LWERA WETLAND, Uganda — The bulldozer snarls in the heart of the wetland, baring its teeth. There are trucks waiting to be loaded with sand, and more will almost certainly be on the way.
That's the way it is every day here in Lwera, a central region of Uganda on the shores of Lake Victoria: a nearly constant demand for sand putting pressure on a wetland that is home to locals and animals and feeds the world's largest freshwater lake. from Africa.
Lwera is a breeding ground for fish, serves as a stopover for migratory birds, and can store vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide underground. The wetland stretches more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) along the highway from Uganda's capital Kampala into the western interior. It has long been worked by sand miners, both legal and illegal, motivated by demand from the construction industry.
Now all known corporate operations within the wetland are authorized to be there, giving them a measure of legitimacy that frustrates environmental activists, local officials and others who say mining activities must stop because they degrade the wetland.
They charge that while the companies are there legally, their activities are illegal in many ways.
Locals in Lwera's farming community say they reap misery and complain that mining creates few jobs and ruins the land.
Ronald Ssemanda, a local village chairman, pointed to bushland fenced off with roofing sheets that he said had been badly gouged by sand miners.
“There is no way I can talk to them,” Ssemanda said, referring to the owners of mining operations that he considers too powerful.
Ssemanda is no longer so eloquent in her criticism. He said the issue "is above us."
Sand mining, primarily for use in the construction industry, is big business, with 50 billion tons used worldwide each year, theUnited Nations Environment Programhe said in a report last year. He warned that the industry is "largely ungoverned", leading to erosion, flooding, saltier aquifers 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 in the broader region. Riverbeds and lake basins, publicly owned, are often the scene of mining operations, although there is also private property excavated for sand.
But while all the wetlands around Lake Victoria are under threat from sand miners, Lwera's namesake sand is a favorite with builders for its coarse texture that is said to work better in brick mortar.
Some builders have been known to back up trucks and reject the sand if they cannot palpably prove it to be Lwera material.
At least two companies formally operate within Lwera: Chinese-owned Double Q Co. Ltd. and Seroma Ltd. Both frequently face questions about their allegedly destructive activities there, and members of a parliamentary committee on natural resources 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 site and did not respond to questions.
A Seroma Ltd. representative, production manager Wahab Ssegane, defended their work, saying they have a permit, their operations are 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the lake, and follow the guidelines of the National Environmental Management Authority.
NEMA has prohibited dredging within Lake Victoria, but allows sand mining in wetlands.
“Otherwise, you would have to import sand,” NEMA spokeswoman Naomi K. Namara said. Companies caught degrading the environment face severe financial penalties, she said.
But activists and some locals say no company should be allowed to operate in Lwera, even if it can somehow curb environmental concerns.
A key concern relates to the equipment used. Companies can dig 13 feet (4 meters) into the ground, but some dredging boats are site-adapted to dig deeper, according to some officials at the site.
“They don't have permits to use those dredges,” said an official who is part of a local government team that collects taxes from miners, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “The dredges go 12 meters (40 feet) underground,” he said.
It's hard to refill open spaces when miners dig so deep, leaving depressions in the ground, he said.
When the wells are not filled, the open spaces fill naturally with water that then spreads out, occasionally flooding people's gardens and homes, said resident Sandra Buganzi.
“The sand people came and dug up the sand and brought us water, which started pouring into people's houses,” he said. “I feel very bad, and I feel anger and hate in my heart.”
As Buganzi spoke, a neighbor, Fiona Nakacwa, grabbed a garden hoe and paved the way for the water to flow out of her house.
She was worried that she might be forced to leave her neighborhood.
“Before they started digging sand, there was no water coming here,” Nakacwa said. “This place was dry and there was a garden. I have lived here for seven years and there used to be no running water.”
At least 10 of her neighbors have since moved, pressured by flooding.
“We are still here because we have nowhere to go,” Nakacwa said.
The businesses, often with soldiers or police manning the gates, operate with virtually no supervision and local officials have been reduced to mere bystanders, according to some officials and residents who spoke to the AP.
Charles Tamale, mayor of the nearby town of Lukaya, said there was nothing they could do when the companies submitted their documents.
“He needs some control, but the government licenses these guys,” he said. "But in fact, what they are doing cannot be said to be legal... they are mining and not implementing preventive measures."
Namara, the NEMA official, did not disclose the names of any other companies licensed to operate in Lwera, but noted that "every effort is being made to ensure that the sand is mined sustainably."
Then there's the way the sand is distributed: fluid but opaque, fueling fears that cartels protected by top Ugandan officials are behind mining operations.
Chinese-made trucks haul sand wood up and down hills and dump the sand in designated areas along the highway, which middlemen then distribute to construction sites. Some sand goes to the 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 sand mining in Lwera. “They are owned by important people in the government, or have contacts within the government, in the sense that whatever they want can be done how they want, not how it would have been done.”
He provided no evidence, repeating the widely held belief among locals that powerful government officials are among the beneficiaries of mining companies.
Jerome Lugumira, the NEMA official whose file includes care for wetlands, said he was not available for comment.
Activist David Kureeba, who tracks mining activities in wetlands, said NEMA was too weak to resist "pressure from government intermediaries bringing investors" into the country. Lwera should be off-limits to all investors, Kureeba said.
Regardless of the financial rewards, “NEMA is making a mistake by allowing sand mining in such an important ecosystem,” he said. "They better cancel all the leases."
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