LWERA WETLAND, Uganda (AP) — The excavator grunts in the heart of the swamp, baring its teeth. There are trucks waiting to be loaded with sand, and more are almost certainly on the way.
This is how it happens every day in Lwera, a region of central Uganda on the edge of Lake Victoria: an almost constant demand for sand putting pressure on a wetland that is home to locals and animals and feeds into the largest lake in the world. fresh water of Africa.
Lwera is a breeding ground for fish, serves as a stopover for migratory birds and can store large quantities of carbon dioxide underground which warms the planet. The wetland extends more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) astride the highway from the Ugandan capital Kampala into the western interior. It has long been worked on by sand miners, both legal and illegal, motivated by demand from the construction industry.
Now, all known corporate operations within the wetland have authorization to be there, giving them a measure of legitimacy that is frustrating to environmental activists, local officials and others who say mining needs to be stopped because degrade the wetland.
They charge that while the companies are there legally, their activities are in many ways illegal.
Residents of the farming community of Lwera say they reap poverty, complaining that mining creates few jobs and ruins the land.
Ronald Ssemanda, a local village chairman, pointed to a bushy lot fenced with capstones that he said had been badly cratered by sand miners.
“There’s no way I can even talk to them,” Ssemanda said, referring to owners of mining operations he deems too powerful.
Ssemanda is no longer so explicit in his criticisms. He said the issue “is above us”.
Sand extraction, mainly for use in the construction sector, is big business, with 50 billion tonnes used globally every year, the United Nations Environment Program said in a report last year. . He warned that the industry is “largely ungoverned”, leading to erosion, flooding, saltier groundwater and the collapse of coastal defences.
Healthy wetlands can help control local climate and flood risk, according to UNEP.
In Uganda, an ongoing construction boom mirrors trends across the region. Riverbeds and lake basins – publicly owned – are often the scene of mining operations, although there are also private properties excavated for sand.
But while all the wetlands around Lake Victoria are threatened by sand miners, the eponymous Lwera sand is favored by builders due to its rough texture which is said to perform better in masonry mortar.
Some builders have been known to bring trucks back, rejecting the sand unless they can feel that it is Lwera material.
At least two companies formally operate within Lwera: the Chinese-owned Double Q Co. Ltd. and Seroma Ltd. Both frequently face questions about their alleged destructive activities there, and members of a parliamentary committee on natural resources have threatened to shut them down after an unannounced visit earlier this year.
Both companies were open for business when the Associated Press visited in early April. Double Q officials declined to be interviewed on the spot and did not respond to questions.
A representative of Seroma Ltd., production manager Wahab Ssegane, defended their work, saying they have a permit, their operations are 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the lake and they follow National Authority guidelines for environmental management.
NEMA has banned dredging within Lake Victoria but allows sand mining in wetlands.
“Otherwise, you’d have to import sand,” NEMA spokeswoman Naomi K. Namara said. Companies caught degrading the environment face hefty financial penalties, she said.
But activists and some locals say no business should be allowed to operate in Lwera, even if it can somehow curb environmental concerns.
A key concern is with the equipment used. The companies are licensed to dig 4 meters (13 feet) into the earth, but some dredging vessels are being adapted on site to dig deeper, according to site officials.
“They don’t have permits to use those dredgers,” said an official who is part of a local government team that collects taxes from the miners, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “The dredges are going 12 meters (40 feet) underground,” he said.
It’s hard to fill open spaces when miners dig so deep, leaving depressions in the earth, he said.
When wells aren’t filled, open spaces naturally fill with water which then seeps out, occasionally flooding people’s gardens and homes, said resident Sandra Buganzi.
“The sandmen came and dug the sand and brought us water, and it started going into people’s houses,” he said. “I feel very bad and feel anger and hatred in my heart.”
As Buganzi spoke, a neighbor, Fiona Nakacwa, grabbed a garden hoe and cleared a path to water away from her home.
She feared she might be forced to leave her neighborhood.
“Before they started digging the sand, there was no water coming here,” Nakacwa said. “This place was dry and there was a garden. I’ve lived here for seven years and there was never any water.”
At least 10 of its neighbors have since moved away, under pressure from the floods.
“We’re still here because we have nowhere else to go,” Nakacwa said.
Businesses – often with soldiers or police manning the gates – operate virtually unsupervised and local officials have been reduced to mere spectators, according to some officials and residents who spoke to the AP.
Charles Tamale, mayor of the nearby town of Lukaya, said he was powerless to do anything when the companies filed their papers.
“It needs some scrutiny, but the government authorizes these kids,” he said. “But in reality what they are doing cannot be said to be legal… they are digging and not taking preventive measures”.
Namara, the NEMA official, did not disclose the names of other companies licensed to operate at Lwera, but noted that “every effort has been made to ensure that the sand is mined sustainably.”
Then there’s the way the sand is distributed: fluid but opaque, which stokes fears that cartels protected by senior Ugandan officials are behind the mining operations.
Chinese-made lumber trucks load sand up and down hills and unload the sand at designated areas along the highway, which middlemen then distribute to construction sites. Some sand goes to regional markets across the border.
It can cost up to $1,000 to deposit sand anywhere in the Kampala metropolitan area.
“No company can come and do such a thing,” Tamale said of the sand mining in Lwera. “They are owned by big people in government, or have contacts within government, as anything they want can be done as they wish, not as it would have been done.”
He did not provide any evidence, reiterating the widespread belief among locals that powerful government officials are among the beneficiaries of the mining companies.
Jerome Lugumira, the NEMA official whose record includes wetland care, said he wasn’t available for comment.
Activist David Kureeba, who tracks wetland mining, said NEMA was too weak to resist “pressure from government intermediaries bringing investors” into the country. Lwera should be out of reach for all investors, Kureeba said.
Regardless of the economic rewards, “NEMA makes a mistake in allowing sand mining in such an important ecosystem,” he said. “They’d better cancel all the leases.”
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