Monday, August 29, 2011

SELL MABIRA TO SAVE IT

Mabira forest is back in the news.

Four years ago it emerged that the Sugar Corporation of Uganda, Lugazi (SCOUL) had wanted a piece of the forest to expand their sugar production. This sparked off angry protests that culminated in a failed demonstration and a few deaths. The government backed off the issue. And so did the protestors. Until now.

President Yoweri Museveni has once again sparked off angry debate by declaring his intention to cede some of the forest to the Mehta family’s company.

The environmental lobby has jumped on this and has even threatened to sue the government if it attempted to do as planned.

Putting our natural resources to optimal use for the benefit of Ugandan citizens on the one hand and the need to conserve forest cover and our natural diversity on the other seem to be the underlying principles of the two positions.

I don’t think these positions need be diametrically opposed as they are being presented now.

In fact Ugandans’ best chance of saving the natural endowment that is Mabira forest is to privatize it.

As it is now Mabira forest like many other forests around the country is being encroached upon and its trees being felled for a variety of reasons most especially for firewood.

National statistics show that Uganda is losing its forest cover by almost ten percent annually at this rate of doing things it is estimated that in 20 years we will have no forest cover to think of.

There is no reason to believe Mabira is not being decimated at all.

The reason for this plundering of the natural resource is not hard to find. To begin with we get most of our energy from firewood and charcoal and secondly, the public stewards of these natural resources are not up to the task of warding off the pressure for fuel – mostly for lack of resources but also because they – the forests are public goods.

There once were four men Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was work to be done and Everybody thought Anybody would do it but it turned out that Nobody did it instead of Somebody.

That is the way public goods are treated. The truth be told we are frothing at the mouth because it is a big company – Asian at that, that wants to take over the forest for their business. We are however not emotionally charged by the smalltime encroachers eating away at the forest year after year, maybe because they are black Africans?

Twenty, thirty even fifty years from now if things continue our children and grandchildren reading history will look at the bare land that was once Mabira and wonder what the farce was about. It will be gone anyway.

The solution and it’s not an original one, is to concession off the forest to private operators. These maybe tourist, pharmaceutical, research, conservation or any enterprise
that at once conserve the natural environment and show return on their own investment.

So for instance if you concessioned off a quarter of the forest to hotelier. It would be in the best interest of the hotel to keep the environment intact and doing so would have to invest resources in the protecting, regenerating and even expanding it.

SCOUL need not be disqualified from this process as well as long as they can show how they conserve the environment.

Understandably there will be some clearing involved to make way for the infrastructure to support any enterprise but this would be nothing compared to the saved forest cover from creeping, unplanned human activity going on.

The concession would be audited every so often against the conditions laid down by government and it would be renewable every few decades or so.

We all know that our public enterprises are ill equipped – materially and morally, to conserve our environment, so let us not fool ourselves that because it is in government hands it is safe for all eternity.

We need to weed ourselves of this knee jerk reaction against private interests and look for creative win-win solutions if if we are to secure not only Mabira but also other pieces of our natural heritage.

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