together.

Original source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

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