By David Oduut
The ministry of lands housing and urban development is next week set to begin reopening and demarcation of Mt. Elgon National Park boundary.
The long awaited exercise will commence Monday January 16, in Sebei and Bugisu sub regions across the districts of Bukwo, Kween, Kapchorwa, Bududa and Bulambuli as well as Sironko, Manafwa and Mbale, the districts bordering Mt. Elgon National Park.
The National Park boundary stretches 1141 square Kilometers across the eight districts.
For decades, the unclear boundary has been the root-cause of bloody conflict between the conservation body, Uganda Wildlife Authority-UWA and neighboring communities.
According the ministry of lands, the re-opening exercise is set to verify all the current boundary pillars placed by Geomaps and ascertain whether they are in the correct position as per the 1968 cadastral maps from the Surveys and Mapping department.
It is also intended to correct any boundary alterations not in line with the Mount Elgon National Park coordinates of 1968 and thereafter place a new set of boundary pillars after removing those that were placed in the wrong positions.
On Thursday, Persis Namuganza state Minister for lands met with local leaders in Kapchorwa district and explained that the demarcation exercise is limited to boundary opening and will form the basis to address the issue of land encroachment within the park.
“The exercise is limited only to boundary opening, after knowing the boundary issues on encroachment will also be ascertained and included in a report that will be handed over the office of the prime minister for further management,” Minister Namuganza noted.
However, the district leaders which included Members of parliament, Local Council fives and RDCs, owing to the pressure mounted by locals; are still split over the exercise demanding the lands ministry to choose either 1983 or 1993as a yardstick for reopening.
The two boundaries they said are familiar with the locals.
According to John Baptist Nambeshe the Member of Parliament for Manjiya County in Bududa district, relying on the 1968 boundary for demarcation is going to eat deep into the land occupied by survivors of landslides in Bududa district, and Benet community in Sebei.
This he said would leave hundreds of landless people stranded.
Nambeshe warned that ignoring submissions made by local leaders may see the demarcation face a big challenge.
“If you try to underrate the contributions we are making, then you are headed for a big shock. Already they are holding the ministry of lands in suspetion as it seems to be dictating terms of demarcation,” Nambeshe roared amidst a chilled hall at Noah Ark Hotel in Kapchorwa Minicipality.
Mangusho Cherop Lawrence the Member pf Parliament for Kween County in Kween district said the Ministry of lands needed to clarify on the resettlement of communities that will be affected after the exercise noting that: “It is now known among the communities that those found inside the park will later be evicted.”
“First, the resettlement, then re-opening of the boundary can come later.” Mangusho said.
While Bernard Elly Mujasi the embattled Mbale district chairperson and John Musila the LC5 chairperson Manafwa district both urged the ministry of lands to look into people’s interest in carrying out the boundary reopening exercise; tasking them to also be considerate on issues of land pressure due to population growth.
However, Denis Obo the Public Relations Officer at the Ministry of lands clarified that the ministry will use the original 1968 national park boundary to reopen the boundary.
He meanwhile emphasized that no one will be displaced and that even crops and houses found within the park will also not be tampered with during the reopening exercise.
Background to Mt. Elgon National park boundary
The Uganda Protectorate administration gazetted its side of Mount Elgon a Forest Reserve, managed by the Forestry Department, in 1929. In 1937, the boundary survey was completed but parcels were repeatedly degazetted to provide land for local residents.
In 1940, the area became the Mount Elgon Crown Forest and in 1951 a Central Forest Reserve.
In 1983, the Ugandan government opened up a 6,000 hectare portion of the reserve for settlement by the encroaching Benet-Ndorobo group. An additional 1,500 hectares were settled illegally.
The area legally remained a part of the reserve until 2002 when it was officially degazetted. Management of the park disintegrated during the civil wars. In January 1994, the reserve was finally converted into a national park, although timber harvesting continued in some areas
There has been a long standing conflict between UWA, the core managers and custodians of Mount Elgon National Park and the communities residing on MT. Elgon.
This according to local leaders is as a result of varying boundaries that have put both sides at loggerheads.
Adoa Kennedy Otiti the Resident District Commissioner Kween said communities have been divided on imaginary boundaries of 1983, 1993 and the failed 2005 survey which was marred by corrupt tendencies of surveyors.
“Over time there have been so many correspondences that have circulated within the population, including recent presidential instructions and all these are baffling people.”
With the unclear boundary, there has been counter-accusations pelted as UWA accuses community members for encroaching on protected land while most locals have for long also claimed that the conservation body is denying them their ancestral land.
Recent Bloody clashes
In 2013, a 21-year- old resident of Bumasifwa sub-county identified as John Gimei who had reportedly gone to the park to look for herbs after his wife had given birth was shot dead by park rangers.
2014: About 15 gunmen raided a UWA camp on Mt Elgon National Game Park, killed three rangers and made away with their guns.
In October 2016, residents of Bunamoli parish in Bubyangu Sub County, Mbale district invaded Mt Elgon National Park to repossess chunks of agricultural land which they claimed belonged to them.
These form part of a group that was evicted in 2005 by Uganda Wildlife Authority in the four villages of Bunamoli, Bumasifwa, Nahandu and Namatyale for encroaching on Mt Elgon National Park land. A total of 214 households were affected as a result of the eviction.
And currently, 430 families in Manafwa district have dragged UWA to court claiming a portion of once protected land and court has issued an injunction on the land.
However, in December 2015 the primeminster’s office met officials from UWA and leaders of the eight districts to forge a lasting solution to the persistent problem.
Among the many resolutions made was a recommendation to have the 1968 boundary re-opened to help ease misunderstanding.