LUTEMBE BAY, Uganda (AP) — Despite loud protests by environmentalists in Uganda, trucks dumped dirt into the wetland until the soggy ground where herons once stood among swaying papyrus plants was firm and dry. The destruction of the wetland was carried out so a rose farm owned by a fabulously wealthy businessman could be expanded.
The area on Lake Victoria's Lutembe Bay was deemed to be of international importance under an international convention on wetlands but, asked by activists to intervene, Uganda's environmental protection agency instead sided with industry, saying any damage inflicted upon the wetland didn't match the economic benefits of exporting more flowers.
The authorized encroachment on Uganda's Lutembe Bay wetland, a site that protects Lake Victoria's fragile ecosystem, highlights a growing conflict between business and the environment as African countries strive for economic development. Although Africa's endangered forests have attracted a lot more attention from campaigners, some experts say wetlands across the continent are suffering a similar —if not worse —fate, often because their value to human wellbeing is underestimated or not understood at all.
In the Ugandan case, the business decimating a wetland is owned by Ugandan tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia, who, according to Forbes magazine, is the richest man in East Africa and one of Africa's wealthiest people. He is widely believed to be close to Uganda's political elite, circumstances that have contributed to concerns that his expansion project was approved under dubious circumstances.
"I think this is corruption of the highest order," said Frank Muramuzi, an activist with the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, a local watchdog group. "That kind of thing is not allowed in the wetland. But it is not too late. We want to take them to court."
Some activists say Uganda's environmental protection agency, which in the past has rejected or condemned wetland violations on this scale, simply succumbed to the power of big business this time. Uganda's flower industry makes millions of dollars in exports to Europe each year.
Experts say the wetland along Lutembe Bay supports globally threatened species of birds, fish and butterflies, including some rare ones. It also plays a crucial hydrological role, with the swamps "acting as natural filters for silt, sediments and excess nutrients in surface run-off, wastewaters from industries, and sewage from Kampala City," according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, a global treaty that promotes the wise use of wetlands and which lists those deemed to be of international importance.
The Ramsar Convention says that, although more wetlands are being designated for protection across Africa, protecting these sites "remains a challenge." A report last month by the convention's secretariat said that "Africa shows an urgent need to define a strategy" for conserving its wetlands and their resources.
The world's wetlands "are being degraded and lost more rapidly than other ecosystems ... because their functions are not always understood by governments or given enough weight in policy decisions," said Achim Steiner, the United Nations undersecretary-general and executive director of its environment program, in a statement last month.
The U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment years ago estimated the global value of wetlands at $15 trillion, for functions that include climate regulation and the provision of food and water.
Neighboring Kenya's wetlands are also facing serious degradation and decline from pressures including agriculture and land fragmentation, according to a statement last month from the U.N.'s environment program. Kenya's Lake Naivasha, for example, has seen declining water levels due to competition from expanding flower farms.
To stem the damage, Kenya has now produced a "Wetlands Atlas," a compilation of the country's wetlands and their challenges as part of a wider government plan to preserve the integrity of the country's water resources.
"Despite (wetlands) role in sustaining livelihoods we are seeing severe pressures," Judi W. Wakhungu, a Kenyan government official in charge of the environment, said last month. She said the Kenyan government is revising its policies to better protect the precious wetlands.
Associated Press writer Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.