The wetland on which a private Chinese enterprise grows rice in Lwera is private titled land and without compensation, National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) cannot do anything to reclaim the land -NEMA ED Dr Akankwasa Barirega told parliament.
Akankwasa was appearing before the presidential Affairs Committee of parliament last week to respond to concerns relating to rampant environmental degradation happening across the country including encroachment on wetlands which poses grave environmental hazards.
MPs on the committee chaired by Ntungamo District Women representative, Naome Kabasharira, raised concerns over NEMA’s inaction against Zhong Industries, a Chinese company which has continuously cleared part of Lwera Swamp for commercial rice farming.
The over 3,000-acre paddy rice farms located about 100 km south of the Ugandan capital Kampala in the central Ugandan district of Kalungu have been attributed to occasional flooding making the section of Kampala-Masaka Road impassable.
Dr Akankwasa said that Chinese nationals acquired land titles in Lwera and the only way for government to reclaim the Lwera wetland is to compensate the title holders including Chinese.
“In Lwera, the land where rice is grown is private land with a land title. So, unless government compensates the title holders, there is no way you can stop development on private land” Dr Akankwasa said. “Any action to stop them will attract civil litigation and government will pay high costs in court claims”
He said, whereas government is implementing a wetland restoration plan which includes cancelling of land titles in wetlands, titles acquired before the 1995 Constitution are exempted and the only way to restore such land is through government compensation.
According to NEMA, the Chinese agreed with indigenous settlers in the area before buying them off to pave way for establishment of rice farms in Lwera. Dr Akankwasa said the titles in question date back before promulgation of the 1995 Uganda Constitution rendering the title holders bonafide owners of the land.
More so, Dr Akankwasa told MPs that government is yet to gazette wetlands in Uganda which limits enforcement capacity of NEMA on encroachers on wetlands. He said, whereas the National Environment Act empowers NEMA to oversee sustainable environmental management, the provisions in the law on wetland management do not enable prosecution of encroachers but relegates the role of NEMA to regulatory on environmental sustainability.
“We are still in the process of gazetting wetlands and so for now, it is difficult to prosecute an offender using direct provision of the Act. Dr Akankwasa said what NEMA can do is to regulate development and construction in wetlands without environment and social impact assessment.
According to the National Environmental Management Act (2019), wetlands are “those areas which are permanently or seasonally flooded with acclimatized plants and have been gazetted as such.”
“Currently, NEMA cannot successfully prosecute a person for being in a wetland because the definition of a wetland in the Act is not enabling” Dr Akankwasa noted.
“As the law stands, it is difficult to prosecute and evict encroachers in wetlands. We are still working on how this law can be rectified on the definition of a wetland and until government compensates the title holders, he added.
There are also concerns that the chemicals used in rice farming have negative effects to the ecosystem and waterborne organisms as well as fish. The Lwera wetland is a major water catchment area that connects several rivers and wetlands in Gomba, Mpigi and Kalungu districts and drains directly into Lake Victoria.
Dr Akankwasa however admitted that the fertilizers and chemicals used in rice farming can find their way to lake Victoria and rivers connected to the Lwera eco-system. He said rice farming in Lwera is permitted development which NEMA approved years ago.
“Literally all wetlands have been attacked and we must stand firm to chase people who are in wetlands so that we restore them if we are to harmoniously with nature. ..we are constantly engaging them (Chinese) and our teams last week were to monitor their operations to ensure that they comply with the environment but we cannot stop development on private property” Dr Akankwasa adds.
This year, Government through NEMA stopped issuance of permits for development in wetlands across Uganda in a bid to map and gazette with an aim to reclaim wetlands under destruction by encroachers whose actions have led to rampant flooding of water. Encroachment has also led to silting of rivers and lakes risking life of aquatic animals.
The NEMA ED also attributed the inefficiency and lack of capacity by NEMA in enforcement of the law against environmental degradation, to underfunding of the authority resulting into limited staff to inspect all wetlands in the country in addition to the gaps in the law.
“NEMA has a budget of 13BN, 10BN of which goes into wage and wage-related statutory obligations leaving about three billion to conduct NEMA operations for the whole year. This is less than 30 per cent of expected funding levels of NDPIII. So whereas we acknowledge and apologize for disappointing Ugandans, we are fundamentally handicapped” he stated.
Dr Akankwasa also told MPs that without an in-house prosecution unit under NEMA, an operations and environmental crime investigations units with capacity to detect, investigate and prosecute offenders, NEMA remains incapacitated in fulfilling its mandate. He said whereas the law provides for NEMA to have an environment protection force, this has not been established due to limited funding, leaving the authority to rely on a unit in Uganda police which is often compromised.