Innocent Mutatina poses for a photo in his eucalyptus plantation in Kikuube district, Uganda, 13 December 2022
Uganda takes to the courts to stop land grabs and protect forests
by Christopher Bendana
BUGOMA, Uganda - When Innocent Mutatina's father bought a large tract of land on the edge of western Uganda's Bugoma forest in the late 1990s, in a traditional informal sale, it was "a wilderness" covered in trees and elephant grass, his son said.
Now, the younger Mutatina wants either to build a ranch on the 15-square-kilometre (6-square-mile) piece of land, located by one of the country's largest rainforests, or sell it to the National Forestry Authority (NFA) for conservation purposes.
But he is not the only one laying claim to the land.
Mutatina is in a three-way legal battle for ownership with a major sugar company that is using the land to expand its sugarcane fields, and the NFA, which says the property belongs to the reserve and that its protection is vital to the country's efforts to slow forest loss and curb its carbon emissions.
"We want to graze cows, but I am also aware of the changes in weather caused by deforestation, and the locals have nowhere (else) to collect firewood," he said in an interview.
"I am therefore open for negotiation with the (NFA) for a buyout."
About 40% of Uganda's public and private land is untitled, according to the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.
Conservationists say the lack of formal ownership documents lets people and companies get titles to protected land - either through ignorance of land boundaries or local government corruption - allowing them to cut down the nation's forests.
The country's environment authority has attributed much of the deforestation to land-hungry farmers, including those active in designated conservation areas.
About 15% of Uganda's Central Forest Reserves - which cover almost a sixth of the country - are used for housing or farming, according to the NFA.
With more than 500 protected areas nationwide, the forest authority's head legal officer, Moses Muhumuza, said the agency lacked the manpower to keep away encroachers.
In recent years, the NFA has instead looked to the courts, using legal action to bolster its conservation efforts.
As of November 2022, the agency said it was involved in at least 480 active lawsuits against forest encroachers. Many of these individuals illegally acquired official titles to land in protected areas, according to Muhumuza.
Encroachment on forest reserves by people with legitimate but ill-gotten land titles is by far the greatest threat to conservation in the country, he said in an interview in Kampala.
"The land title gives the encroacher too much protection," Muhumuza said in his office, adding that lawsuits were not solving the problem quickly enough.
"Cases take a long time to get through – even 10 years. The effect on the forest is huge."
The proportion of Uganda's land covered in trees dropped to about 12% in 2017 from nearly a quarter in 1990, NFA data shows.
Yet there has been a slight rise in tree cover in the past three years, which the NFA says is partly due to a government initiative that pays farmers to set up plantations on their land.
Protection of forests is seen as vital to curbing global warming, as trees store planet-heating carbon and help regulate the climate through rainfall and temperature.
Forests are also major reservoirs of fast-vanishing natural biodiversity.
Ugandans looking to buy land have an important role in helping curb deforestation in protected areas, according to Dennis Obbo, a spokesman for the lands ministry.
Prospective buyers should check with the lands ministry registry to ensure the authenticity of any land titles involved, and also do research to ensure the plot they are buying is not within the boundaries of a Central Forest Reserve, he said.
Mutatina's land in Bugoma came to him the way many land transfers happen in Uganda, passed down by his father, who died in March. The younger Mutatina has a handwritten agreement confirming the sale of the land to his father years before.
But the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom - a historic royal Ugandan kingdom that was restored to power in 1995 and is located where the disputed land lies - says it owns the land, which it is leasing to Ugandan company Hoima Sugar.
The NFA, in turn, says about 5,500 hectares (13,590 acres) of the land belongs to the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, an area protected under the country's constitution.
In 2019, a judge ruled that the land belonged to the kingdom and lies outside the forest reserve, a ruling the NFA has appealed.
Eron Kiiza, a conservation lawyer and head of The Environment Shield, a local NGO, said the responsibility for shoring up Uganda's land titling system - and avoiding this kind of confusion in the future - lies with the government.
"The government is not prioritising the protection of forests," he said.
"There is the need for political will from the top, especially to address the corruption in the land offices that have been making titles for formally untitled land."
Any efforts to create a sustainable land management system also will fail unless the government regularly communicates with local communities who live in and around Uganda's protected forests, to advise them about the dangers of environmental degradation and the benefits of conservation.
"They depend on the land for economic, cultural, and spiritual reasons. You find pregnant women visiting forests instead of modern hospitals for antenatal care," he said, describing how women use medicinal forest plants to ease pregnancy illnesses and to bathe their newborns.
Verifying land titles
The national government has sent a verification team to Bugoma to gather information and statements from local communities to help authorities decide how to demarcate the land and how much of it should remain protected.
Obbo, from the lands ministry, said if the investigators establish that an illegal title has been issued for land within a Central Forest Reserve, Mutatina and the Bunyoro-Kitara would have no claim to the land and it would fall under the NFA's care.
Over the past five years, about 200 illegitimate titles for land in wetlands and forests in Uganda have been cancelled, Obbo said.
Mutatina said he will abide by any decision taken by the government's verification team regarding the land he claims.
But his faith in the country's land ownership system has been shaken, he said, lamenting the idea that anyone with enough money can buy a title to whatever land they choose, even if it is reserved for conservation or belongs to someone else.
"The system is dead, it's only money that matters," he said.