BUGOMA, Uganda, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A troop of baboons lounge on the road through Bugoma forest, while unseen birds hoot from the canopy above.
Close by the forest thins out into shrubland, where a bulldozer stands sentry, its muddy blade facing a wall of trees.
The machine will soon roar into life, as 56 square kilometres of natural woodland in western Uganda are turned into a sugarcane plantation.
The move has ignited passionate debate about who owns the land and how it should be used, pitting conservationists and tour operators against a sugar company and a traditional kingdom.
The National Forestry Authority says the sugar project will carve out 13% of Bugoma, a state-owned forest reserve which is home to a tenth of the country’s chimpanzees and is a growing eco-tourism destination.
But the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom says that it owns the land, which it has leased out to Ugandan company Hoima Sugar to raise money for activities from education projects to renovating cultural sites.
“This is land belonging to my great-grandfathers,” said Ronald Mwesigwa, chairman of the land board which manages the kingdom’s assets. “It’s not part of Bugoma.”
In April, after a three-year legal battle, a judge ruled the land belongs to the kingdom and lies outside the forest reserve.
A separate judgement in May allowed the sugar company to begin felling trees, even though an appeal is ongoing.
The case shows how land disputes and deforestation are entangled in the East African country, which has lost more than 60% of its forest cover since 1990, according to the National Forestry Authority.
“When ownership ... goes to private hands then you know nature and wildlife are at stake,” said Benedict Ntale, deputy chairman of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, which opposes the sugar scheme.
The Bunyoro kingdom was violently incorporated into British-ruled Uganda in the late 19th century, after mounting fierce resistance to colonial rule.
It was abolished in 1967, along with all other historic kingdoms in the country. But in 1993 a new government restored most of the kingdoms and began to return their confiscated assets.
Among those assets, says the Bunyoro kingdom, is a piece of ancestral land adjacent to Bugoma forest – the same parcel it has now leased for sugar-growing.
Mwesigwa said the land has belonged to Bunyoro for centuries, even though it only acquired formal title in 2016.
“In Bunyoro, land was owned customarily so you don’t need to have any document to say this land belongs to you.”
There are cultural sites in the forest, he said, including a source of water used in the coronation of kings.
The kingdom has granted a 99-year lease to Hoima Sugar, a private company which opened a $30m sugar factory nearby in 2016, one of several agribusinesses in a rural region which is also preparing for oil development.
The company directly employs more than 800 people and has upgraded local roads, said Rajasekaran Ramadoss, its agriculture manager, adding Hoima Sugar had consulted local leaders before acquiring the leasehold.
“Any industry has to expand,” he said. “It is only agriculture.”
But opponents of the plan say weak institutions are failing to protect the forest.
The National Forestry Authority argued in court the kingdom’s land title was acquired fraudulently.
“Bugoma was gazetted (as a forest reserve) in 1932,” said Juliet Mubi, a spokesperson. “We have boundary maps which are very clear.”
Environmentalists and tour operators have launched a campaign to “Save Bugoma”.
They say the forest shelters the Ugandan mangabey, an endemic primate, as well as up to 550 chimpanzees. It is an important biodiversity corridor between larger national parks, environmentalists argue.
Among the campaigners is Costantino Tessarin, an Italian who owns a small eco-lodge on the edge of the forest.
He started the first tour operation in Bugoma in 2015 as a counterpoint to the “very huge and very obvious” illegal logging that he found there. Now the sugar scheme creates a new threat.
“Who is able to invest in an area where you’re not sure if the following day that forest you invested in will actually be there?” Tessarin said.
In the village of Nsozi, a short walk from the parked bulldozer, locals have mixed feelings on the issue.
The disputed land belongs to the kingdom, said Paul Nzabanimpa, a resident, leaning on his motorcycle. But he does not want the trees to be cut.
The forest is a source of firewood and herbal medicines, he explained. “Those people who are educated tell us it’s where the rainfall comes from.”
Others want to grow their own crops on the land or earn money from tree-planting schemes.
Meanwhile, pressure on the kingdom is growing. In a visit to the Bunyoro region in May, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the government would protect the Bugoma forest, without detailing how.
“The question of land use is still under discussion,” insisted Mwesigwa, the chairman of the land board. But he also admitted that it would be “a challenge” to unwind the agreement with the sugar company.
And as the kingdom mulls it over, the bulldozers are preparing to move in. (Reporting by Liam Taylor, Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)