The decision by President Yoweri Museveni to convert one quarter of Uganda’s Mabira Forest into a sugarcane plantation will bolster those environmentalists who argue that UN plans for protecting the world’s forests are fundamentally flawed.
The Mabira Forest Reserve has been designated as a protected area in Ugandan law since 1932. Under pressure to avoid expensive imports of sugar, the president has requested parliamentary approval for his plan to de-gazette and hand over the area to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda.
Museveni’s National Resistance Movement enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament following elections earlier this year, the conduct of which was criticized by official African Union observers.
The intended swoop on Mabira has already stirred opposition in Kampala and will also raise eyebrows beyond Uganda’s borders. The country is an active participant in the embryonic UN scheme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), a central component of global efforts to fight climate change.
It is less than two months since Uganda submitted its final REDD Readiness Preparation proposal, a $5 million program to lay the groundwork for bringing the rampant rate of national deforestation under control. The document insists that it “demonstrates Uganda’s commitment to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and other international policy regimes towards reducing emissions from deforestation.”
Developing countries that deliver effective and verifiable reduction of deforestation will be rewarded with a share of long term climate change finance totalling $100 billion per annum. This has been promised by richer countries in UN climate negotiations.
The broad principle of this bargain is supported by most environmentalists. But the detail is proving contentious.
The fate of the Mabira Forest will reinforce concerns that forest plans fail to acknowledge the rising pressure on governments to produce more food. It also illustrates how governments make decisions over the heads of forest communities, as though the land was an empty space.
“To realise justice in the forests, policymakers must turn REDD on its head and put control of the forests into local hands,” says James Mayers, co-author of a hard-hitting report published last month by the Forest Governance Learning Group.
Drawing on the shared views of an impressive cross-section of forest experts from seven African and three Asian countries, Just Forest Governance is highly critical of the quality of national plans. REDD preparations in Indonesia, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Vietnam are lambasted as “over-hasty, formulaic and barely credible plans that could do more harm than good.”
Coordinated by the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the report expresses unease that generous funding for REDD will motivate governments to maneuver themselves into positions of control over forest assets. History suggests this is a formula for corruption and cronyism, rather than forest protection.
According to this view, REDD plans pay insufficient attention to the underlying causes of deforestation. As a result, they neglect the optimum solution of supporting communities whose livelihoods are most closely aligned with long term forest sustainability.
This perspective was endorsed at the Second Regional Forum for People and Forests held in Bangkok last month. In the Asia-Pacific region 450 million people live in the vicinity of forest areas.
“Two decades of work has shown conclusively that a policy and legislative framework that allows local communities to manage forest resources has not only resulted in regeneration of forests, watersheds, flora and fauna but also that millions can be pulled out of poverty,” said Dr Yam Malla, Executive Director of The Center for People and Forests.
In Uganda’s Mabira Forest, the national forest department and non-governmental organisations have been working with forest communities to help them build sustainable livelihoods. Interest in eco-tourism has been a promising development.
But such programs have not provided the ultimate rights of tenure that could protect the future of poor households and the forest itself.
President Museveni claims that his proposal will double the production of sugar, meeting the rising demand of Uganda’s growing population.
Uganda’s REDD plan concedes that “the major causes of deforestation and forest degradation relate to the increasing agrarian human population.” But it fails to tackle the contradiction between stemming pressures on forest land whilst simultaneously achieving the country’s demanding goals for food production.
Uganda is not alone in this predicament. UN negotiators meeting in Bonn in June were told that sixteen out of twenty prospective REDD countries cited agriculture as the primary driver of deforestation. The recent IIED report warns that “at national and international level there is a clash of needs between forests and food….. we must include farming in REDD.”
An analysis of the Ugandan REDD plan published in June by the environmental watchdog organization, Global Witness, focused on the signs that different branches of government are going their separate ways.
With providential accuracy, its report warned that recent history in Uganda “undermines belief in the degree to which statements made within the (forests plan) actually reflect ongoing processes on the ground, or that other interventions will not be undermined by Presidential decrees.”
Nevertheless, the fate of the Mabira Forest is not a foregone conclusion. There is likely to be strong public opposition to the government’s plans, bolstered by knowledge that President Museveni backed down after protests against similar proposals that he made in 2007.
On the broader question of global deforestation, the IIED report recognises that, for all its faults, REDD merits persistence. “REDD is far from being a lost cause – it remains forestry’s best chance ever,” it says.
this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News