Uganda: Strangers Invade, Take Control of Some Villages In East Acholi, Causing Violence On Environment And Insecurity

Pile of logs ready for burning at Obulu Ayita
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A pile of logs at Obulu Ayita belonging to the invaders ready for burning into charcoal

“It looks as if there is no law there.  Workers are being exploited and there is no one who wants to speak on behalf of the local leaders. Nobody wants to own the problem. Some of the invaders have been there unnoticed for over two years. We are not stopping charcoal business but we want it done in a sustainable way. We need mindset change on land issue. We still need a voice for Acholi. Our environment should be top on Acholi Agenda”

 

Gulu-Uganda: An environmental justice pressure group called “Our Trees We Need Answers” have raised an alarm over the rising levels of devastation of the environment in East Acholi, especially in Agago district by an influx of between 200-500 charcoal producers from Central and Eastern Uganda districts of Mukono, Nakasongola, Luweero, Iganga, among others.

The pressure group launched under ‘#protectsheanuttrees’, accompanied by The Resident District Commissioner of Agago (RDC), Mr. Andrew Onyuk, visited Adilang Sub-County in Agango district on March 14-15, 2021 where they witnessed the worst violence on environment. The ‘strangers’ took control of seven villages unnoticed by the ever vigilant security details deployed at each parish level (Parish Internal Security Officers-PISOs) by the government.

“An influx of between 200-500 work crews illegally camped in the villages around Lelakadera (Obulu-Ayita) from districts of Mukono, Nakasongola, Luweero, Iganga, and others. They have no Local Council (LC) identification letters from the districts of origin and are not known by the host LC Chairpersons. There is now a correlation between this influx of strangers and the insecurity of the area. For example, it was reported that fifteen shops where broken into in one night in the recent past. The area seems ungoverned”. A press statement says, in parts.

The report further says the endangered shear nut (yaa) trees are being cut down on a large scale for the production of charcoal as this tree produces the best charcoal and is on high demand. Ugandan President, General Yoweri Museveni, has put a ban on the cutting down of this particular tree and the Africana Afzelia (beyo) tree, which produces the best timber. Although he ordered his security to arrest anyone dealing in the business of cutting these two tree spices, the trade still thrives due to endemic corruption in the country.

 According to a member of the pressure group, Mr Chowoo Willy, the invaders concentrated in three villages and the total area they destroyed is over ten square kilometers. He says they found local young boys, some as young as twelve, being exploited by the invaders in the form of cheap labor.

“It looks as if there is no law there.  Workers are being exploited and there is  no one who wants to speak on behalf of the local leaders. Nobody wants to own the problem. Some of the invaders have been there unnoticed for over two years. We are not stopping charcoal business but we want it done in a sustainable way. We need mindset change on land issue. We still need a voice for Acholi. Our environment should be top on Acholi Agenda”, says Chowoo.  

Another member of the group, George Ebola, says this is a new form of colonization because the invaders have built their own city made of make- shift grass thatched huts and keep own chickens. They are now married to local girls, offering UGX 5000 (about US$ 1.3 dollars) for sex.

“It is high time people who love this country to stand up and save our environment. It is not about charcoal. It is a regrouping of new rebels in Agago. Just imagine; we moved all day and we could not walk through it. It looks like there is no system in place. They have built their own city where they even keep chickens and are married to local girls who are paid five thousand shillings for sex. The situation is alarming and we need to secure our culture and environment. The desert is coming and the rain pattern has changed. The climate has changed for the worst”, cries Ebola.

The pressure group identified the ring leaders of the invaders as; one ‘Master’, one ‘Ashraf aka ‘Gigz’, one ‘Susan Samaya who operate in Lelakadera-Obulu Ayita area and one ‘Wasswa’ who has the largest work crew in this area. Others are one ‘Nalongo’ and one ‘Simon who leads the violence on Shear nut ‘yaa’ and other trees in Rugu-Rugu where he owns over five ‘farms’.

The district and sub-county authorities continue ‘to profiteer from the trade by the invaders on the environment due to endemic corruption which has eaten the very fabric of Ugandan society. There are also imposers moving around collecting ‘dues and bribes’ and alleging that they are sent by the RDC. Traditional and cultural leaders, who are the custodians of ‘yaa’ and ‘beyo’ trees resort to extortion instead of stopping the vice.

The perpetrators, who use the banned ‘power saws’ to cut down trees thereby burning tree cells and inhibits regeneration of trees., continue to tramp the narrative that they borrowed loans from commercial banks and should therefore be allowed to harvest their charcoal to service bank loans.

“Shear nut (yaa) trees are being cut down on large scale for production of charcoal. Make-shift huts have been established housing these groups of people. The producers (invaders) and work crews have opened up illegal roads connecting Adilang to Otuke district. They effectively evade police and other authorities. The issuance of fake receipts is the norm”, the report says.

Another member, Mr. Emmanuel Ochira, says the invaders pay about UGX 300,000 shillings (about US$ 83) dollars for an acre of trees but later change the sales agreement for trees as land sales and they process land titles as their farms.

“They pay UGX 300,000 shillings for an acre of trees and stealthily change the sales agreement that it was land sales. When you try to investigate the sales they panic and look guilty already. You don’t come and settle then destroy the environment and leave. You are not even registered by any government organ”, says Ochira.

The Leader of Opposition, Mrs. Betty Aol Ocan, says her family farm which is located at Koch Lii sub-county in Nwoya district was also invaded by these unscrupulous charcoal dealers over four years ago when they (family) found out too late that they had already destroyed over fifty acres of the 165- acre farm.

The Deputy Inspector of Police, Maj. Gen. Paul Lokech, says he has already caused the arrest of the Officer in charge of Operations (O/C Operations) at Kitgum Police Station for the same crime of environmental degradation.

“They stand warned that we shall leave no stone unturned on corruption in the forces. We shall arrest anyone irrespective of the ranks as long you are a culprit”, says Maj. Gen. Lokech.

“This business is booming due to ignorance of the local land owners who do not value natural resources like land and trees. The trees and land are going but they are not benefitting from the trade. This is all about ignorance and poverty. Our people have been reduced to this level by the over two decade rebellions which befell the region” says Chowoo.

 

It is all about ignorance and poverty. Our people have been reduced to this level.

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