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Resisting Degazetting of Forests and the Discourse of Development in Uganda

Muhamed Lunyago, Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR)


On October 28, 2021, a bill was introduced in the Ugandan parliament to degazette (remove protected status from) three central forest reserves: Kiula, Wamale, and Bajo, all located in Kayunga district. Member of Parliament Charles Tibandeke argued that the motion to degazette aimed to provide room for “human settlement and industrial parks.” Parliament justified this bill by stating that, “land constituting Wamale, Kiula and Bajo central forest reserves have been heavily settled on by about 70,000 households” due to “increased urbanisation.” Despite resistance by farmers and other elements of society, Bajo Forest reserve was sold to Kiira Motors, a Ugandan state enterprise, to establish a car assembling plant. 


It should be noted that at the heart of the state’s development discourse is industrial development, which necessitates acquisition of immense amounts of land, including forests and swamps. But this priority leads to encroachment on lands that are considered vital for fighting the global crises of environmental degradation and climate change. This paper questions state-driven and state-enforced notions of land, development, and environmental conservation in the context of degazetting by recentering a perspective that emerges from society. Dealing with questions of the environment and climate change requires engaging with the multiple and complex structural issues of colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism that reproduce the problem using state and global environmental governance discourse. The increasing use of development discourse, which is couched in the language of industrial development, to justify land dispossessions through degazetting makes it important to question the implications of that discourse for the environment and climate change. Based on ethnographic findings, I use a critical reflection on farmers’ resistance to degazetting to offer an alternative sociological discourse on land use, development, and environmental conservation.

Neoliberalism and Environmental Conservation

Historically, colonial and neoliberal conservation efforts have typically been driven by a Eurocentric perspective that prioritized the preservation of “natural” or “pristine” environments over the needs and rights of local communities. Colonization was characterized by the widespread exploitation of natural resources, with nature treated as a commodity to be exploited for the benefit of the colonial power. The communities living on those territories were, at best, an obstacle to be overcome during that exploitation and, at worst, deployed as active agents of the destruction of natural resources. Indigenous territories were often treated as business enterprises with seemingly limitless resources, resulting in serious environmental consequences.


Political ecologists have conceptualized neoliberalism as a complex yet divergent assemblage of ideologies, institutions, discourses, actors, and practices whose main mandate is to ensure that processes of financialization, marketization, and commodification are expanded and entrenched in society. The adoption of neoliberal principles in conservation, in ways similar to colonial conservation, can be attributed to the search for new investment opportunities for the generation of surplus capital framed within the discourse of the “green economy” in ways that foreground dominant ideologies and power. Holmes and Cavanagh have pointed to the ways in which neoliberalism creates “new subjectivities and forms of governance” in a bid to secure “profits for the individuals and institutions”.” Neoliberal conservation projects carry with them longer and broader imprints of histories of environmental regulations and processes of state formation. The social impacts of neoliberal conservation should be thought of within this broader historical and political context, alongside broader questions of land reform, power, development, and class. 


In the Ugandan context, Nakangu has shown that the roots of conservation governance are historical and political, and its neoliberalization can be located in the longer political history of Uganda’s governance of protected areas right from the colonial period. Similarly, Cavanagh and Himmelfarb highlight how conservation governance in Uganda has a direct relationship to its longer history of state formation, with an enduring tension between the “conservation authorities” and the Ugandan society.11 This tension manifests in neoliberal interventions as a focus not on conservation itself but on its exploitative, dispossessive, and marginalizing logic. As Nel would argue, there has been an extended commercialization and privatization of the forestry sector in Uganda, which has been accelerated by the adoption of neoliberal structural adjustment programs and extensive external intervention. This situation has weakened state management capacity, since the focus has been put on the “creation of markets for timber and as a more recent novelty carbon markets for carbon stored in woody biomass.” Both public and private agencies have continued to front a neoliberal discourse that looks at “forests and carbon resources as natural capital to which economic calculations can be unproblematically applied.” To Nel, the neoliberal discourse naturalizes the newly neoliberalized status quo in ways similar to how the colonial discourse naturalized the “crown lands and forest reserves.” In the end, the discourses depoliticize “their local context, simplifying perceptions of the forestry crisis to linear narratives that justify technical fixes and obfuscate the more complex socio-political explanations for and nuanced responses to deforestation.” He argues that forest areas became naturalized as normative, intrinsic conservation spaces that required utmost defense while disregarding them as socio-cultural entities. They became “products of colonial and neoliberal regimes of production and conservation.” In the end, what has been conserved is spaces to be exploited later through schemes such as degazetting with the blame being put on ordinary people whom they claim attack the already preserved and conserved ecosystems like forests.


