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Bio-piracy: the sale of Uganda’s lakes to investors

AnalysisBio-piracy: the sale of Uganda’s lakes to investors

Mary Serumaga

Appeared on the net on Apr 06, 2018

KODAK Digital Still Camera

The fishermen of Kabarole District appear to have blown the whistle on an audacious act of bio-piracy. They brought to the attention of the authorities that they were being barred from access to the 53 crater lakes that they have fished in from time immemorial. In law this is known as a customary right. It cannot be extinguished simply by putting up barbed wire or waving guns about. But that is just what the District Fisheries Officer of Kabarole tried to do when he leased all 20 lakes to Ferdsult Engineering Services who then proceeded to “re-stock” some lakes and claim ownership of all them.

A solution seems to have been reached under which the local communities will form an association and collect money among themselves to do their own re-stocking (as they have done in the past) without the help of vampire-investors. The Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability is tweeting the process as it unfolds.

While the people of Kabarole may be focused on their fishing rights, it is possible, in fact likely, that they have been robbed of a lot more. The tourism potential of the crater lakes needs no explanation. Then there are potential biological assets. A lot can be learned from the Lake Bongoria saga in Kenya.

Lake Bongoria in the Kenyan arm of the Rift Valley is a habitat to the type of organism known as an extremophile. Extremophiles can withstand extreme heat, cold (as in the Arctic), saltiness and acidity, as in Lake Bongoria. As such they can be put to industrial use. The Bongorian variety was found to be useful as an agent in detergents where, withstanding hot water, it devours vegetable and animal stains during laundry. They are also used to soften and “stone-wash” denim to produce the type that differs from the stiff hard to wash denim of the 70s.

Scientists from Genencor International BV, a Dutch company, discovered extremophiles and their potential uses. Without the knowledge of most Kenyans they set up camp at Lake Bongoria and spent six months harvesting extremophiles. Returning to Europe, they cloned them and sold them to Proctor & Gamble, the detergent manufacturers. The Kenya Wildlife Services pursued them in court for a share in the hundreds of millions of dollars they have earned.

Selection of development projects in Uganda depends on whatever a passing entrepreneur suggests. As in colonial times when colonialists bought up large tracts of land, drove off the locals and sat on them as a future investment, so Ugandan elites acquire rights in national assets and hawk them to speculators who pay the individual public officials and not the state. To tire of restating this fact would be a failure in patriotism.

Having been divested of State enterprises and borrowed more money than the State can reasonably be expected to repay, Uganda remains only with her bio-diversity and natural resources. It is no accident that it is these that are currently in the news as a source of controversy; illegal sand-mining, illegal timber harvesting from and sale of parts of forest reserves, illegal collection of loam soil from forests, the shooting of elephants from helicopters, and now the sale of lakes.

The sale of lakes was mentioned in Parliament for the first time in 2012 when Lulume Bayiga Member of Parliament raised it and the Speaker ordered an investigation. His constituents, fishermen from Damba, Taave, Kimmi, Mbivu, Bulago and Sowe islands had complained to him of being driven out of the area by an investor and their fishing gear confiscated.

Prior to that, during the 2011 election cycle, opposition party leader Kizza Besigye was threatened with arrest for “telling lies” by the incumbent presidential candidate when Besigye informed the public that clandestine transfers of public goods were taking place.

It is a mark of our collective apathy that these allegations were not followed up so that the sale of the Kabarole Crater Lakes now comes as a shock.

Not that the authorities are always keen to act. Some years ago this writer reported illegal sand mining on the shore of Lake Victoria at Bbunga, a Kampala suburb. A large community of miners established themselves there and truckloads of sand were carried away at the rate of eight trucks an hour at the peak of the operation.

The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) sent an official who I offered to show around. He avoided me by arriving and leaving thirty minutes before our scheduled appointment and we did not meet although he talked to the miners. After two fruitless visits to Nema offices and several telephone reminders, another Nema official informed me rather gruffly that the operation had been regularised and that an individual had been granted a license to mine the sand and there was therefore no longer any basis for complaint. The original official could not be contacted because he had died. The area once covered in papyrus and acting as a filter for the several natural springs in the area on which many rely for drinking water is now a barren expanse of dust and weeds.

Nema performed a bit better in 2016 when it allegedly rejected an environmental impact assessment backing an application from Mango Tree Group, a Chinese company, to mine sand in and around Lake Victoria. Those objections included the fact that altering the water table would destroy the ecosystem and devastate the livelihoods of lakeshore dwellers, which is why it is illegal to disturb lake and riverbeds.

The Mango Group, originally in Uganda to build ships, went ahead to mine sand in the lake and on the shore. A local newspaper quoted the Executive Director of Nema as saying, “Initially, there were fears that the activities of the firm will endanger our environment and destroy fish breeding grounds along the shores of the lake. But our technical team together with that of the district established that they will cause no harm to the environment,” Nema denied reversing its position in a later edition of the same newspaper.

The Mango Group has the backing of General Caleb Akandwanaho, brother to President Museveni, who announced that the mining would continue despite Nema’s objections. Akandwanaho (aka Salim Saleh) added that the choice was between youth unemployment and preservation of the sand.

The first excuse, that the mining was to make way for a dock was replaced with the explanation that the sand is required for the new Standard Gauge Railway. This does not explain why foreigners must be awarded the responsibility of meeting the growing need for building materials given that youth unemployment is well over 60 percent. Artisanal sand miners in Lweera wetland who are being pushed out by yet more Chinese have asked the same question.

Finally, in January 2018 it was announced that Mango Tree Group has finally been given a license to dredge sand from Lake Victoria by State Minister for trade and industry Michael Werikhe. This time the project is being presented as a dock required to transport passengers to Kenya and Tanzania – suggesting the sand is merely a by-product.

Clearly Nema is unable to protect the environment and its army of officials is a further drain on the treasury. Parliament and the Minist
ry of Natural Resources are similarly impotent. Local Government headed by political appointees have nothing to offer. At this point, it is left to the Ugandan public to intervene.

It is not unreasonable to ask for a statement from the government to confirm that in fact no senior members of the government or individuals related to them by blood or other ties, has a financial interest in Lake Victoria, Lake Edward, Lake Albert, Lake Kyoga, the River Nile, or in Ferdsult, the purported leaseholder of the Kabarole Crater Lakes. The public needs to be assured that such public goods have not been assigned or mortgaged to investors or creditors whether local or foreign and that no such divestiture is planned.

Public officials should from now on be required to declare their affiliation with foreign investors. 


*Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer. Her essays may be found in Transition (JSTOR), King’s Review and Pambazuka News


Okurut, T (2018) Wakiso leaders bow to pressure, endorse Chinese sand mining firm, The Daily Monitor [online] Available at: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Wakiso-leaders-bow-pressure-endorse-Chinese-sand-mining-firm/688334-4251512-bw7qkn/index.html [Accessed on 5 April 2018]

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