Environmentalists had a sigh of relief when Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIGP) Asuman Mugenyi wrote to all police units directing them to work with local authorities in enforcing a ban on the cutting, transportation and sale of Afzelia Africana and Shea nut tree species.
“You are hereby directed to liaise with the relevant authorities in enforcing the suspension and observing a total adherence to the directive,” Mr Mugenyi’s letter dated January 8th 2018 read in part.
Copied in the letter were the Deputy AIGP, the Directors, the Heads of Departments, Regional Police Commanders, District Police Commanders and other units.
By the time the letter was issued, the Ministry of Water and Environment had suspended the trade in the endangered tree species citing rampant illegal harvesting and trade in the logs and their products.
The ministry was in the process of reviewing and harmonizing the licensing, harvesting, movement and trade in these products.
Had Mr Mugenyi’s directive been diligently implemented, the near-endless talk of illegal logging of these treasured trees would have stopped.
And particularly for the people of Adjumani district, a total ban on Afzelia would have saved their most treasured natural forest, the 1,259-hectare Zoka forest located in the East Moyo wild life reserve having become a top target for illegal loggers.
To date, illegal tree cutting prevails. While authorities pretend to be protecting it in the public, they are secretly profiteering from the plunder project.
Past probes, accusations, disagreements
In August 2016, in arguably the biggest probe into illegal logging activities in Zoka forest reserve, Uganda’s Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda ordered an investigation led by Ms Mary Karooro Okurut, Minister of Land, Housing and Urban Development, Water and Environment, and the state minister for Northern Uganda forming other members of the probe team.
In October 2016, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), accused by the district leaders of spearheading the illegal Zoka logging launched their own probe headed by 4th Division Commander Brig Muhanga Kayanja.
In December 2016, the Madi CulturalChief, Stephen Lopirigo Izakare Drani warned that unregulated cutting of trees had nearly destroyed half of the forest cover.
Chief Drani called the actions selfish, uncultured and grossly irresponsible.
Around the same period of time, a group of likeminded individuals from the district formed a pressure group, “Friends of Zoka” to advocate, sensitize and expose those implicated in the Zoka logging scandal.
This was after realizing the probes and the condemnation by the cultural chief were not yielding fruits to their expectations.
Now it is August 2018 and the hope of the “Friends of Zoka” and the local communities has degenerated perhaps into mere “hope” as National Forestry Authority, the local government, the police grapple with a challenge that threatens to extinct the treasured trees.
Local leaders speak out
Mr William Amanzuru, the team leader friends of Zoka accuses the district political and technical leaders of being “part of the problem”, a reason why he says the “racket cannot be easily broken”.
“The people who are burning the charcoal and logging are not ordinary Madi people here, these are people from the central region who are connected by our local leaders” Mr Amanzuru says.
“My Opinion is the district leaders are involved because you cannot have this massive destruction of the environment in a place where there are leaders and institutions of security; you authorities like NFA and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and these things are happening at their watch”.
The Adjumani district LC5 Chairman Mr James Pili Leku however dismissed those allegations, insisting that the logging and charcoal burning are actually reducing thanks to their efforts.
“The logs people are cutting are from community land and there is no clear law stopping someone who wants to clear his land. Many people do not know about Zoka forest which is 27 kilometres from Adjumani town and the roads leading there have been blocked,” he said.
A mocking Leku accuses the “people talking about the forest” as those seeking funds from international donors and says the district knows the importance of forests that they cannot allow communities to encroach.
He although acknowledges a challenge in enforcement; “As LC5 chairman, am not a commander of an armed unit; council can pass a resolution that logging is prohibited and we stop at that. It’s the role of the police to do the enforcement,” he reiterated, dismissing any claim of a racket of loggers in his district as propaganda.
When asked about the laws governing community forests, Mr Sabino Amadra, the District Forestry Officer gave a direct contradiction to the claim of the LC5 chairman.
“The national forest and tree planting act is very clear and it talks about these issues of environment and it’s the very reason why we are doing enforcement” he says rationalising the problem of logging as “everywhere”.
“This trend of environmental degradation by burning charcoal, logging and firewood is everywhere including Arua where you are calling from, and it’s not different for Adjumani because the communities look at it as a source of livelihood however much we are there giving advice and educating the people,” he explained.
Mr Amadra claims species of the Afzelia and Shea nut can still be found in the district due to team work of the different implementing actors.
The challenges? He says there are very low staffing levels.
Mr Byron Oguzu of the NFA in Adjumani said Zoka is safe and any talk of logging in the forest should be regarded as rumours.
“A racket means something happens in our reserve, so how does NFA come in that because our mandate only stops in the central forest reserve and the private land is supposed to be managed by the local government?” a charged Oguzu responded when asked about the claims of racketeering.
He says the mandate of protecting the community forests is given to the local governments but not NFA but “when they (local government) call us, we have always supported them with personnel and with materials but only on invitation, and the DPC cannot fail to give manpower to the local government.”
Mr Oguzu says in the 2018 season alone, the authority gave over 100,000 tree seedlings free under the national community tree planting program to recover the destroyed environment.
The district police commander Simon Shamshangira says the biggest challenge to curbing the illegal logging is the porous borders and buyers sneak in and buy the trees without the notice of district authorities.
“Have you ever stopped smuggling in Uganda? Despite the laws being in place, have people stopped committing crimes? Yes, the logging is continuing, but at what rate now? Mr Shamshangira charged when asked about the claims that police are abating illegal lumbering.
“We are trying our best, sometimes there is fuel sometimes there is no fuel and the border is long and porous. The most important thing is if we find you, we arrest you; we get your vehicle but we leave the logs there, if they come and steal them that is another challenge”
Mr Shamshangire said there is nobody who is above the law and urged the public to give the police information on defiant illegal loggers.
He says 25 people have been prosecuted in court as more arrests continue in the crackdown on logging and commercial charcoal production.
Saving Zoka forest
In a bid to secure Zoka, Mr Oguzu says they work with UWA and the police. However due to the size of the forest, the police are unable to carry out comprehensive patrols because of fuel inadequacy for operations.
The friends of Zoka have remained steadfast in their advocacy and vigilance in watching against illegal felling of high value trees in the endangered category.