Nel argues that the mainstream (Western, colonial, and hegemonic) forestry discourse has put the blame of deforestation and forest degradation on the “black man,” categorized into three destructive forms: the man with the axe, the man with the pen (politicians, bureaucrats, forest managers, and rangers) and the man who settles (seen as an encroacher and criminalized for degrading the protected areas on which they settle). Following this logic, the state and its neoliberal conservation counterparts have considered the “man who settles” as the target of the degazetting bill for the three central forest reserves in Kayunga district, which describes the local inhabitants as an encroacher on a forest with no title to the land, and so justifying the need to degazette the forests and establish industries. These local inhabitants are seen as illegal and subject to expulsion when new investments take place on the leased central forest reserves because they usually lack the capacity to prove “their continuous connection to the land for more than 12 years.” The discourse in the end privileges the elite, rich, and powerful at the expense of those who are far from the levers of power. The Ugandan debate resonates with the normative neoliberal discussions on land rights and security of tenure as advanced by the World Bank through its chief proponent and economist Hernando de Soto, who suggests that those can only be achieved if such lands are put into “productive use.” The discourse further seems to be based on a commodified understanding of land and other natural resources without regard to the other social relations connected to it.

The Parliamentary Debate on Degazetting

The debates in parliament on degazetting the three central forest reserves mirror the current framework and interests of the state and capital. The bill had three intentions: One, to deal with the question of encroachment on a forest reserve [defined in terms of “the third black man” described above]; two, to provide security of tenure [at the expense of the security of local communities]; and three, to promote industrial development [at the expense of environmental sustainability].

First, the bill claimed that “land constituting Wamale, Kiula and Bajo central forest reserves have been heavily settled on by residents, numbering about 70,000 households, resulting in the establishment of four trading centres, seven parishes and 29 villages in the two sub-counties.” The bill thus defined the enemy and the threat to the forest as the ordinary people who had settled on the land. It goes further to suggest that people had already started establishing schools, hospitals, and worship centers with titles being issued by the Ministry of Lands, Housing, and Urban Development. The theoretical and practical implication of such a narrative is that the forests and other protected areas are depicted as being threatened by a local, land-hungry community, which threatens not only the forest as nature but also the potential for future development.

Second, the bill claims that people who are settled on this land are insecure, defined in part as an issue of tenure security. The bill states that, “unless the land belonging to Wamale, Kiula and Bajo central forest reserves is degazetted to allow human settlement, the 70,000 households currently occupying that land will continue having no security of tenure on the land and the continued land wrangles and land evictions in the district are likely to continue unabated.” Degazetting here is broadly aimed at what the sponsor of the degazetting bill, Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Nsanja called “economic justice” with emphasis on “justice for all.” He noted that land titles were issued to only a few lucky people. Couching the degazetting project in the language of providing security of tenure to the people follows a path typical of neoliberal discourse. It is important to note in this context that some people had started getting land titles on this same land. The question becomes, which people? MP Idah Nantaba (one of the critics of the bill) says the people getting titles are investors and politically connected elites who have the resources and power and thus are not a threat to the land under the terms of the neoliberal discourse. The reality of who is getting titles turns the logic of titles on its head: Titling does not offer tenure security and can change whenever particular, powerful interests emerge. Tenure security becomes meaningless, it seems, when the industrial park establishment can evict people and dispossess them. The same government that defended degazetting in the name of issuing titles to society to afford them security simultaneously offers such titles only to certain interests and not to others. For the first time, this represents an acceptance that titles are not the ultimate security guaranteed by the government, which contradicts its neoliberal logic. Where the sponsors of the bill claimed to be securing the land for the ordinary people, MP Nantaba suggests that the process involves land grabbing, including the titles that were initially issued to those who have them. She notes that when the government issued land titles to a few individuals in the forest reserve, it only issued them to those who have the capacity to grab land. When the government talks of tenure security, it therefore has in mind a conception of security that only protects private developers, political elites, and multinational companies and not the local communities on the land.

