EXCLUSIVE: Crooked Tree-loggers clear forest in Rukungiri amid COVID-19 Lockdown

Some of the trees cut awaiting to be ferried. (PHOTO: MOses Agaba)

Rukungiri – As the rest of the globe is engulfed on the Coronavirus pandemic exploits, a section of shrewd people are busy crafting unstoppable means to enrich themselves.

In Rukungiri District, a yet to be identified group have pitched camp in Imaramagambo Forest are indiscriminately cutting the trees for timber, firewood, hand walking sticks and charcoal.

Imaramagambo Forest stretches its boundaries to Mitooma and Rubirizi District at the periphery of the Queen Elizabeth National Park Conservation Area in Western Uganda.

Our credible sources indicate that the forest plunder is reminiscent of forest plunder in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the war where satchels of natural forests were decimated. 

Our credible source further intimated to this that the plunder started immediately after President Yoweri Museveni declared an entire country shut down over the Coronavirus pandemic.

A conducive environment took shape after authorities diverted to enforcing the presidential guidelines and Ministry of Health guidelines, allowing the plunders to exploit the forest where they could not be noticed.

Firewood and fencing poles are products from the forest. Rukungiri District Forest Officer Arthur Twinomujuni told our investigative reporter that the forest in question was under the National Forest Authority (NFA), and therefore the District has no authority over it and cannot explain what is going on there.

Twinomujuni, however, said that it was a bad practice to indiscriminately cut trees in the forest because it has got rare tree species which were a natural habitat which cannot be replanted.

According to Twinomujuni, South Imaramagambo Forest covers 15000 hectares and is managed by National Forest Authority (NFA) together with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) since it is located within the Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENPCA).

Twinomujuni, however, said that for many years, Rukungiri District Forest Department has been putting serious measures aimed at protecting degradation of forests especially in Bwambara Sub-county and all neighbouring sub-counties and a forest guard was stationed there to work with other stakeholders who include Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and National Forest Authority (NFA).

A section of Imaramagambo Forest that has been cleared by unscrupulous plunderers. (PHOTO: Moses Agaba)

“We are committed to protecting the forest and we shall not sit and watch when the forest is being depleted,” Twinomujuni said.

Mr. Baluku Benson, UWA Officer in Charge of Bwentare Post (where the Forest is located) said that they have always arrested and handed over to Police in Rukungiri whoever is found carrying out illegal activities in the Park.

“It is on record that we normally arrest the culprits and hand them over to Police and this can be verified at the Central Police Station,” Baluku said.

Baluku, however, blamed the local leaders especially the LC1s for failing to work with them by hiding by concealing the illegal activities of the plunderers.

However, further investigations by this website indicate that Baluku was referring to the small-time encroachers into the forest reserve some who go there for herbal medicine and walking sticks leaving out big time timber dealers.

It’s suspected that the big time timber dealers are well protected and are untouchables.

Baluku confirmed that a recent joint operation carried out by the UPDF and Police revealed that fresh trees were being cut but could not identify the culprits in the act.

When contacted, Rukungiri District Chairman Andrewson Charles Kateebire said that he had received a report about illegal plunder and had tasked the District Forest officer to furnish him with a report as soon as possible.

Rukungiri Resident District Commissioner  (RDC) Dan Kaguta was not available for comment as he was reported to be busy with Coronavirus pandemic surveillance.

It is now feared that by the time the country wakes up from the Coronavirus pandemic shut down on May 5 as directed by President Museveni, the forest will be no more and it will be difficult to trace who plundered it.

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