Indian businesses face resistance in Uganda

A proposal for a company owned by Ugandans of Indian descent to grow sugar on a nature reserve sparked riots in the capital this month.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A proposal by the government to allow a company run by Ugandans of Indian descent to grow sugar in one of the country's last tropical rainforests exploded this month, raising troubling questions about economic development and relations with Uganda's Indian minority.

Hundreds of rioters rushed the capital's center after a rally organized by two opposition members of parliament went awry on April 12.

The uproar left three people dead, including one Indian man stoned to death by a mob, and police had to rescue about 100 others of Asian origin. Thousands of dollars worth of property, mostly belonging to Indians, was destroyed.

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The events have revived memories of 1972, when former dictator Idi Amin expelled the country's 75,000 Ugandans of Indian descent.

Bitterness lingers

Several thousand Indians have returned to Uganda since Mr. Amin was deposed, but they're still viewed with suspicion here, and often accused of being disrespectful of indigenous Ugandans and taking advantage of the local economy.

To them, the Indian-owned Mehta Group's effort to convert about one-fourth of the Mabira Forest into a sugar plantation is a case in point.

Some Ugandans also resent Indians' domination of many businesses, particularly small-scale retailing. Indeed, small-business owners of Indian descent bore the brunt of this month's outburst.

On April 12, demonstrators carried signs such as, "Asians should go" and "For one tree cut, five Indians dead."

Indians in Uganda, however, seem confident that this month's flare-up was an exception, not the rule. The government took a strong stance against the riot and assured members of the community it wouldn't happen again.

"All Indian businesses are open," says Sanjiv Patel of the Indian Community Association. "We have realized this is an isolated incident; you have a few rotten apples in every community."

"We are doing business and believe we are safe," says Jassani Kareem, an Indian owner of an electronics store and a supermarket, "though there is always that chance of danger."

War over the forest

The war over Mabira Forest began last year when President Yoweri Museveni ordered a study into the feasibility of clearing 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) of the forest in order to expand a sugar estate owned by the Mehta Group, which had applied for permission to do so.

The president's commission of the study angered the National Forestry Authority (NFA) and officials in Mr. Museveni's own government. A poll last week found that 81 percent of Ugandan MPs surveyed opposed the plan.

Mabira residents have been particularly incensed. Since last fall, there have been several protests against the expansion of Mehta-owned Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd, which were forcibly broken up by police.

"We shall continue demonstrating peacefully, because Mabira is a cultural heritage," says William Okwala, a street vendor who led a protest.

"If the forest is cut down, tourism will die completely," he continues.

Other residents say the forest provides a livelihood, food, shelter, and medicine.

But Museveni has said jobs created by the plantation would outweigh losses caused by the clearing of forest land.

"Is Uganda going to depend on firewood forever?" asks Museveni's press secretary, Tamale Mirundi.

Several investors are interested in Uganda, Ms. Mirundi adds, and it would be a mistake for the president not to take the opportunity to modernize the country's economy.

Yet the NFA study commissioned by Museveni concludes that ecological and economic losses would be devastating. The report says the plan endangers rare species of trees and birds; nine found only in Mabira risk extinction.

Economic losses would include lost revenue from logging and ecotourism, Uganda's main source of tourist revenue. Mabira is also a vital water catchment area for the country's lakes and rivers.

With water levels already low, such a change could worsen the rate of electricity production, already a major problem in a country of regular blackouts.

These potential effects have not gone unnoticed by Museveni, who requested another study into the environmental impact of clearing the forest last week.

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