Third, the bill argues that “the land currently occupied by Wamale, Kiula, and Bajo central forest reserves in Kayunga District is suitable for establishing industrial parks” and thus promotion of “development.” It argues that this would be to the benefit of the community since it will in turn create more “jobs, ease accessibility of land for investments, introduce new research, technologies, and skills development as well as boost Uganda’s exports.” The people would supposedly benefit from the spill-over effects that come with the investments although not as investors. But in whose interest is a car assembly plant? Clearly, the talk of increasing “urbanization” notwithstanding, the idea of degazetting was not aimed at creating space for human settlement. Rather, the objective of the members of parliament was to free up such land for setting up an industrial park. The idea of industrial parks falls squarely within the neoliberal framework and definition of development. Advocates of (neoliberal) development argue that these parks will provide markets for the area’s agricultural output, as raw materials for the industries, as well as create job opportunities for the people. As such, the intention of the legislators to give out land to investors through the aid of the legislature was laid bare. The creation of jobs, a market for raw materials, and development of skills are core components of the neoliberal development agenda usually used to justify massive land grabs.


Resistance to the Bill

The bill attracted resistance from both members of parliament and the community. In their response, critical Members of Parliament argued that the bill hoodwinked people by claiming that it intended to promote development and tenure security but would instead dispossess them of the land and give it to investors and politically connected local elites. MP Nantaba argued that numerous investors and developers had already started encroaching on the land and dispossessing community members. For instance, she points to Modern Agri Infra Limited as one of the developers who occupied the land and who are in court over the same land. How then can one be convinced that the degazetting bill is not for purposes of consolidating the private ownership of such people and dispossessing the poor who cannot afford the titles? From this perspective, degazetting can only be seen as a move aimed at handing the land to investors and political elites. The security of ordinary people to use land cannot be achieved when huge chunks of forest land are to be cleared to allow the establishment of industries.


Outside of parliament, the Ssabanyala (cultural leader of Banyala of Kayunga), Kimeza, joined the protest and resistance against the sale of the forests by claiming that the act is illegal and the forest is more important than the industries to the people of Kyunga and surrounding areas. He accused the Resident District Commissioner, Ssempala—who he claimed was not even from the district—of being behind the transaction. The Ssabanyala argued that the Bajo forest reserve is “environmentally important for the area.” Because of his strong fight against the sale (and given his military status) some government officials at the district accused the “Ssabanyala of harbouring selfish interests in his fight against what he says is the illegal sale of the forest.” The question of selfishness is attributed to the fact that he was planning to give the land to his “subjects” to continue farming and cattle grazing, since some community members were already using parts of the forest for these purposes. This criticism of the Ssabanyala by district leaders shows that the interests of people were not their concern, and they would rather allow investors to take the land than let the people use it. The Ssabanyala denied having any selfish interest and vowed to fight to his last drop and encouraged his successor, in case he died in the process, to continue to protect the forest reserve.


Given the violent path the resistance was taking, a meeting was held in early August 2021 to discuss the issue between the various parties, including the cultural leader, community members, the national forestry authority, and government officials both local and national. It is reported that in the meeting, around 50 cattle herders attended “carrying big sticks” while the National Forestry Authority (NFA) and the Ssabanyala’s prime minister were both protected by armed men. In the meeting, these cattle herders expressed the need to continue “using the forest reserve for grazing their cattle while the ordinary occupants of the forest… still want[ed] possession of the land.” 


