A large landslide on the lower slopes of Mt. Elgon caused a major tragedy in eastern Uganda, when three villages were buried in a mudslide several meters high. Further investigations revealed that these settlements were inside the demarcated national park boundaries in areas where the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) tried many times to stop encroachment, evict illegal squatters, nd restore the forest cover to hold the soil together. Evictions have failed in the past for various reasons, but mostly attributed to irresponsible local politicians or political aspirants, who encouraged the villagers to remain inside the park, or go into the park and claim land in the first place.
Alongside the illegal entry and settlements went the reckless cutting of trees to clear land for small patches of farmland, often on steep slopes like in the now affected area, for agricultural use. However, unlike in other parts of the country,no terracing of proper dimensions took place, leaving the farmed parts of the slopes exposed to the pitfalls of heavy rains and potential mudslides.
Weeks of very heavy rain and days of torrential rain prior to the tragedy have now driven home the bitter and unpalatable truth that these settlements were all along in danger of such natural disasters,and the village residents should have been evicted when the Uganda Wildlife Authority wanted to do so, to protect the park, to protect the forest cover, to protect the water catchment area,and most importantly to protect the people who entered a danger zone and had been misled to stay there.
UWA has now warned that there are other parts of the park, which also had been encroached and face likewise situations, as no trees are left to hold the soil together and are now at immediate risk of similar landslides. The Wildlife Authority has donated generously to the victims of the Bududa tragedy but also firmly pointed out that evictions of other encroached areas inside the national park must now go ahead to avoid further disasters, provide safer habitat to the people presently illegally squatting there, and to rapidly restore forest cover through a major replanting exercise.
UWA’s expert advice should be heeded. It did not come as an afterthought and it was not given to apportion blame but out of concern for our environment, the protection of a vital water tower, to maintain the fragile biodiversity and ecosystems along the slopes of Mt. Elgon, and most important, to protect people for their own good from the fallout of natural disasters of such a scale being repeated again. Local administration and central government should now swiftly evacuate and permanently resettle those living illegally inside the Mt. Elgon National Park and extend the exercise to other forests, parks, and game reserves where illegal settlements have sprung up in the past and were maintained through political godfathers and their ill-considered interventions.