ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Uganda: Between Past and Future

The recent stand-off in Uganda between diverse groups determined to save a pristine forest reserve and representatives of the sugar industry led to demonstrations that culminated in mid-April in violence that targeted the country’s main ethnic minority, the Indians. The violence was reminiscent of events of the early 1970s, when the dictator, Idi Amin, in a seemingly whimsical outburst, expelled from the country, nearly 60,000 Asians, most of them Indians whose businesses and establishments were nationalised or gifted to Amin’s favourites. Since the late 1980s, as Uganda took its first cautious steps towards democracy, Indians have returned in some numbers. The recent violence, however, has again polarised Uganda’s different communities. At the same time, it is also reflective of the political transition underway in Uganda since 2005.

In August 2006, Uganda’s president, Toweri Museveni, ordered the National Forestry Authority (NFA) to do a feasibility study on developing several thousand hectares, i e, nearly a third of the Mabira forest reserve area, for sugar cane plantation and refining, as proposed by the Sugar Corporation of Uganda, owned by the Mehta group. The group, of Indian origin, has substantial interests in Uganda’s sugar industry, which in line with the westernbacked reforms that Museveni adopted in the last decade, was privatised some years back. Mabira, for its part, is one of Uganda’s last remaining patches of natural forest, and home to several unique varieties of birds and butterflies as well as trees. The government’s proposals angered many in the opposition as well as various groups such as local residents, and environmentalists, who argued that the environmental costs of slashing the rainforest would exceed economic benefits of the plantation. The NFA study concluded that economic losses from destruction of the reserve included lost revenue from logging and eco-tourism, Uganda’s main source of tourist revenue. Despite this, the government “de-gazetted” part of Mabira forest and the fear that the parliament, where Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), has a strong majority, would soon ratify these recommendations sparked off the recent protests against the decision.

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