The government has given 450 hectares of land in Queen Elizabeth National Park to Hima Cement for limestone extraction, a move environmentalists say will scare away animals and birds and harm the tourism industry.
Hima Cement Ltd., which owns a factory at Hima in Kasese District, is only waiting for the consent of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to start extracting limestone from the park land.
The land is located in Dura on the southeastern part of the park that extends into Kamwenge, a district that borders Kasese. “We acquired the lease [from the government] to mine limestone in Dura for the next 21 years,” Hima Cement Commercial Manager Ken Lubega said.
Hima Cement plans to invest about $108 million (Shs187 billion) to expand the cement plant and so it needs more limestone, which it wants to mine from quarries in Dura.
Mr Lubega said that the current limestone reserves in Hima cannot last more than five years.
Photo montage of Hima Cement factory and the park
He said the high alkaline limestone from Dura would be used to blend with the low alkaline limestone in Hima so that both reserves can have a longer lifespan.
But the move is likely to jeopardise the resurgent tourism sector, one of the country’s leading foreign exchange earners today, say environmentalists.
“This is just another environmental battle, which we should fight,” said Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists. “If it means taking legal action, we are ready but we cannot allow cement business in a game park.”
He said that extraction activities such as constant loud noise, dust and movement of heavy trucks and people would disturb the peace of the animals and birds causing massive migrations.
“That is why movement in game parks is restricted worldwide,” Mr Muramuzi said.
Limestone and clay, the primary raw materials used to produce cement, are extracted from a quarry by blasting the rocks using, say, dynamite. They are then crushed and transported to the plant where they are stored and processed further.
Figures from the Uganda Tourist Board show that the country earns about $250 million (Shs435 billion) a year in tourism. If the blasting scared away the animals and birds, that could easily lead to a dwindling of tourists visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, which, at 1,978 sq km, is the second largest park in Uganda after Murchison (3,840 sq km) and a popular tourist destination.
Of the 92,943 tourists who visited Uganda’s national parks between January and October 2006, 38,114 went to Queen Elizabeth with the rest spreading out to the other nine parks.
Next month, Queen Elizabeth II will be the latest high profile visitor to the park named for her mother following a visit in the early 1950s. The park boasts “almost 100 mammal species and a remarkable 606 bird species”.
Mr Waiswa Ayazika, the co-ordinator of environmental impact assessment at Nema - the national environment regulator - said the Dura land was cleared for quarrying in 2005 after consultations with the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
“UWA provided guidance on what should be done,” he said. “At least that piece of land was approved after enough consultation.” UWA Public Relations Manager Lillian Nsubuga, however, appeared to contradict Mr Ayazika.
“We are still consulting on this matter,” she said. “A statement shall be issued if we take a stand.” UWA is a semi-autonomous agency under the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry. It was established in 1996 to manage Uganda’s national parks and other protected areas.
While UWA is still in consultation, President Museveni and Mr de Bruno Lafont, the president of Lafarge, the company that runs Hima Cement, will lay a foundation stone at Hima in Kasese for the expansion of the current factory at the end of this month.
This means the Dura project will kick off shortly afterward. And, as if in anticipation of criticism, Hima officials say the project will benefit residents when boreholes, schools, and a community clinic are constructed. Hima Cement will also employ about 5,000 people both directly and indirectly to work on the project.
The trees being planted will produce wood to be used as fuel for cement kilns in the place of fossil fuels and thus reduce emissions of gases dangerous to the atmosphere.
State Minister for Tourism Serapio Rukundo said his ministry is aware of the project and that an environmental assessment was done.
Mr Rukundo said that limestone extraction at Dura and related activities by Hima Cement will not destroy tourism as long as the company uses proper environmental mitigation measures basing on recommendations from Nema.
Said the minister: “We cannot prevent industrialisation when such opportunities arise because [industrialisation] is a key agenda of government.” Beyond the environmental and tourism concerns, the Dura land has other encumbrances. In 1990 the government leased the land to the National Enterprises Corporation, a Ministry of Defence subsidiary, to mine limestone but Nec failed forcing its management to invite Dura Cement led by Mr Rajesh Kumar.
Mr Kumar was a director at Hima Cement factory after the government sold it in 1994. Mr Kumar and his group in turn sold Hima Cement Ltd to Lafarge, the French multi-national and world leader in building materials. Dura Cement did not do much prompting the government to hand the Dura land to Lafarge last year.
That has prompted Mr Kumar to demand compensation of $1.2 billion (about Shs2 trillion) from the government for breach of contract. Despite the abundant limestone deposits in the country, Uganda has been relying on cement imports to power its booming construction industry.
The cost of cement has in the past years risen to Shs25,000 a bag from Shs15,000 in 2000.