Battle to halt Mabira Forest giveaway taken to cyberspace

Environmental and social activism in Uganda is growing thanks to the use of ICTs, particularly the SMS to mobilise, disseminate and alert individuals about policies that are likely to affect them badly.

In the past three or four weeks, the Ugandan government has been embroiled in a situation where awarding an investor a portion of Mabira Forest to address sugar shortages in the country and perhaps the region is becoming a hard nut to crack.

Sugar shortages have hit consumers hard, as prices also continue to flare up to the anguish of many. Although government and producers envisage the shortage as an increase in domestic consumption, local Ugandans are refusing to bulge, accusing some sugar factories for hoarding the item so that they could sell to external markets where it would fetch a lot more.

With the opening of the Sudanese border and the return to relative normalcy after government troops flashed rebels of the Lord Resistance Army out of their hideouts in northern Uganda, and their eventual escape to Garamba Forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda has played the agricultural basket to cater for the demand of Southern Sudan.

But this demand, which would have been a blessing for Ugandans, has instead brought adverse effects for the local consumers who face shortage as prices also continue to escalate. Ugandans are reluctant to believe that there would be abrupt shortage of sugar were it not for the brisk trade in Southern Sudan. Many believe sugar factories particularly Lugazi Sugar Corporation is playing second fiddle to the demand of the local people by claiming that the factory is located in an area which is too small to grow more cane sugar for more production.

Suffice to note that the Lugazi Sugar Factory is located next to Mabira Forest, one of the remaining forest reserves in Uganda along the Trans-African Highway to Kenya. Owing to this fact, Lugazi has asked government to apportion it some good chunk of Mabira Forest to grow more cane sugar to address the flaring shortage in the country.

But this demand has not gone well with environmental activists besides ordinary Ugandans who are fed into the heightened concerns about global warming.

With government playing hide and seek, on top of giving contradictory statements about the whole saga, environmentalists took their fight to FM Radio Stations, dgroups and have also resorted to using Short Message Services (SMS) to caution Ugandans to stop buying Lugazi Sugar if their desire to grab part of Mabira Forest is not dropped.

SMS have particularly been effective. Over the weekend, packets of Lugazi Sugar have been piling up in supermarkets besides some business owners withdrawing them from their stalls. Environmentalists have been arguing that apportioning part of Mabira Forest would bring more adverse effects than the sugar shortage. Opposition politicians have also picked up the slack and are busy de-campaigning government for seer lack of concern if they granted a deal like that.

While the general public awaits a parliamentary decision on the issue, SMS’s have galvanised sentiments and helped in alerting people what would happen next if they don’t join the fray.

[Posted by Graham Todd on Tuesday, March 27. 2007]