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KAMPALA, Nov 2 2009 (IPS) - It is a public-private partnership intended to reduce Uganda’s dependence on imported vegetable oil while creating sustainable jobs and income for several thousand people. Its critics say it’s destroying forests with no regard for environmental regulations.
The Ugandan government entered into an agreement with BIDCO, the largest manufacturer of vegetable oil in Uganda, and Malaysian palm oil giants Wilmar to set up a plantation and refinery in the Kalangala islands in Lake Victoria. Transnational agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland owns shares in both companies.
The government signed over 7,000 hectares of forest on the islands in exchange for a 10 percent share in the plantation.
A further 3,500 ha was set aside for plantations to be cultivated by out- growers. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) provided a $10 million loan to establish a local farmers’ association, the Kalangala Oil Palm Growers Trust (KOPGT).
When IPS visited the islands in September, more than 6,000 hectares of forest on Bugala Island had been cleared and planted with oil palms by BIDCO. KOPGT out-growers had cleared 3,500 hectares. A mill to process palm kernels into crude palm oil that will be sent to the main refinery in Jinja was almost complete.
Meddie Seruyange, a motor cycle rider who guided IPS around the plantation, said all the thick forests which used to cover much of Bugala and Kalangala district were no more. As we rode through, huge logs, some half buried in the soil, gave away that natural forests had stood here recently. All replaced now with an expanse of palm trees.
The Kalangala NGO Forum (KADINGO) represents environmentalists and civil society groups in the area. It says a catastrophe awaits Lake Victoria if BIDCO is allowed to continue.
KADINGO says apart from massive application of fertilisers which washes into the lake causing over-production of algae and water weeds with knock-on effects on lake ecosystems, BIDCO has also encroached on national forestry land outside the 7,000 hectares it received from Uganda government.
The Bugala island forest reserves in Bukasa, Maziinga, Bumyama and Bufumbira are most affected: none of these areas are part of the land leased to BIDCO.
Harriet Saawo, the Kalangala district natural resources officer, told IPS that BIDCO has been allowed to devastate the district with abandon. She says it has destroyed 40 percent of the natural forest cover on Bugala, the main island.
Seven hundred farmers under KOPGT have opened up about 3,500 hectares of forests for palm cultivation. KOPGT is composed of mainly big land owners, politicians and some small farmers who acquire loans using their land as security.
Early in 2009, KADINGO hired the Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development (UCSD) to assess whether the palm oil-producing company was complying with the requirements set out in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
The findings of the survey, released at the end of March 2009, indicated that the palm oil project has destroyed rich habitats and was a threat to biological diversity in Bugala island.
“The clearing of forests in phases as stated in the Environmental Impact Assessment is not being followed. Large pieces of land are cleared at once. Exposure of soils to direct solar radiation and erratic rainfall are leading to soil erosion and siltation of the Lake Victoria’s streams and rivers. As a result of clearing the forest cover, the soils have been exposed to soil erosion and land degradation,” the report said. On the islands, it is evident that soil erosion is taking place towards the lake. IPS saw only a thin line of trees left standing near the lake shore; no cover crop had been planted as required by the EIA.
Saawo says the company and its outgrowers are also failing to follow guidelines in the application of fertiliser.
“It is true they have a permit from the National Environment Management Authority (NEEMA) to apply fertilisers. But the concern is that the rules are not being followed, especially by the private palm farmers (the out growers) who just buy the fertilisers and apply. These fertilisers are ending up in the lake and this is dangerous,” she said.
David Mwayafu, programme officer with Uganda Coalition For Sustainable Development confirmed to IPS at his Kampala office that his study found the establishment of the plantation has not been run in line with the regulations.
“Soil erosion during initial opening of land and use of fertiliser such as MOP, NPK, dolomite, kieserite among others (are all violations),” he said.
“The parent company of the project in Indonesia is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and BIDCO is to be registered a member. By clearing the lake shore, BIDCO has exhibited non-compliance with principles of RSPO.
Further, he said, “Draining of wetlands is also taking place in Bwendero, Buyoga and Kankere wetlands. Yet we understand the role of wetlands which act as buffer zones for filtering water before they enter into the lake. So if there is erosion fertilisers will be washed into the water.”
Mwayafu questioned the commitment of the Ugandan government to protecting the natural forests especially given their role in carbon absorption.
“The rate of deforestation on the island is something that needs to be addressed. If we are talking about climate change and you are cutting trees what is the essence of talking about climate change? What is the essence of negotiating about climate change?”
In February 2009, Dennis Ssebugwawo, National Forestry Authority sector manager for Bugala, stopped the expansion of the area under oil palms, saying BIDCO was eating into protected forest. He said BIDCO has cleared over 100 hectares of Gala forest reserve in Bugala, Kalangala. But In an interview with IPS, Vincent Owor Adipa, the administrative manager of BIDCO Uganda, denied that the project was negatively affecting Bugala Island and Lake Victoria.
“I challenge Uganda Coalition of Sustainable Development and Kadingo to provide scientific proof that the destruction is going on. Otherwise I am constrained to comment on issues based on hearsay. All I know is that we have abided by the requirement, “he said.
Bujumba county member of parliament for Kalangala, Fred Bada – also a palm grower on the island – conceded that the forests have been cut down and replaced by oil palms, but he claimed people in the area stand to benefit more from the palm trees with a ready market from BIDCO. ”People feared that clearing forests was going to be problematic. But instead what they have realised is that a new canopy has developed, although it is only a mono (culture) type forest because it is of palm trees,” he said.
Paul Drichi, the director of plantations at Uganda’s National Forestry Authority told IPS that palm trees don’t provide a canopy similar to that of natural mixed forest which has different tiers compared to mono type Palm trees.
“The palm trees are a mono culture type of forests usually planted in lines whereas the natural forests are diverse in terms of species.” he explained.
He said the destruction of natural forests in Bugala islands has threatened forest-dependent wild animals like monkeys. He warned Uganda would soon import fuel wood if it did not preserve remaining forests.
When IPS visited Bwendero palm oil plantation, the monkeys were seen roaming about. Residents in the area complained that the monkeys were now destroying the crops more frequently than in the past, presumably searching for new food sources now that the original forest is gone.
Beatrice Anywar, Uganda’s shadow environment minister, told IPS that the palm oil investors do not seem to be listening to demands by environment activists because they have the backing of President Yoweri Museveni. ”We are replacing natural forests with palm trees and this is bad for our country. But this goes on because the investors have the backing of the president. They don’t listen. We should begin listening to scientists because we are already witnessing floods and severe droughts,” she said.
“I invited the investors to start this project here, though some people wanted to block it because they wanted to protect butterflies instead of development,” Museveni said.” But butterflies can go and live elsewhere.”
Maria Mutagmba, Uganda’s water and environment minister told IPS that she has personally not been to Bugala Island in the last three years and that she was not aware of the alleged degradation by the palm oil project.
“About the fertilisers used in Kalangala, yes the farmers have to use fertilisers, but they are being monitored by NEEMA and for every activity they do, NEEMA has got to assure me that they are compliant. They must ensure that these chemicals don’t get into the water,” she said.
BIDCO has had running battles with conservationists over Bugala forests since the project’s inception. It recently asked government to degazette part of the forest reserve to expand the project. Mutagamba confirmed that the matter was still being considered.
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