Monday, August 15, 2011

Tropical forest, golf and sugar

Stuart and I had a great time on Saturday. We went on an outing to Lugasi (an hour’s drive to the east of Kampala, on the road to Jinja) with the Irish Society, fellow Celts who know how to have a good time.  The highlight for Stuart was the golf competition at the Mehta Golf course (see Golf courses of Uganda Part 1).  The course is laid out in the middle of the eponymous sugar plantation.  The Mehta family have been major players in the Ugandan economy for many years.  Expelled by Amin, they returned to rebuild their sugar plant and reconstruct one of the key business empires in Uganda.

A pleasant place to sit looking over the golf course.
Having slimmed down - ironically, because of his reduced consumption of sugar - and got fitter since his arrival in the country last year, Stuart had no need for heart defibrillation this time from his partner, Finlay.  They bounded effortlessly up the slopes and, no doubt, admired the ‘glorious splashes of colour’ on the way. They both did respectably with the usual alternation between brilliance and complete hopelessness which characterises most games of golf.  As Stuart would say, he moved smoothly between unsatisfactory and sector-leading….and back again with unnerving frequency.

A splash of colour which particularly caught Stuart's eye.
No need for heart massage after all.
The highlight for me, however, was a wonderful walk through nearby Mabira Forest Reserve. Mabira is the last remaining area of tropical forest in central Uganda. The National Forestry Authority (NFA) has steadfastly worked to retain this superb primary forest and protect its animals and birds, after years of felling for sugar plantations during colonial times, and then by ordinary people during the Amin years.  Protecting the forest has not been easy.  The pressure from Uganda’s rapidly increasing population in recent years has resulted in significant encroachment from landless families who move in, cut down trees to make charcoal and plant fields of matoke (green banana).

The start of the forest
And these are just the roots! Above-ground buttress of a massive ficus.
Secrets of the forest.
The NFA has made considerable progress in limiting and reversing the encroachment, while making sure that local people can make use of, and benefit from the forest in sustainable ways.  They are allowed to collect firewood for family use, although if they sell it they can be prosecuted. One of our guides, Sam, was brought up within the community and knows the forest intimately, having been sent to collect firewood himself as a child as well as herbal remedies, including a little red berry which is traditionally used for de-worming, and bark which is used for stomach upsets.  Visitors are welcomed and can stay at a couple of eco-lodges and go on walks through a network of paths, with guides to point out the various kinds of monkey and identify the many bird calls. With 300 species in this forest alone, that makes for a lot of birds! This was what my friends and I, non-golfers all, were doing on Saturday, in the company of various small fry and some well-behaved teddy bears who were delighted to find a delicious tea-party set out in a clearing beneath the towering trees.

And they're still just roots!
But here's a patch of sky.
A wonderful time was had by all and we went home tired but happy.

More forest secrets.
It was a shock, therefore, to wake up the next morning to the following headline in the Sunday Monitor, ‘Mabira must go, Museveni tells district officials’. So, what’s the story?

There is, apparently, a sugar ‘shortage’ in Uganda, according to the newspapers, hence the plan by the Mehta Group, owners of the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul), to cut down forest to plant more sugar cane.  We cannot comment on the accuracy of this statement about a shortage.  What we do know is that sugar prices have rocketed, perhaps more so than the prices of all other food stuffs whose increases are causing Ugandans considerable worry – and hunger - just now.  Indeed, the price of sugar has increased from Shs3,000 (75p) to over Shs7,000 per kilo in less than a month, putting it way out of reach of ordinary Ugandans who may only earn Shs2,000 per day.  Even the middle-class supermarkets are ‘rationing’ sugar (memories of  early 1970s Britain!).

Sugar is seen as a staple food in Uganda and poured into tea and onto porridge in copious quantities.  Whereas most middle class Europeans have reduced their sugar intake, regarding sugar as providing ‘empty’ calories, with no protein or vitamins to compensate for its tooth-destroying and fattening qualities, Ugandans are generally unaware of the health concerns which surround it.  They just like sugar.

The political controversy about the sugar ‘shortage’ has been growing over the last few weeks.  Some commentators have put the shortage down to drought, which is surprising as drought hasn’t really affected central Uganda to any great extent, although it has had a major impact on the north.   Others have queried why all the Ugandan sugar factories have allegedly closed down for ‘routine maintenance’ at the same time. Some commentators have gone further and hinted that perhaps the apparent shortage has been manufactured.  Why?  To raise the price, perhaps? Who knows, and who are we to judge anyway?

Well, Stuart and I have no view about this although we are aware of the ongoing unrest in the sugar industry, including strikes at the nearby Madhvani plant which resulted in a lock out. Last week, the President announced a ban on the export of sugar which was immediately reversed by the Trade Minister.  The Information Minister stated that the President had been ‘misquoted’.  All very confusing.  However, exports are essential for Uganda as it imports most of its goods. In fact, shock, horror, it is now rumoured that the country is going to begin importing sugar!  The Ugandan Shilling has been rated as the world’s worst performing currency, has been at an all-time low against the dollar for two months, and continues to fall. Exports bring in dollars.

It is not the first time that plans have been made to fell large areas of Mabira Forest to plant sugar.  The Mehta Group made a similar application a couple of years ago and, after considerable protest from environmental groups and ordinary citizens which resulted in three people being shot by police for ‘rioting’, the plans were dropped.  However, the current situation clearly signals an ideal opportunity to get them back on the table: difficult to argue against businessmen cutting down forest to plant sugarcane at a time of ‘shortage’. However, it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth….

Update on the Mabira controversy, August 16th.
According to the Daily Monitor, the President yesterday announced that the planned sugar plantation would only use 'degraded' parts of Mabira Forest Reserve. State House organised a visit by journalists to these degraded areas, led by the Environment Minister. Unfortunately, after slogging through the forest for two hours, the group had still failed to find any 'degraded' areas.  The Environment Minister had had enough by this time and went off to the best hotel in Mukono for a cup of coffee. With her out of the way, the government officials told the journalists what they really thought. 

'We were surprised when we read that the President is planning to give away a degraded area because we don't have any,' said an official from the NFA, on condition of anonymity.

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