“The rich are untouchable”: Uganda’s struggles to protect its wetlands
As communities and small businesses are cleared from environmentally precious zones, big companies expand unabated.
Last week, state officials accompanied by security forces swept through the Lubigi wetlands on the outskirts of Kampala in a long-awaited operation. They made numerous arrests, evicted hundreds of people, cut down eucalyptus trees, and destroyed markets, lorry parks, and many other structures.
The action followed repeated presidential directives to remove people from the country’s wetlands. As businesses, farms and homes have increasingly encroached on these environmentally precious zones, they have gone from covering 15.5% of Uganda’s land in 1994 to 8.4% in 2019. If factors remain constant, scientists predict they could cover just 1% of Uganda by 2040.
The government’s plans to clear the wetlands have ramped up recently. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has carried out crackdowns and reissued its previous calls for people to vacate lakeshores, riverbanks, forest reserves and wetlands. And last month, President Yoweri Museveni renewed his public criticism of companies situated on protected lands.
“By interfering with the forests and wetlands in Uganda, we are interfering with the rainfall,” he said. “I am fighting to make sure that nobody cultivates in the wetlands…How can we kill ourselves and commit suicide by attacking the wetlands?”
According to officials like Amina Nanziri Lukanga, Resident City Commissioner for Kampala, the government has approached evictions in a fair manner.
“We have been talking to people one-on-one as a group to make sure that people understand what the president is trying to say in saving these wetlands,” she says. “If there are any people who can’t understand and leave peacefully, then there’s nothing to do but just force them out.”
But many people who live or work on the wetlands have complained about NEMA’s conduct.
“Removing us from this location wouldn’t be awful. However, the approach is not acceptable,” says Fred Sseguya Mivule, who ran a kiosk selling soft drinks in a taxi park in Lubigi. “They didn’t notify us to remove our properties. They simply arrived and began trashing everything. Some of us are operating these enterprises with bank loans.”
John Gumumushade, a 42-year-old father of six, is similarly dismayed. He lives on Namiiro wetland, along the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, where 5,000 people face eviction. Over many years, they have built houses, businesses, schools, and churches on the 1,000-hectare site.
“When we started buying these plots, all authorities here including the so called NEMA were seeing us. No one stopped us,” says Gumumushade. “I pushed a wheelbarrow selling fruits as a hawker for seven years to acquire this plot but now it is being taken away from me without compensation.”
Another rule for the rich?
Another aspect of the evictions adding insult to injury is the perception that NEMA is only targeting poor communities. It is not difficult to see why.
Around the same time security forces were destroying markets and shops on Lubigi, two flower farms belonging to Uganda’s richest man, Sudhir Ruparelia, could be seen extending their reach into wetlands outside Kampala. “This farm started from a very small piece of land, but every day we see them expanding and the whole wetland is getting lost,” said Musa Kavuma, a neighbour and eyewitness. When asked by African Arguments whether the company had permits to utilise the area, farm manager Ravi Kumar declined to answer. “You don’t know how these things work and you have got wrong information,” he said.
In Entebbe municipality, Akright Projects, another business owned by one of Uganda’s richest men, Hamis Kuggundu, is similarly actively building on wetlands. The Ham Palm Villas complex is set to be a high-end 200-acre gated community replete with luxury homes, swimming pools, gyms, supermarkets and more. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
African Arguments witnessed 13 dump trucks offload sand in Lubigi seemingly as part of the construction of a maize milling plant by James Ssenoga and Trinity Bus Company.
“Despite the laws in place, encroachment on these areas has continued, mostly because the government and the institutions it has mandated continue to encourage this,” says environmental campaigner Bridget Ampurira.
Some Ugandan officials deny that there is a discrepancy in how different encroachers on wetlands are treated. “We are not focusing on the poor people, and no one is above the law,” says Vincent Barugahare, commissioner at the Ministry of Water and Environment. “We are coming for them and it’s just a matter of time; we have not yet reached them.”
Resident district commissioner, Justine Mbabazi, added: “We have also heard that there are some people pouring soil in that wetland area where we recently removed encroachers. We’re following up on that matter and we’re waiting to verify a few things and soon we will be there, and the culprits will pay the cost.”
According to Finance Minister Matia Kasaija, some investors are permitted to stay on wetlands because they were not aware of the restrictions when the began construction. “We are targeting those who went there after being warned,” he stated.
Evelyn Anite, minister of state for privatisation and investments, explained: “It’s true that the government wants all investors with wetlands-related projects to relocate, but we need to give them some time so they don’t lose their money…[That] period should be at least 5-10 years.”
Naming and shaming
However, other officials speak openly of finding it difficult to tackle wealthy companies. Jane Asiimwe Muhindo, Bushenyi Resident District Commissioner, says she has faced intimidation from “high-end” individuals including government officials when trying to tackle big businesses in western Uganda.
“Although we are working hard to carry out the president’s directive on protecting wetlands, we are facing opposition from well-connected officials who are trying to undermine us,” she says. “When we visit the community, people complain that we have [overlooked] the wealthy residents, [but] as a result of our efforts to pursue [those rich residents], we end up becoming victims.”
The problem of enforcing environmental rules when dealing with rich companies in Uganda is long-standing. As early as 2010, a frustrated NEMA decided to name and shame scores of companies and individuals encroaching on wetlands. Among those publicly listed were Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort, built on about 90 acres of wetland shore; the regional industrial conglomerate Mukwano Group; and Hi-Tech Metal Industries Limited, which occupies the biggest single area of wetland.
In naming and shaming these businesses, NEMA hoped to push companies to change their practices sooner than lengthy court battles, but the measure had little effect. Most of the companies listed are still in operation.
“The biggest number of people destroying wetlands are the rich who have become untouchable,” says Beatrice Anywar, State Minister for the Environment. “We are going to deal with them differently. We compiled a list of those untouchable wealthy people and it is already at the office of the president who is going to advise us on how to engage them.”
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Amendments [1/11/22]: Additional material was added to this piece following additional interviews with Mbabazi, Kasaija and Anite. It was added that the author personally witnessed sand being offloaded. Some examples of companies that were named and shamed were included in the final section.