Despite having the support of the Ssabanyala, community members did not have the strength to fight directly these powerful forces that were “grabbing the land, well connected and sometimes armed.” It took the intervention of the National Forestry Authority (NFA) to engage them in a court battle “seeking the nullification of many land titles that had been issued out on these [forest reserves].” Even then, the case remained in court given the power of those who acquired the land. NFA’s attempt was couched in the language of environmental conservation and protection. Forest conservation is important, but it becomes problematic when it is used to serve the interests of capital and political power. MP Nantaba argues that it makes no sense to support a motion to degazette forests, which have issues already in court and that the move was tantamount to ‘wasting’ taxpayers’ money. Nantaba’s argument is important for two reasons: First, it questions the whole narrative of environmental conservation, and second, it interrogates the motives of the state in land formalization and degazetting. It shows that the state is not concerned with the interests of the community and ordinary people. This skepticism is confirmed by MP Anthony Akol (co-sponsor of the bill) who stated thus:

We are saying the Government should degazette—and yet you are saying the Government went to court—if it were people who went to court, I would understand the confusion. Madam Speaker, we want to direct the Government to degazette and it is the Government that went to court. Therefore, where is the complication?1

MP Akol seems to suggest that both moves are government moves and no one has a right to challenge the issuing of land titles in forest reserves and the move to degazette. Neither moves, however, seem to be in the interest of society. When he says that if it was the people, not the NFA, complaining, then they could understand the confusion, it means people have to be on their own and up in arms with government which is supposed to protect them. The ideal is that these are institutions of and for society. But if indeed they are, they are only for a certain section of society that constitutes what has been called “the deep state”– the idea that ultimately the move is in the interest of the few within the ruling circles of our society.


In interviews, community members expressed their resistance in ways that challenged the overall epistemic and practical linear understanding of land use, conservation and (industrial) development. A respondent, in questioning the intentions of the supporters of the bill, noted that, “at a critical moment like today, when there is so much need to preserve the environment, government has given out a forest to be cleared and establish a car assembling plant.” Such comments suggest that the people of Uganda are not blind to environmental and climate change questions, even when some of them occupy land which is considered a reserve. The clearing of forests for industrial development can have negative impacts on the environment and local communities. It can lead to habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of ecosystem services, such as water and air purification. Official discourse seems to be referring to reserves as capitalist reserves that will secure land for the capitalist class and politically connected elites to exploit in future through schemes like titling and degazetting.


Despite the resistance to degazetting, Bajo Forest reserve was ultimately given to Kiira Motors to establish a car assembling plant on two square miles. This move faced opposition from the local community and some Members of Parliament that lean toward the interests of the community, just like its predecessor the degazetting bill. Once again, the forces of resistance were labeled as “selfseekers.” It is important to note that despite Bajo being a forest reserve, under government control, it was sold to Kiira motors in the manner of what Marx considered to be state-enforced ‘primitive accumulation' and what David Harvey would call ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Issuing land to Kiira Motors serves to confirm MP Nantaba’s warning that such schemes aim to dispossess the people without their knowledge and consent, couched in the language of development. Ugandan historian Lwanga-Lunyiigo earlier warned that “the benefits derived or to be derived from investment may not be worth the loss the nation incurs by destroying her natural heritage.” Establishing a car factory can only be at the expense of the climate and environment, for example by clearing forests that would otherwise help abate climate change impacts.

