ARUA. Locals of Lazebu parish, Logiri Sub County, Arua district have demonstrated against an impending eviction by the National Forest Authority from Kafu central forest reserve saying the act is an illegal one.

They singled out the state minister for internal affairs, Mr. Mario O’biga Kanaia whom they accused of using security forces to intimidate and harass them.

They said land is the only resource they have relied on as their means of livelihood to practice agriculture and feed Arua city residents.

“If NFA wants to plant trees here, how shall we educate our children? Is there any other land NFA can give us as an alternative for agriculture?” Ms. Cecilia Alimaru asked.

42-year-old Ms Nema Afekuru, a mother of nine added “If we do not supply the city with food, they will not get enough food to eat. NFA has no land here and if they claim to own the land, where are NFA’s stones showing boundary marks?”

Mr Albert Drapari, a youth leader stressed that the government wants to deprive them of their land and called upon leaders to address the matter as soon as possible.

Some of the locals have threatened not to participate in the political activities as protest to draw the attention of civil and political actors in the district.

Mr Ezra Omviti, one of the residents accused NFA of not having sensitized residents of the area about government ownership of the land.

He said he knew about the reserve belonging to the government on the 31st of May this year when he was involved in an encounter with NFA officials in one of his fields that is said to be in the reserve.

“We have never known that there is a forest reserve in this place. Even if leaders have abandoned us, our ancestral land is ours. We cannot go anywhere because we are not refugees”, Omviti stressed.

When West Nile Web contacted, Mr Mario Obiga Kania over allegations of intimidating the residents, he denied them.

 Mario Obiga Kania 29 08 20Uganda's state minister for internal affairs, Mr Mario O'biga Kania.

“When you (the journalist) went on ground, did you find any army personnel there? Then you are my witness to the allegations against me”, Kania whose bidding was considered for commercial tree planting in the reserve stated.

Logiri sub county chairman, Mr John Bosco Odama said he has been forwarding the matter to higher authorities to save the locals due to increased population in the area.

Range manager for West Nile region, Mr Robert Owiny said Kafu Central Forest Reserve is a government of Uganda property that was given by the locals in 1952 and all the required documents of the reserve are in place.

Owiny noted that some of the residents may aim for political attention about the reserve so that politicians can support their agenda. He added that some people bought land in the area without knowing that it was a forest reserve.

He disclosed that from 2017, NFA undertook sensitization of the community after realizing that the people had encroached on the reserve for cultivation and establishment of temporary houses.

Owiny explained that NFA gave grace period to the encroachers to harvest their crops but not to replant in the fields but while others listened and moved out peacefully, stubborn ones remained and are the ones causing problems.

“The agriculture the residents are talking about is dependent on the forest because almost 40% of rainfall comes from vapors generated by forests. And when you destroy the forest cover, in one way or the other you are undermining agriculture and these are the kind of issues we keep telling people” Owiny elaborated.

He called upon the people of Lazebu to desist from violence because violence will never solve the problem.

“If they (the residents) have complaints and they will want to regain the land, there is a long process which is called degazettement which is provided for under the law”, he added

Kafu Central Forest Reserve sits on an estimated land of about 2600 hectares which the government gazetted with purposes of protecting water catchment area, conservation of biodiversity and promoting commercial production of timber.

About 200 people have settled and are farming in the reserve.

By 2017, the reserve, just like many other reserves in Uganda, was advertised by the government for commercial tree planters to secure space to plant trees on her behalf. Kania is among the people whose applicants were successful.