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Planet Ark World Environment News Uganda PM Approves Clearing of Rainforest-Paper

Date: 22-Mar-07
Country: UGANDA
Author: Tim Cocks

Government officials told Reuters they were not aware of Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi's decision to give part of Mabira Forest -- one of the east African country's last remaining patches of natural forest -- to a local sugar company.

The government's own paper cited a letter from Nsibambi to Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba.

"I direct you to bring a Cabinet paper seeking permission to degazette part of Mabira for sugarcane growing," the paper quoted the letter dated March 1 as saying.

Last year, President Yoweri Museveni ordered a study into the possibility of axing 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) or nearly a third of Mabira Forest, which has been a nature reserve since 1932, to expand the sugar estate of the private Mehta Group.

The proposal outraged some parliamentarians and residents. They said the environmental costs of razing the forest would far exceed the economic benefits of the plantation.

Environmentalists say destroying Mabira could have grave ecological consequences, sparking soil erosion, drying up rivers and rainfall, and removing a buffer against pollution of Lake Victoria.

They say it would also threaten monkeys and nine species found only in Mabira and surrounding forests -- the Tit Hylia bird, six butterflies, a moth and the ajua shrub, used to treat malaria.

Nsibambi and Mutagamba were unavailable for comment on Wednesday's report. Mutagamba's deputy, State Minister for Water Jennifer Namuyangu, said she was unaware of the move.

Once a cabinet paper is prepared, cabinet can quickly approve a plan and then hand it over to parliament for a vote.

"Once it has reached the level of the prime minister writing letters to the environment minister, it is de facto that cabinet has approved it," New Vision political correspondent, Geresom Musamali, told Reuters.

Mehta Group regional director Suresh Sharma said the company could not yet comment.

Last year, the head of the National Forest Authority (NFA), Olav Bjella, resigned on Museveni's request over his refusal to grant a licence for Kenyan palm oil company Bidco to remove a rainforest on an island in Lake Victoria.

The new NFA boss Baguma Isoke told Reuters he had no authority to block land giveaways which were up to parliament.

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