A powerful minister in the government of Uganda has been cited in the questionable ownership of land titles for part of Lwera wetland which has since been converted into rice farms.
In a story we recently published, MPs on the Presidential Affairs Committee of parliament were shocked to learn that Chinese nationals behind rice farms in Lwera wetland, went on to acquire land titles on the land well known to be a wetland.
In an interaction with the NEMA Executive Director, Dr Akankwasa Barirega, the MPs raised concern over the massive environmental degradation going on in Lwera and the inaction of NEMA to move and cancel the titles held by encroachers including the Chinese. Dr Akankwasa told MPs that the land titles in question were issued before promulgation of the 1995 Uganda Constitution and therefore cancelling them would attract civil litigation and government will pay high costs.
Dr Akankwasa stated that until government compensates Zhong Industries -a company behind rice farms, NEMA cannot do much to stop the developments in this part of Lwera swamp because the current ownership status is private land. He also noted that Zhong Industries acquired titles from locals who held titles as bonafide owners of the land. MPs were however concerned how locals could acquire land titles on a wetland, and especially when he said the rice farming and activities by Zhong Industries were approved by NEMA.
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Now, the latest information is that a powerful minister (Names withheld) who previously held the position of a District Chairperson for the area, is the title holder of the over 3000 acre land where the Chinese erected paddy rice farms.
The Kalungu District Chairperson Ahamed Nyombi Mukiibi told our reporter that the change of ownership for this land happened more than 11 years ago when Kalungu was still part of Masaka District. Mr Mukiibi said, the leadership then, influenced the area land committee to acquire land titles on Lwera which they later sold to Zhong.
“The leaders at that time used their influence to acquire land titles in Lwera then -a public land. Even when the farms were being set up, locals believed that they belonged to him (the minister) only to turn out that real owners were Chinese.” Mukiibi said.
The new revelation comes amid concerns that the fertilizers and chemicals used in the rice farms in Lwera have negative effects to the ecosystem and animals that live in water including fish, frogs, snakes etc. The Lwera wetland is also a major water catchment area that connects several rivers and drains directly into Lake Victoria.
Mr Mukiibi, who confirmed the “urgent need” to restrict Zhong Industries and other encroachers, but said the recently created Kalungu District administration cannot do much since the land in question is treated as private land. He also said they (leaders) have received several complaints from locals, about the chemicals used in rice farms having an effect on the livestock in the area.
Mukiibi’s concerns were affirmed by the Deputy speaker for Kalungu District council, Mr Nsubuga Muzafalu who said the rice farms stretching from Kampala-Masaka Highway up to Bulindo have disrupted the water flow along the area, leading to periodic flooding of that section of the road. The floods and the rampant degradation along the busy Kampala-Masaka section in Lwera have become common that motorists/traffic are often diverted to use the Mpigi-Kanoni-Sembabule-Villa Maria-Masaka Road especially during rainy seasons.
These diversions are unnecessary and costly on top of untimely repairs by Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) resulting from floods and irregular/unregulated sand mining in Lwera wetland.
Vuube Richard, the Kalungu District environmental officer, affirmed that the rice project has negatively affected the environment in Lwera and the wetland is no more. He cited the case of access roads that Zhong has constructed along rice farms that further block water passages leading to massive flooding in the area.
“He (Zhong) constructed roads but did not provide for easy flow of water by fitting the right culverts. The result is the floods all over” he however credited the farms for providing food security as locals now have access to affordable rice.
Nsubuga, who is also the Youth representative in the District Council, however credits the Chinese rice project for providing jobs for the locals and for the revenue the company remits to Lukaya Town Council in form of taxes. The claim of the employment opportunities created by Zhong Industries is however challenged by the District Chairman, Mr Nyombi, who said the people employed on rice farms are mainly non residents as locals shun the jobs over low pay.
Recently, Government through cabinet approved an environmental restoration plan to be implemented by the ministry of water and environment, including cancellation of titles and eviction of all encroachers on gazette forest reserves, lakes and river banks as well as wetlands. In a recent notice, NEMA also announced a ban on issuance of permits for any activity on wetlands.
Whereas the law in Uganda prohibits foreigners from owning land in perpetuity, the law permits ownership through a lease-hold arrangement which is most likely to be the case with Zhong Industries. Under leasehold arrangement, the interests of the lease-holder are given first priority before those of the actual owner. This means; Zhong -the Chinese investor, must be compensated in case government moves to evict them.
Both Nyombi Mukiibi, Nsubuga Muzafalu and Vuube Richard say the activities of sand mining and other forms of environmental degradation of Lwera wetland are perpetuated by powerful and well connected individuals against whom the local leadership can do little.
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