HOIMA, UGANDA — Heavy-duty land-clearing equipment sits idle, an arm’s reach from Baguma Corantino’s home.
Corantino lives in the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in western Uganda. He values the forest, but he’s looking forward to the day when the equipment is put to use to clear a portion of it to make room for sugarcane fields. He says Hoima Sugar Ltd., the company that wants to plant the fields, would hire local people and ultimately boost their economy.
The forest’s chimpanzees might be jeopardized, but Corantino says that’s a necessary, if unfortunate, consequence.
Corantino is a member of the Bunyoro Kingdom, a traditional monarchy that dates to the 16th century. He says the kingdom should control the land, as it did in centuries past, so that it can support itself off the fertile soil and natural wealth.
“The people of Bunyoro need jobs now, and this will create jobs for our children,” he says. “The lives of animals such as chimpanzees cannot be put before the lives of human beings.”
Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda
This is a story of an ancient kingdom, a protected tropical forest, the hundreds of chimpanzees that live there, and a sugar company that has the potential to significantly improve the local economy.
Here’s the short version: The Bunyoro Kingdom’s omukama – the king – leased 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) of land for 3 billion Ugandan shillings (just over $800,000) to Hoima Sugar in 2016, so the company could plant sugar. The land is part of the kingdom’s historic area, but it’s now part of the protected Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, governed by the National Forest Authority. The reserve is valued not only for its natural beauty but also for its large chimpanzee population.
Within months of that lease agreement, the National Forest Authoritysuedthe omukama who made the deal, as well as the Uganda Land Commission, which issued the lease, and Hoima Sugar. Indocumentssubmitted to Uganda’s High Court, the forest authority argued that the omukama couldn’t lease part of the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve to Hoima Sugar – or anyone else – because it’s illegal to lease forest reserve land.
Of course, the long version is more complicated. The Bunyoro Kingdom, like the handful of other kingdoms in the region now known as Uganda, had in centuries past an absolute monarch who presided over a set territory and a specific group of people. The kingdoms lost their territories during the colonial era, when the British controlled much of the country’s political life. They were formally abolished in the 1960s but were reinstated, albeit only with cultural – not political – influence, in 1993 by the National Resistance Movement, the ruling party.
Today, the kingdoms have recognized rulers and subjects, as well as areas of cultural influence.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Despite some clarity about the role of each kingdom since their reinstatement 25 years ago, there’s no consensus on whether the omukama has the right to lease land within his kingdom’s area of influence.
Lawyers involved in the case declined to discuss its details with Global Press Journal.
Similarly, both Rajasekaran Ramadoss, an agriculture manager at Hoima Sugar, and Juliet K. Mubi, a spokeswoman for the National Forest Authority, say they can’t discuss the case until the court issues a ruling.
The groups that have been doing some talking are officials and members of the Bunyoro Kingdom, who say they should control at least a portion of the area, and conservationists, who fear that the forest will be destroyed if Hoima Sugar grows sugarcane there.
When the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve was formally recognized, its boundaries encroached upon Bunyoro territory, says Norman Lukumu, who was until January the prime minister of the Bunyoro Kingdom. At least a piece of the forest was once managed by the Bunyoro, he says.
“What we are fighting for is ancestral land!” he says.
In fact, he adds, the Bunyoro people have a deep connection even to sections of the Bugoma forest that are farther afield. The Bunyoro king carries out rituals each month in Muhangaizima, an area within the forest known as Bunyoro ancestral land. The Bunyoro kingdom has always advocated for the forest’s conservation, Lukumu says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Most of the destruction that has happened in the forest has been caused by outsiders who encroached on Bunyoro land, Lukumu says. He adds that, in some cases, the National Forest Authority has allowed it to happen – a charge the forest authority denies.
The Bunyoro Kingdom presents itself on its website as desperately poor. About 2 million people are subjects of the kingdom, the website says. Only about 1 percent of those people use electricity for lights or cooking, and 92 percent earn about $240 per year, according to the website. The site accepts donations for development projects within the kingdom.
Expedito Kahuura, a member of the kingdom, says he doesn’t grow enough food to even sustain himself. He only wears his single pair of shoes when he goes to church or travels.
Most of the people of the Bunyoro Kingdom live in dire poverty, he says.
For many local people, the chance for a job with the sugar company might come with some sacrifices. The debate is complex.
Magdalene Nabweru, another member of the kingdom, says it’s difficult to provide even proper clothing for her children.
She takes wood from the Bugoma forest to build fires for cooking and worries that even that basic necessity will soon be scarce.
She adds that the chimpanzee is a family totem – a sacred animal. It protects the family and advocates for it, she says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Like many others in the region, she wonders whether the chimpanzees will remain, if the forest is industrialized.
From the conservationists’ perspective, the 41,144-hectare (101,669-acre) Bugoma Central Forest Reserve has already lost much of its natural bounty, because local farmers graze cattle there, loggers illegally make off with trees, and people even create settlements there, says Constatino Tessarin, director of Destination Jungle, a safari company, and chairman of the Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest, which plants trees and supports chimpanzee rehabilitation.
“All these threats are unfortunately backed up by very weak government institutions,” Tessarin says.
The National Forest Authority doesn’t have enough people to supervise the area, he says, and local police don’t take the environmental threats seriously.
But police officials say they’re very concerned about protecting the environment.
“We work closely with the National Forest Authority to ensure that there are no threats to the environment, but sometimes people in these communities need to work with the police to safeguard the environment,” says Emilian Kayima, a police spokesman.
Local people don’t agree on the issue.
“The forest should be left alone,” says Moses Oba, a Bunyoro farmer who adds that his family has cultivated land in Nyayigugua in the Bugoma forest for as long as anyone remembers.
The forest must be conserved, so future generations can enjoy it, he says.
Asiimwe Nazario, who works for the Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest, says some local people will do anything to keep tourists from coming to the forest.
“The encroachers sometimes kill the chimpanzees and feed them to dogs,” he says. “They say that if they reduce the population of chimpanzees, it will prevent White people, meaning tourists, from coming to our land.”
Patricia Lindrio, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda and Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Lunyoro.