27 army veterans have been arrested for encroaching on Kisombwa Central Forest Reserve in Mubende.
The veterans are part of a group of 300 people who descended on the Kigombwa Forest and Bugoma Central Forest in Hoima on Saturday to cut down trees and allocated to themselves large plots of land.
Moses Watasa, spokesperson of the National Forestry Authority, says the 27 men are in detention at Mubende Police Station pending trial. He says that on interrogation the men, part of a group known as Tulipona War Veterans, confessed to the encroachment.
They claimed that they had not been paid retirement packages by the army and had no choice but to look for unused land on which to live and farm.
A former soldier called Vincent Kamukama heads Tulipona War Veterans. Under his direction the group has have cleared 400 hectares of forestland in Kisombwa and Bugoma.
The National Forestry Authority, as a semi-autonomous agency of government, is legally mandated to gazette, monitor and protect Uganda's forests. It has the power to arrest, fine or prosecute any encroachers. However in recent years politics, not conservation, has taken the control of this natural resource.
The turning point came in 2006 when President Yoweri Museveni issued an Executive Order suspending evictions of encroachers from forest reserves. Many people around the country have used this directive to validate forest encroachment and are backed by Resident District Commissioners acting in defense of the president's demands.
Although the Executive Order was reassessed in a cabinet paper authored by the Ministry of Water and Environment, the encroachment continues.
In a 2010/2011 ministerial statement presented to Parliament, Maria Mutagambwa the Water and Environmental Minister noted that more than 300,000 people are illegally occupying forests. She said that because of the invasion and the threat of future violations, there is no forest plantation resource in Uganda that can attract any significant investment in the wood industry.
Mutagambwa said that in the 2009/2010 financial year, more than 50,000 encroachers were evicted from Kiboga, Mubende and Yumbe. She admitted that more work needed to be done.
In Hoima, Forest Supervisor Robert Mubokhisa says there is no choice but to use force to evict the army veterans from Bugoma. He says the group is hostile to suggestions that they should voluntarily vacate the forest and their presence has become untenable.
Previous cases have shown that any force the National Forestry Authority uses against the army veterans will be met with fierce resistance.
In 2006 army veterans defied an order for their eviction from the Butto-Buvuma forest reserve in Mpigi district. The same year, another group of ex-soldiers refused to leave the Kyetinda wetlands in Kampala, destroying a major water buffer for Lake Victoria.
Additionally, last year, the parliamentary committee on commissions, statutory and state enterprises noted with alarm the level of encroachment on forests in Mubende and Mityana districts organized by the veterans.
Steven Ssekyanzi Nyakana, chairperson of the Kawempe Division Veteran Vendors and Traders Association, blames the army discharge certificate for this state of affairs. He claims that it permits retired soldiers to occupy and utilize government free land, which includes forests.
However Nyakana says actions of the former soldiers in Bugoma and Kigombwa are wrong. He says they should work with their reserve force commanders and district authorities to legally occupy available land around the country.
Nyakana suggests that this problem could be dealt with comprehensively if government paid its dues to the veterans. He says government has neglected the veterans and most of them abandoned to lives of poverty.
national forestry authority