ADJUMANI. Brandishing bows and arrows, a notorious money extorting gang is the latest addition into the murky logs and charcoal business in Adjumani district.
Their role is to collect forest revenue for the self-instituted Palaro chiefdom.
Usually, stationed close to Ayugi River Bridge, wearing distinctive red scarfs, smoking with others spotting dark sunglasses, tagged as ‘Palaro environmental protection guards, the men are affiliated to Palaro Chief, Zackery Beka.
They usually mount roadblocks, flag down trucks they suspect of transporting charcoal or logs coming from Adjumani district in demand for clearance documents.
Once they are shown documents, they ask for chiefdom tax but on being paid, they don’t issue receipts. Their lead hastily shouts instruction for the trucks to go.
Worst is when one is found to be ferrying charcoal or logs without clear documentation, they will confiscate the entire consignment.
Terrifying is a group as such for all the notoriety and bravado they exude, it seems they are well linked to Adjumani district leadership.
Mr Robert Matovu, a charcoal dealer from Luwero district, twice a victim of the gang, said the men wield disproportionate powers; they collect money but don’t issue a receipt.
“Oh! They are many they come armed with arrows, bows, and spears, if you don’t pay, they can be dangerous,” Motovu said.
He said the group mount roadblocks, and their leader usually seems to be in constant telephone conversation getting commands once they impound.
“They collect money ranging from UGX100, 000 and above, they say it is the tax for their King,” Motovu said.
Tracing Palaro and Adjumani district ties
Owing to the revival of cultural institutions, numerous chiefdoms customarily known and unknown, emerged in Ma’di let alone Adjumani district often characterized by bitter contests over thrones and territories, Palaro chiefdom of Beka is among those that arose.
With extensive territory, taking almost the entire Pakelle, parts of Dzaipi and Itirikwa sub-counties, Palaro chiefdom is one of the epicentres of illicit charcoal and logging activities that are eating up the environment in Adjumani district.
On August 24, 2019, Mr James Leku, Adjumani district chairman circulated a social media message in which he claimed to have entered an agreement with the Chief of Palaro to curtail illegal logging and charcoal burning in the domain of the chiefdom.
Leku, in the missive wrote: “This was done after the realization that perpetrators of these illegalities are local council one and two chairpersons in the area (affected) and their members.”
He went on to write that his administration has used the same approach in the distant Ukusijoni sub-county claiming that the efficacy of the method is undoubted, thus rallying locals to cooperate.
When contacted, the Palaro Chief, Beka, without hesitation accepted deploying the group, saying it was provoked by unabated environmental illegalities in his chiefdom.
Beka, denied vehemently the claims of extorting money saying “those are lies, the truth is what am telling you, the people who get money from loggers are not my guards.”
He also denied that his guards sell charcoal, but admitted to arming them with bows and arrows.
Beka also says guards have orders to confiscate excess bags that have not been cleared by the district.
Under what legal regime are the Palaro environmental protection guards operating?
Mr Gaster Kiyingi, the Director Tree Talk plus Uganda says much as cultural institutions are recognized legal entities with rights to revenue from forest produce harvested from the estate they own, this must be done in compliance with the law.
“For any taxable forest product, the district forest officer (DFO) is responsible for the collection of all fees, dues, tax on forest produce, save for imports and exports which is collected by customs,” Kiyingi said.
Kiyingi added that on the case of Palaro, the guards should be tracked down, prosecuted for extortion and obtaining money by false pretense, a view shared by Adjumani DFO, Mr Francis Ojja.
Asked whether he knows that he is being double taxed, Matovu said there is nothing he and colleagues in business could do since the group operates in broad day and authorities are mute.
“I reported the matter to the district forest officer and he told me if they ask for money, I should call security,” Matovu said.
But Ojja acknowledged receiving information on the operation of Palaro environmental protection guards and said it is something parallel and undermining rightful systems.
“They shared with us a copy of chiefdom resolution among them is revenue sharing, I think they can be engaged but not in the way they are doing now,” Ojja said
Mr Peter Taban, the Adjumani resident district commissioner equally condemned the guards and vowed to take drastic security measures against them.
On the cooperation agreement signed between Adjumani district chairman and Palaro chief whose guards are reputed for extorting money, environmentalists fear that such arrangements will escalate illegalities on the environment.
However, speaking to West Nile Web from Italy on Tuesday, Leku clarified that their agreement with the Chief of Palaro was meant to stamp out the illegal charcoal burners in the chiefdom and the district at large.
He said in the memorandum, they agreed that in case of any illegality and upon arrest, the charcoal dealers are to pay a fine of UGX1.5m to the district account and shs1000 per bag of impounded charcoal to the chiefdom.
Leku noted that the essence of the charge is to use the money to plant more trees in the deforested areas as opposed to what other people are trying to portray.