Gulu municipal authorities accused of abetting wetland encroachment
By Denis Otim
Gulu municipal authorities are being accused of abetting wetland degradation, despite giving several public orders to encroachers to stop farming and settling there.
In 2016, the district leaders, including the Resident District Commissioner, RDC, Cpt Santos Okot Lapolo, gave eviction threats to wetland encroachers.
In 2017, the Municipal Environment Department began marking boundaries of the 25 kilometers stretch of available wetlands within the Municipality.
However, farming, sand mining and settlements in wetlands persist, with trespassers saying municipal authorities are giving them the leeway.
Michael Gidudu, a vegetable farmer from Mbale District owns half an acre land of gazetted wetland in Queens’s parish, Laroo Division in Gulu Municipality.
Gidudu said he has been growing cabbages and tomatoes on the farm for the last two years, without any disturbance by Municipal environmental department.
"We are renting this land from lady in the area who claims to be the land owner. We are using other portions for free.”
“Previously, we paid some money to people who said they are from the Municipal Environment department,” Gidudu told Northern Era.
Gidudu argued that they [farmers] have been “conserving” the wetland by opening wider water channels, although environmentalists accuse them of degrading the wetlands.
“This place was bushy and neglected by the community, but when we hired it, we cleared it for several days,” he said.
Statistics from the municipal environment department indicate that 60 per cent of the wetland coverage has been already destroyed; a trend environmentalist warns may lead to an ecological disaster.
Martin Mawanda backs Gidudu’s claims, saying the “hospitable environment” provided by the Municipal authorities has enabled them to continue farming in the wetlands, despite knowing its negative effects.
Mawanda said the Current Gulu Municipality mayor, George Labeja, during campaigns for the 2016 general elections, promised residents in the area that they would be allowed to keep farming on wetlands, if they voted him in office.
“We were promised protection and we did our best to vote him in office, may be this is the reward we are getting, there were threats later in 2016 for us to leave but all calmed down… I am ready to leave, but if the opportunity still stands, I will continue farming here,” Mawanda said.
When contacted, Labeja said he would only comment after meeting the encroachers next week.
Poor policy enforcement
Peter Okwera Onen, the councilor three of Queen’s parish, also the Gulu Municipality Council Speaker, however said failure to enforce policies is encouraging continuous farming and settlement on the wetlands.
Onen revealed that in 2017, the Municipal councilors enacted policies to evict wetland encroachers in the Municipality, but didn’t implement it.
“Leaders at the grass roots understand the dangers of farming on the available wetlands. We are witnessing water levels decline, but we can’t start evicting the encroachers without higher authorities intervening,” Onen said.
The District Chairperson Martin Ojara Mapenduzi confirmed receiving reports of farming in wetlands, saying they would soon start evicting the trespassers.
“We cannot tolerate activities that endanger the environment; if we are not careful, we shall start experiencing serious flooding in town because all available wetlands would have been degraded,” Mapenduzi said.
He promised to investigate allegations that the Municipality Mayor, Labeja is protecting the encroachers, due to promises he made to them in 2016.
The Municipal Environment Officer, James Ocaka, said the process of evicting encroachers delayed because they are still carrying out assessment and boundary demarcation of wetlands.
“Eviction is a process, we need to assess those who are within the wetland and know how much will be used to compensate them. Besides, we still have Wetlands in Layibi division and Aywe in Pece Division that haven’t been demarcated,” he said.
Other wetlands being degraded and encroached within Gulu Municipality are Pece, Oyitino and Layibi streams where papyrus swamps have been reclaimed for sugar cane growing.
Gulu Municipality in the past two years experienced an acute water shortage after Oyitino Dam where National Water Pumps water for their clients dried up. Environmentalists attributed it to the growing environmental degradation.
Wetlands account for 13 per cent of Uganda’s total land area but with encroachment and degradation, two per cent [about 752 square kilometers] of these wetlands are lost annually countrywide.
In January this year, President Museveni ordered wetland encroachers in the country to vacate within one month or be forced out by the police.