Despite international outcry and a hard-fought battle by local communities and a host of NGOs to protect the area, 2011 has seen the Ugandan Government resurrect plans to convert much of this biologically diverse and integral natural resource into sugarcane plantations.
In the natural world all things are in some way connected to everything else. However, artificial choices in environment and development disconnect and simplify these connections to our peril. This happens whenever we pursue development as just "money, markets, goods and services".
We often disconnect nature, environment, people and development; whether this is in the construction of dams to generate hydroelectricity, or the industrial scale agricultural practices employed to meet increasing demand for food. Issues of democracy, equality, human and peoples' rights and justice are too often removed from the body politic of development. We deplete lakes, rivers and soils, destroy the environment, erode spirituality and culture, flood previously fertile land and cause socio-political instability, water insecurity and food insecurity, among others. We suffer the consequences.
Failure to understand and account for the interconnected nature of resource securities — particularly in the African context — has continued to undermine genuine sustainable development in which environmental, social, ethical and moral considerations are central. In Mabira this dissonance is especially stark.
Uganda's Mabira area, some 306 square miles of rainforest located across 3 districts just to the East of Kampala, was officially designated a forest reserve in 1932. The creation of the Mabira Central Reserve has by no means completely guaranteed the protection of the area's pristine forest, with policies such as those of dictator Iddi Amin Dada in the 1970s encouraging Ugandans to settle in the area and grow crops. Nevertheless, big business has never been allowed to encroach on the forest — up until now.
Mabira plays an important role as a water catchment area due to its location between international waterways: Lakes Kyoga and Victoria, and the Nile and Sezibwa rivers. It is a primary source of oxygen for the region and a crucial sink for greenhouse gasses, with an estimated carbon sequestration value of $212 million per year. Existing pressures on the region's natural water system have already seen many small rivers emanating from Mabira - which flow into Lake Victoria — begin to disappear. Increasing the unsustainable use of these forest lands will simply exacerbate this problem, with catastrophic effects for the communities dependent upon these waterways as a primary source of water, as well as the knock-on implications this has for the larger water systems of Lake Victoria and the Nile.
The plants, fruits and honey produced by Mabira also see it tied closely to issues of food security for local communities. Its plants are also the primary source of traditional medicines used by those living in the area. As a healthier and marketable alternative to sugar, many feel that the honey produced in the forest region has enormous economic potential if it could be expanded and managed in a sustainable fashion, creating employment and facilitating social development. In addition, agriculture and food production in the regions surrounding the forest depend heavily upon the rains its weather system produces, as well as the protection its trees provide from winds which would otherwise erode the nutrient-rich topsoil so crucial to subsistence and commercial farming alike. Moreover through its pivotal contribution to water and food security - although often ignored by political leaders — Mabira is also a critical player in the sociopolitical security and stability of Uganda and the wider Nile Basin.
Yet Mabira is once again being threatened by state-supported encroachment, indicating that the government of Uganda is failing to fully understand the interdependence of the region's natural resources. Like in 2007, the government has once again proposed converting one third of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve into sugarcane plantations. Whilst much of the forest area ear-marked for this industrial scale sugarcane cultivation was once degraded, it has since recovered significantly and is progressing well towards a fully mature state. What's more, whilst the government has cited sugar shortages - or put simply, food security - as the primary reasoning behind its decision to revive the plans, the majority of the sugarcane being used to feed a burgeoning agro-fuels industry remains a probable outcome.
Destroying this area will have multifarious impacts on Uganda's economy, especially at the local level. The short-term economic benefits of industrialised sugarcane production in Mabira may be hard for the Ugandan government to ignore, however, in reality, these are far outweighed by the forest's central role in water and food security, not to mention the potential monetary benefits more sustainable economic uses of the forest could bring. Put simply, taking Mabira for granted is to jeopardise water and food security for Uganda and the surrounding region. Let Mabira Live!
Professor Oweyegha-Afunaduula is a former lecturer in ecology, conservation and environmental politics at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. He is also a former Chairman of the Nile Basin Discourse (NBD). He is currently the Manager of Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) Sustainability School and leads its Bujagali, Mabira and Oil issues campaigns. For more information on the Mabira campaign contact firstname.lastname@example.org.