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The illegal loggers in Mubende were found with a power sawyer machine, which had been confiscated earlier and handed over to Kiyuni police station. These are some of the glaring issues accounting for the increased deforestation around Mubende district, Tooro and Bunyoro sub-regions, which are some of Uganda’s most forested areas.

According to Nyakoojo, the Kiyuni community was lucky this truck had number plates. Usually, they move at night and without number plates. For those that move during day, it is hard to know whether the timber they carry was got from a forest reserve or private land because the declaration of the timber is done at the district headquarters.

“It is a trick they are using now; they get permits claiming to cut trees on private land but end up in the public forests. And DFOs don’t go to the ground to verify which trees have been cut,” Nyakoojo said.

“They keep complaining of understaffing and lack of fuel, and they say they are not protected to move at night. And since there is no law prohibiting timber movement at night, the vice continues to escalate.”

A recent trip for journalists organized by JESE in partnership with Care Uganda, ahead of the World Forestry day this Friday, showed the high levels of deforestation happening inside the forest reserves. In the company of Willy Bisanga Mugambwa, the LCIII chairman of Bugaaki sub-county, and an armed policeman, the first ambush took place at Itwara, one of the largest forest reserves, which measures 6,998 hectares. At least seven recently-erected timber cutting beds were discovered in the reserves.

In every area with a cutting bed, the level of degradation was alarming, with wide ‘roads’ cleared to enable easy rolling of the logs. Trees are cut uphill and then rolled down to the cutting beds, and along the way, all the trees are cleared, including the immature ones.

None of the culprits was arrested. However, tents, which the loggers used for shelter, had been erected. They had cooking utensils such as saucepans, jerrycans, plates, cups and food. In some places, they abandoned food on fire.

Zaveriyo Tusasibwe, 28, who was arrested in Kibego central forest reserve, said he was picked from Kabale by businessman Iwakimu Bamanyisa of Binunda village, Kyenjonjo district. He said that ever since he entered the forest in January, they had loaded five trucks of timber. Tusasibwe had so far been paid Shs 120,000 for his services.

“These [loggers] must be conniving with some people. There are people entrusted to protect these forests but you can’t tell me hundreds of people can be in a forest cutting trees using power sawyers without concerned people noticing,” noted Nyakoojo. The Kyenjonjo DFO also has the same suspicions.

“As a forester, I don’t think someone can go blindly into a central forest reserve without being assured of security. These people are being aided in their activities,” he said.

It is against this background that Mugambwa says they are planning to petition government to surrender central forest reserves to the local communities who can easily monitor and manage them.

“We want to manage our resources because we can’t continue watching as other people who have finished their resources come to finish ours,” Mugambwa said.

“If you go to Mbarara and Kabale, these guys have cleared their hills and valleys. They are just waking up to try and plant trees. But even what they are planting is just drying up or consumed by fire. Should we wait for that to get here? No. We will defend our forests.” Mugambwa said NFA had demonstrated that it was inefficient and could not protect their forests.

“If they want these forests protected, they need to facilitate people on the ground instead of bringing in outside people who don’t know the encroachers’ routes,” Mugambwa says.

“NFA keeps telling us that they have kicked people out of the forest but to my surprise, the forests are full of people cutting trees. And NFA is involved because someone cannot stay in your forest for three months without your knowledge.”

Patrick Baguma, JESE’s organisational team leader, believes the local communities neighbouring the forests should be empowered and given authority to apprehend anyone found logging illegally. “There should be community patrolling units, with their defence person given a gun,” Baguma says

However, Onzima says there is no need to petition government because the law provides for collaborative management of the forests with the local communities.

“If a community adjacent to a forest reserve believes they can come in, they can apply for collaborative management of the forest,” Onzima said.

Michael Kusuro, NFA’s Itwara sector manager, said: “Ideally, we should be having detaches around the forests but for this whole sector, which includes three forest reserves: Itwara, Kibego and Muhangi, I have only three UPDF soldiers to back up the two forest supervisors,” he said.

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