Earlier this week I had the opportunity of attending the Annual General Meeting for the Uganda Forestry Working Group (UFWG) and among the emerging issues that were discussed at the meeting was the recent decision by cabinet on 27th July, 2021 to cancel over 400 titles in protected areas.
This decision came in to restore the environment integrity that is deteriorating at a significant rate. According to the Minister of Environment Beatrice Anywar, Uganda has lost 9% of its wetlands from 17.5% in the 1990s to 8.5% and 11.6% of its forest coverage from 24% in 1990s to 12.4% and this is attributed to government agencies issuing out land titles to individuals and uncontrolled human activities on these sensitive ecosystems.
One might wonder what the legal implications of the decision by cabinet to evict the people occupying these sensitive lands. To begin with, protected areas in Uganda include; forest reserves, river banks, lake shores and wetlands. For one to own or occupy land in a protected area, one has to be on the land by virtue of them being a bona fide occupant or an encroacher. A bona fide occupant is defined by section 29(2) of the Land Act to mean a person who before the coming into force of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda was occupying or utilizing that piece of land unchallenged by the registered owner or agent for 12 years or more. On the other hand, an encroacher is one who unlawfully occupies a piece of land. Important to note, there are those who are granted permission by National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) or National Forestry Authority (NFA) to utilize these lands under licenses.
Article 237 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (the Constitution) and Section 44 of the Land Act, Cap 227 impose on the state the duty to hold in trust and protect natural resources for all citizens. In addition, Section 44(4) of the Land Act states that the government shall not lease out or otherwise alienate natural resources. Most important, National Objective XXVII of the Constitution calls for sustainable development and utilization of natural resources for the present and future generation.
However, there has been continuous encroachment on these areas irrespective of the laws in place mainly as a result of government and its mandated institutions who still approve of this. On this note, the cabinet has as well approved investigations of those involved in issuing out land titles in wetlands and forest reserves.
This is not the first time the government has made a move to evict encroachers on protected areas, back in 2005, 2012, 2014 cabinet and lead agencies in the environment sector directed the cancellation of titles in wetlands, forest reserves, river banks and lake shores. The then Minister of Water and Environment (Ms. Mary Kitutu) in 2020 called out 200 titles in the areas of Wakiso and Mukono. Unfortunately those who are tasked to carry out the evictions face a lot of resistance from government officials, politicians and encroachers who do not want to leave which makes the eviction processes difficult.
As an environmental conservationist, it is my wish that the plan to evict encroachers on these lands and restore the ecosystem will go as planned and is not a mere fuss by cabinet trying to win favor from the masses. Without clear enforcement of the laws that are in place, protection of these sensitive ecosystems will remain only futile.