Living with the Land and Not Off the Land: De-commodifying Land and Rethinking Development

How can we imagine questions of land use, development, and environmental conservation from the vantage point of society? In this section, I engage some views from the communities that may help us unravel the intentions and interests of the bill to degazette. Taking these views into account is not only important in advancing the different meanings and values attached to (forest) land but also to guide theoretical and policy discussion in ways that serve society’s collective interests. This process is important because conservation efforts,

modes of land use, meanings of development, and knowledge systems that emerge from the community have been disregarded or marginalized by the state through its reproduction of neoliberal and colonial modes. In response, a decolonial endeavor must address the broader socioeconomic context and dismantle the structures of oppression that lead to the marginalization of local community members, their knowledge, and practices. 

It has been established through ethnographic research that people attach multiple values to land through the numerous modes of land use. Often these are relevant for dealing with the future impacts of climate change and environmental conservation since they preserve the environment to varying degrees. For the community, the forest in question is not just a forest or merely land which is being fought over by different parties. The local community envisions other forms of land use and development. As interviewees explain, land, and particularly forest land, 

offers us fresh air and is believed to be a source of generating rains. These lands are used as grazing grounds for those who have animals. Land is a source of firewood for the community. 


In the process of collecting firewood in the forests and shrubs, a lot of conversation on social and economic life used to happen. Today, the individualization of land has also resulted into the individualization of social life. 


Forest land has always been very essential as it provided people with space to get air and breathing space. But today forest lands are getting extinguished. People are clearing them in the name of setting up industries and factories. This is destroying the very reason for which such land was reserved. Now every piece of land is looked at as one for commercial purposes. We no longer have land which contains trees to give us fresh air. People are no longer getting communal grazing areas; people are no longer having space for communally collecting firewood. 


The above quotes demonstrate, first, that land has multiple uses and meanings, for example to some it is used as a source of firewood, to others it can be used as grazing grounds, and for yet others it is a space for society building through social (including economic and political) conversations. Most important of all, land is considered a source of life. Unlike the commoditized meaning of land, where it is just a commodity to be bought and sold and used to promote linear development through setting up industries, here it is not limited to a single universal use. Secondly, the quotes make it clear that these modes of land use are more consistent with aspects of environmental conservation and coping mechanisms for dealing with the impacts of climate change. People articulated how land can be used sustainably, for example, when it is used as a source of firewood, people only collect the dead branches and stems which have fallen off the trees. The bill to degazette the forests would bury all these aspects of land use and limit it to only commercial, monetized, and marketized uses. A third lesson to be learned from the interviewees is that they point to the gendered implications of degazetting the forest. Degazetting will add a larger burden on women already busy with multiple tasks including fetching firewood and water since development of the land for commercial purposes would make the two more scarce.


These comments by community members offer a critique of the exclusive materiality attached to land and to the discourses of development, climate change, and environment promoted by the state. It is also a critique of the global large-scale landgrabbing projects, which are propagated by the neoliberal development agenda in the name of industrial development and ends up dispossessing and evicting people. When people resist such schemes as degazetting, they are not only resisting because of the “material loss to livelihood and dwelling” but also against “symbolic obliteration from the landscape—their removal from its history, memory and representation.” Meaningful development must be consistent with other social values and modes of land use. The dominant narratives on land and development emphasize the needs of industry, while society’s needs—driven by numerous issues including livelihood, social life, culture, and politics—are neglected. This discourse shows that the farmers are not interested in living off the land through, for instance, industry and largescale production, but to live with the land through grazing, growing food, and fetching water and firewood on it. It is not necessarily about what comes out of using the land but what comes with the land. This way of viewing land is not to suggest that the whole idea of development is bad or conservation efforts irrelevant but to show that often they are used to serve particular interests and not the general interests of society. And yet, society must be put at the center of any development undertaking. 


To briefly conclude, the colonial, neoliberal, and capitalist logics have impacted our perception of land immensely, and of nature more generally, by viewing them as a commodity. This perspective has influenced the discussions around land, development, and environmental conservation by focusing attention on technical and purely economic issues, yet the question is also political, social, and epistemic. In that light, the bill to degazette the three forest reserves would do nothing but promote dispossession and evictions of the masses occupying the land while at the same time causing a threat to the environment.

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