By Bob G. Kisiki
The debate has been raging for the longest time, on whether development should not be done at the expense of the [natural] environment, or we should damn the environment and do things that will develop our countries. These are two very important things; the environment and development, and neither should be done away with for the sake of the other. But what, then, should we do, if we want to preserve the environment and at the same time engage in meaningful development?
Most of the developing countries are grappling with this dilemma. Strangely, many are endowed with great natural resources; like fresh water bodies, gigantic forests, wetlands and so on. So, when investors come from wherever political leaders in these developing nations find them and lure them to come and “sow their money”, they find all these vast tracts of virgin land, apparently lying idle, just because they are wetlands. What they see, instead, is a huge factory assembling bicycles or manufacturing packaging materials. They then go to the politicians and point a lustful finger at those tracts of land, and say, “I want…” What follows is within your guess, surely.
Uganda, for example, has had a number of developments put up in places that were famed for various environmental treasures. The Ripon Falls are no more; as are the Owen Falls; Bujagali Falls and now Isimba Falls. The building of dams on the water bodies where these falls were has submerged those beautiful natural fountains for good. A couple of years ago, the country was hit with what some still refer to as the Mabira Crisis.
A renowned sugar manufacturer had asked for Mabira Forest, so he could slash down the trees and plant sugarcanes in the trees’ stead. Citizens rose up in arms, championed by an MP, Beatrice Anywar, who later took on the moniker ‘Mama Mabira’; resisting the giveaway of Mabira to that famous investor. They prevailed, bless the Lord! Over the years, Kampala’s face has changed, with places that were predominantly green losing that hue, as concrete-and-glass structures have sprung up all over the place. Some of these structures have been erected in wetlands; like Oasis Mall and its neighbour, Garden City. Other such structures exist in other places, where wetlands were filled and green belts dug up, to allow for development to occur.
Right now, the pervading movement across Busoga region is the growing of sugarcane. Because there is a near-acute shortage of raw materials for the many sugar factories that have come up lately, manufacturers have gone into the villages and asked people to grow more sugarcane. As a result, residents have cut down mini-forests and given up on growing anything else, so they can get more land for the now-lucrative sugarcane growing. In a related manner, sand mining has taken over the country, to the extent that mini-valleys have appeared where they were not previously, posing a safety hazard to residents, and, of course, destroying the environment. Lately, the Uganda government has come up with a proposed law, including sand in the category of minerals, so that before one engages in sand mining, they get a proper licence from the line minister, just like would someone seeking to mine gold and copper.
We could go on and on, listing commercial activities that have depleted various elements of the environment. Fishing methods that do not discriminate between grown and immature fish; hunting habits that have rendered some species almost extinct. These are the issues Uganda and many other developing countries are grappling with. What is even worse is that gatekeepers such as the media have also been compromised, switching to the side of those who destroy the environment. Instead of reporting cases of abuse of natural resources so that citizens can do something about it, the media have had chunks of “meat” shoved into their mouths, so they are quiet. They are in bed with the violators of the environment; they are accomplices in these offences. The same can be said of law enforcers who, when they apprehend culprits, release them after those culprits have also released fat envelopes meant to silence them.
Corruption has hampered the fight against environmental protection to shocking levels. People hired to protect the environment have been said to receive money so they can turn a blind eye when rich people grab protected areas for development purposes. People with political power have written notes to environmental conservation officials, instructing them to allow specific investors to reclaim wetlands. Even the politicians themselves have hidden behind unknown faces and taken up such land.
What is the way forward?
Uganda has come up with statutory bodies and authorities to champion the fight against environmental degradation. Notable among these is the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), which was set up in May 1995 to oversee the preservation of the environment, even as people undertook development initiatives. NEMA’s mandate was to coordinate, monitor, regulate and supervise environmental management in the country. It was meant to contribute to socio-economic development and the wise use of natural resources, with special focus on providing support to the Government’s main goal of ensuring sustainable development… Unfortunately, even such bodies have been undermined, when political leaders, for obvious reasons, connive with ordinary business people to grab chunks of land that has forest covers; or is a wetland or by the lake, where sand mining is prevalent.
The key concept here is “sustainable development”. We cannot pretend that countries will not seek to develop, because it is the mandate of all governments to prepare for their people, to draw them from the doldrums of poverty and perennial lack to a people who can sustain themselves economically. So, if we are to tame the environment to harness it for development, it should be in such a way that we do not destroy it. If you need the water around Karuma to generate power, do not harness it in such a way that after some decades, the water will no longer be there. If that water in any way supported other forms of life in the Murchison region, like wild game, it is foolhardy to destroy it, because ultimately, it denies those animals and birds their livelihood, which endangers them. Sooner than later, they will be declared extinct. Alternatively, those wild animals will migrate, seeking alternative habitats; and in the process become a hazard to human life and other economic activities. The key to managing development alongside a healthy environment lies in using it responsibly.
The word is “moderation”. Just because you need to produce ample sugar to feed your ever-rising population, and also have a surplus for sale, does not mean that you reclaim swamps and cut forests. After the desert has caught up with you, where will you get the requisite conditions for growing the sugarcane you desperately need to make sugar? Sustainability means that we peer into the future and ask ourselves how we will still make the goods we need, without taking away the environment that is necessary for their manufacture.
Unfortunately, some look at it with a selfish eye. If they know that in 50 years they will no longer be here, they have no qualms about depleting the environment, to meet today’s need. It is this selfish streak that is responsible for the wanton giving away of natural resources to investors who, after they have made the profit they seek, will return to their already developed countries and leave Uganda in their newfound dreary environment. What is interesting is that those developed countries have places they have declared no-go areas for anyone seeking to put up industries and other aspects of modern-day development. Even the biggest of cities have chunks of green cover, not to mention places with fresh water. They have all manner of birds, insects and small game animals in those places; so that tourists can go and ogle them, then leave those countries with millions of dollars, which the countries with natural habitats for that wildlife cannot do.
Developing nations need to wake up to the reality of ensuring sustainable development, where the natural environment coexists with development projects. That way, we will keep what God endowed us with, and at the same time, put up projects God enables us to put up from the wisdom He has given us.
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