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Scientists are challenging politicians over the planned give-away of a natural forest east of Kampala, Uganda, for a sugar plantation.

The Ugandan state-owned newspaper The New Vision last month (20 March) reported that Uganda was in the process of leasing 7,100 hectares ― around a quarter ― of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda, part of the international Mehta group.

The Mabira forest, located between the cities of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda, has been a protected forest reserve since 1932.

News of the proposed giveaway has sparked a national outcry. Scientists and environmental groups have teamed up to campaign against the move, saying the forest is important for its rich biodiversity, as well as its value as a resource for carbon-trading and timber.

The international organisation Environmental Alert (EA) — the leading private sector forestry agency — has joined experts from NatureUganda, Greenwatch Uganda and the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment.

They say Mabira is home to many plant and animal species, including 312 tree and shrub species — some of which are used for traditional medicine — 199 species of butterfly, 287 species of birds and 16 small mammals.

Mabira also represents a significant carbon sink, and potential carbon-trading resource for Uganda. The EA says cutting away part of Mabira could cost US$316 million in lost carbon credit.

The forest is also seen as an economic resource for its timber. "The value of the wood is US$568 million and the land value is estimated at about US$5 million," Dorothy Kaggwa, a senior officer at EA, told The New Vision.

This means the Ugandan public stands to lose almost US$890 million in total if the forest is destroyed.

The state-run National Forestry Authority has warned that converting the forest to sugarcane plantations is contrary to Uganda's Forestry Policy Statement Number One: that the government undertakes to "actively protect, maintain and sustainably manage the current permanent forest estate".

"Converting Mabira into sugarcane will spell an environmental disaster for the central region in particular and this country in general," it said.

On 29 March Ugandan prime minister Apolo Nsibambi said his cabinet had not yet discussed or taken a decision about Mehta's request for the land.

"Should we decide to degazette [remove protection from] Mabira, it will come to parliament to legally effect degazettement," he said.

FarmingA cross section of Ugandan farmers and national legislators are aggressively lobbying the outgoing Parliament to quickly pass the Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill 2012 before their term ends this month. There is general agreement that a Biosafety law needs to be enacted to provide a regulatory framework for several biotech research projects currently taking place in confinement in the country.

There are several traits Ugandan scientists have utilized over the years through genetic engineering that could help improve local varieties of major staples like banana, cassava, sweet potato and maize:

  • resistance to cotton boll worm
  • herbicides tolerance
  • resistance to cassava brown streak virus
  • resistance to banana bacterial wilt
  • resistance to black sigatoka disease in bananas
  • Provitamin A enhancer
  • resistance to sweet potato virus
  • resistance to Potato blight disease
  • tolerance to to low soil nitrogen and tolerance to drought

Anti GM Activist at a recent press conference to demonise GE research

Youths leaders, students, and farmers came calling for the Biosafety law

Students from Makerere University threatened to drop the biotechnology courses they are pursuing claiming it would be a waste of time if the government does not plan on using their expertise. Many Ugandan farmers agree with scientists that biotechnology is key in addressing many of their persistent farming needs like drought, pests and disease.  They say the failure by the legislators to pass the bill has denied them chances to access modern technologies being developed by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) centers spread across the country. They pledged their support for science, attesting that it has been scientists who have always provided them with solutions. The youth leaders representing the ruling party and other parties came in solidarity.

“Cassava production in the region has gone down because of cassava diseases. This has affected farmers economically because revenue from the crop has gone down,” said Dominic Ettellu, a farmer from Teso region in eastern Uganda and Chairperson of Uganda National Biotechnology Farmers’ Forum to East African Business Week. “The only way to help farmers is to allow them adopt the technologies which our local scientists have developed to support farmer to mitigate the challenges of cassava mosaic. But that cannot be done when parliament has not okayed the application of biotechnology in the country,”

Anti GMO Activists awakened call the press

The anti-GMO groups led by Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (Pelum), Uganda, The Eastern and Southern Africa small scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF), Uganda, and The South and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATING), Uganda, convened a press conference in an attempt to deflect the students’ and farmers’ message. The NGOs are used presenting their position before reporters with almost no background on these issues. This time they faced a professional media who were well versed in the controversy, and were clearly skeptical of the NGO belief that they are “saviors of our indigenous foods”.

The activists usually push familiar themes, such as citing Google features on the retracted Seralini GMO and glyphosate study, and showing pictures found online of rats with grotesque tumors. They often also claim genetically engineered seeds do not germinate, that GMOs are causing a loss of indigenous plants and other misrepresentations. In this instance, the activists in their usual style went accused the minister who is in charge of the legislation for having “connived with Monsanto to pass the Biosafety bill.” Their criticisms were endorsed by a host of protest groups including, Action Aid Uganda (AAIU), Caritas Uganda, Join Energy and Environment Projects (JEEP), Community Integrated Development Initiatives (CIDI), Agency for Integrated Rural Development (AFIRD), Caritas Kampala,and Food Rights Alliance (FRA).

The Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill 2012 has been on the floor of Parliament for about three years. The Uganda Biosafety and Biotechnology consortium told East African Business Week if the Bill is not passed, the Ugandan market will be flooded with GMO products from Tanzania and Kenya.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in developing countries. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

Uganda's cabinet has approved its first National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, after eight years of deliberation.

The policy was approved last week (2 April), and provides objectives and guidelines for the promotion and regulation of biotechnology use in the country.

"The policy bears the guidelines on the legal, institutional and regulatory framework," Peter Ndemere, executive secretary of the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), told SciDev.Net.

But for the policy to be implemented, a bill must be presented to parliament and passed into a law — a process that could take many months.

"We've drafted a biotech bill for parliament to discuss and pass into law," says Ndemere. "In order to implement a law, you need a policy instrument, that's why the policy comes first."

He adds that the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops requires this law. The guidelines in the policy also cover tissue and cell culture, medical diagnostics, industrial microbiology and biochemical engineering.

The policy was drafted by the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) with extensive consultation with farmers and consumer groups, university dons, policymakers and legislators leading to considerable re-shaping of the regulations.

Research into genetically modified crops is already underway in the country (see Uganda approves Bt cotton trials), overseen by the National Biosafety Committee, and researchers are hopeful that the approval of the policy will translate into law.

"Cabinet has made my day. They have provided this country with the necessary policy guidelines that shall give our research a proper way forward. Roles — which institution does what — have been well spelt out," says Andrew Kiggundu from the National Agricultural Biotechnology Centre in Kawanda, which is researching high-yield GM cotton and cassava.

Robert Anguzu of the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), which was consulted on the bill, says the legislation allows Uganda to cope with rapid biotechnology developments in neighbouring Kenya.

"Kenya's genetically modified organisms would easily find their way into Uganda. If they found us unprepared, without regulations, it would be a big challenge to manage them when they're already with farmers and consumers," says Arthur Makara, Senior Science/Biosafety Officer and Secretary to the National Biosafety Committee.

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