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How Sugarcane, Rice Growing Is Threatening Busoga’s “Cattle Corridor”

by Jacquiline Nakandi
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By Tom Gwebayanga

The fame of Buyende district, known as “Busoga’s Cattle Corridor”, is slowly diminishing due to the degradation of wetlands and swamps, which locals have raided in favour of sugarcane growing.

Over the past decades, Buyende has been renowned as the home for wealthy herdsmen, owing to small and big kraals, earning the name “Busoga’s Cattle Corridor.”

However, the sugarcane craze is eroding this title. Currently, sugarcane growing has not only degraded wetlands, but also deprived cattle of pastureland and water, causing stress in the livestock fraternity.

“In the past, during the drought season, herds thronged Nabigaaga, Wakukuuta, and Ndhwehdwe wetlands to graze. Now, almost all wetlands are laden with sugarcane and rice fields,” Eriyakesi Batuli, a farmer from Kabukye village in Kagulu sub-county, said.

Farmers would harvest hay from the wetlands to feed their stock, but now access to fresh grass is limited.

“What can you do when almost all swamps are occupied with cane shambas?” Wilson Batambule, another farmer from Kabukye in Kagulu sub-county, asked.

Over the past decades, Buyende has been renowned as the home of wealthy herdsmen. Photos Tom Gwebayanga

The most affected wetlands include Nabigaaga which borders Buyende and Kamuli districts, and Ndhwedhwe-Ndolwa-Kanampala wetland which pours into Lake Kyoga. Others are Wakukuuta River, bordering Kagulu and Buyende sub-counties; swamps, namely Kanampiima, Nawampasa, Byeero, Nalujo, and Ddongi, which pour into Lake Kyoga via Irundu and Bukutula sub-counties.

Visible evidence of sugarcane and wetland degradation can be seen along Ndolwa-Bukungu, Nabirumba[1]Iyingo, Nabirumba-Buyende-Nkondo, Wandago-Bugaya, and Wandago-Bukutula roads.

The rice craze has also intensified, with fields along Lake Kyoga shoreline and River Nile banks in Buyende and Kamuli, limiting access to pasture and water for livestock farmers.

At Nawampiti-Lugonyola landing site, rice fields stretch from the papyrus reeds near where the boats dock to as far as the eye can see.

The rice-growing craze was introduced to Buyende district 20 years ago from Kamuli, Kaliro, Luuka, and Namutumba districts, followed by the sugarcane craze in 2019.

According to Buyende district production and marketing officer, Dr George Fredrick Kabbale, the sugarcane craze was ignited by the launch of the construction of Kidera Sugar Factory in Iringa village, Nkondo sub-county, by Indian investors.

The factory joins the seven operational sugar mills in the Busoga region, including Kakira Sugar Ltd, Sugar & Allied Industries Ltd, Kaliro, Mayuge Sugar, Bugiri Sugar, Kamuli Sugar Ltd, GM Sugar-Jinja. Luuka Sugar Ltd in Luuka district is currently under construction.

Sugarcane rush

Since 2020, investors from Kidera Sugar Ltd have been actively mobilising the public to cultivate more sugarcane ahead of the factory’s commissioning in 2025.

This initiative has sparked a frenzy for land, with local investors leasing idle land, including wetlands and swamps for sugarcane cultivation, targeting the market of Kidera Sugar Factory.

The factory is projected to have the capacity to crush between 900 and 1,200 tonnes of cane per day, indicating that a substantial amount of cane must be accumulated by 2025 when production begins.

To achieve this goal, coordinators have been deployed to organise farmers into out-growers cooperatives, supported by the provision of tractors to farmers.

These tractors are aiding farmers in land preparation, targeting wetlands, swamps, and upland areas. Land preparation services and cane seeds are provided to farmers on loan, with the understanding that these expenses will be recuperated at harvest time.

Land fragmentation

The escalating human population and competition for agricultural land are the primary factors contributing to the decline of Busoga’s cattle corridor.

Consequently, the economy within this corridor hangs in a delicate balance due to the dwindling cattle population resulting from the scarcity of pastureland.

Currently, the upland areas are already overwhelmed with sugarcane cultivation and the production of food crops such as maize, beans, cassava and sweet potatoes.

“The title of ‘Busoga’s cattle corridor’ is fading. It has become increasingly rare to find ample swamps and wetlands,” remarked Dison Bwiire, the Buyende district education officer.

Bwiire further highlighted that grazing grounds in Buyende-Nakabira wetland and along River Wakukuuta have significantly diminished.

Buoyed by Igwaaya, Buyende, and Kidera livestock markets, Buyende district serves as a central hub for cattle traders from Kampala, Kiboga, and Masaka districts. Additionally, traders from the Teso region transport animals by boat from Buyende.

Analysts, including the district environment officer, Rebecca Namuddu, project that over 65% of wetlands and swamps have been encroached upon by rice and sugarcane cultivation.

Kabbale explains that the scarcity of pasture is compelling many farmers to sell off their cows to maintain manageable herd sizes.

Consequently, numerous farmers have resorted to zero-grazing local cows by tethering them in backyard enclosures and feeding them harvested fodder in wooden boxes.

To cope with the challenges of reduced pasture, some farmers are leading their cattle to forage for water weeds along lake and river shorelines, while others have shifted to crossbreeding animals from local breeds.

This trend poses a significant threat to the cattle population in the semi-arid district, and is gradually eroding the title of “Busoga’s Cattle Corridor,” as expressed by Bwiire, whose farm is located in Buseete village.

Moreover, some individuals have opted to sell off all their cattle to pursue other profitable ventures.

Sugar investors happy

To environmentalists and the livestock fraternity, the surge in sugarcane cultivation is alarming, but it brings positive outcomes for local sugar investors and the broader public along the value addition chain.

Godfrey Biriwali, the chairperson of the Greater Busoga Sugarcane Growers’ Union (GBSGU), expressed that with the expanding sugar industry, Busoga region can address challenges related to poverty and market demand.

“Four years ago, Busoga faced a cane market crisis when millers were overwhelmed by the accumulated cane. The sugar industry will not only create job opportunities but also generate cash flow,” remarked Biriwali.

Juliet Namwase, a cane farmer affiliated with the Kagulu Cane Growers’ Cooperative, welcomes the loans provided by Indian investors to support farmers with land preparation and cane seeds.

“Empowering the poor to own shambas and recovering the loans at harvest time is encouraging news,” Namwase stated.

However, Muhamad Ibanda, the chairperson of Kagulu sub-county, voiced concern about the high rates at which investors are hiring land per acre.

“They are renting each acre for between sh500,000 and sh600,000 for six years. This way, the landowners are being exploited,” Ibanda lamented.

What should be done?

Rebecca Namuddu, the district environment officer, urged the public to adopt a mindset change and employ sustainable land management methods that do not harm wetlands.

“Farmers need to receive training on practices that enable them to cultivate rice and sugarcane without degrading the wetlands,” Namuddu emphasised.

Buyende district production and marketing officer, Dr George Fredrick Kabbale, advised that due to the scarcity of pasture, farmers should transition to crossbreeds and embrace zero-grazing methods to adapt to climate change and modern farming practices.

“The challenge of pasture scarcity should be tackled by cultivating animal feeds such as brachiaria, elephant grass, and fodder weeds,” Namuddu added.

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