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[KAMPALA] Scientists are challenging politicians over the planned give-away of a natural forest east of Kampala, Uganda, for a sugar plantation.

The Ugandan state-owned newspaper The New Vision last month (20 March) reported that Uganda was in the process of leasing 7,100 hectares ― around a quarter ― of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda, part of the international Mehta group.

The Mabira forest, located between the cities of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda, has been a protected forest reserve since 1932.

News of the proposed giveaway has sparked a national outcry. Scientists and environmental groups have teamed up to campaign against the move, saying the forest is important for its rich biodiversity, as well as its value as a resource for carbon-trading and timber.

The international organisation Environmental Alert (EA) — the leading private sector forestry agency — has joined experts from NatureUganda, Greenwatch Uganda and the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment.

They say Mabira is home to many plant and animal species, including 312 tree and shrub species — some of which are used for traditional medicine — 199 species of butterfly, 287 species of birds and 16 small mammals.

Mabira also represents a significant carbon sink, and potential carbon-trading resource for Uganda. The EA says cutting away part of Mabira could cost US$316 million in lost carbon credit.

The forest is also seen as an economic resource for its timber. "The value of the wood is US$568 million and the land value is estimated at about US$5 million," Dorothy Kaggwa, a senior officer at EA, told The New Vision.

This means the Ugandan public stands to lose almost US$890 million in total if the forest is destroyed.

The state-run National Forestry Authority has warned that converting the forest to sugarcane plantations is contrary to Uganda's Forestry Policy Statement Number One: that the government undertakes to "actively protect, maintain and sustainably manage the current permanent forest estate".

"Converting Mabira into sugarcane will spell an environmental disaster for the central region in particular and this country in general," it said.

On 29 March Ugandan prime minister Apolo Nsibambi said his cabinet had not yet discussed or taken a decision about Mehta's request for the land.

"Should we decide to degazette [remove protection from] Mabira, it will come to parliament to legally effect degazettement," he said.