Draft text of a report sent by Andy Roberts to Oryx Magazine, July 2008
A colony of rare cycads, said to be the world’s largest, is threatened by a hydro-electric dam project in western Uganda. The Vulnerable Encephalartos whitelockii is endemic to the Mpanga Gorge on the escarpment of the Albertine Rift Valley, the western arm of the African Rift Valley System. It is a stunning location, with the thread of riverine forest winding down towards the glassy expanse of Lake George with the snow-capped Ruwenzori mountain beyond. It is the most appropriate of locations for a cycad colony. Cycads are considered ‘living fossils’- primitive vascular plants that flourished 200-300 million years ago – while their gorge home is a truncated relic of an ancient river which predates, by tens of millions of years, the formation of the rift valley and the Nile.
The development threatening the gorge is the construction of the Mpanga Small Hydro Power Station by South Asia Energy Management Systems Inc., represented in Uganda by African Energy Management Systems. An Xm high dam, supplied by flow from an Xm-long reservoir is expected to generate 18.0 Mega Watts of electricity for supply locally and to the national grid. The dam would be constructed immediately above the superb 40m-high Mpanga Falls in order to increase water head by diverting flow to the foot of the waterfall through lateral conduits.
There is no doubt that Uganda needs to increase its capacity to generate electricity. The 300MW produced by hydro dams on the Nile is already inadequate and is supplemented with another 100MW from costly thermal (diesel) plants. However, Mpanga Gorge is, however, an extremely sensitive location in which to offset the shortfall. The Falls stand just inside the boundary of the Queen Elizabeth National Park: though the dam would stand just outside the protected area, the conduits would extend into it, in the process reducing the waterfall to a dry cliff.
It is difficult to understate the importance of the cycad population which exists on either side of the park boundary. Australian cycad expert Peter Heibloem describes the endemic Encephalartos whitelockii as ‘the botanical equivalent of the Bengal Tiger or Giant Panda’ – or indeed Uganda‘s own mountain gorillas – and considers them ‘probably the largest cycad colony in the world.’ Though they occupy an area of just 72.9 hectares, Heiblom compares the Mpanga colony favourably with the Mojaji cycad reserve in South Africa which despite its international profile, has far fewer plants. Nor is the importance of E. whitelockii limited to species conservation. E. whitelockii seeds from specialist nurseries in the USA sell for up to US$20. First generation, CITES-accredited seeds and seedlings obtained from the parent colony in Mpanga could command far greater sums – useful revenue for this underdeveloped and isolated rural district.
The gorge’s importance is not limited to cycads. As an isolated patch of remnant forest in an area dominated by farmland and secondary grassland, it is a refuge for other rare forest species including the Uganda red colobus (Procolobus rufomitratus tephrosceles) (Vulnerable). Since the forest in the narrow gorge is no more than 100m wide, impoundment of the river would destroy much of the habitat of this rare primate and other forest-dependent species.
Conservation authorities in Uganda have long been aware of the threat to Mpanga Gorge. Earlier this year, Uganda Wildlife Authority, the parastatal charged with managing the countries wildlife protected areas, and others, objected to an Environmental Impact Assessment submitted to the regulating National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) by the developer. Central to their concerns were the fact that this document claimed that the waterfall lies outside the national park and, astonishingly, makes no reference to the cycad colony.
Following submission of these objections, UWA et al assumed, reasonably enough, that, pending review of the EIA, the gorge forest was safe. This view was overturned by two botanically-minded tourists who visited the gorge in May 2008. Instead of the expected pristine forest, they found a devastated landscape with mud roads lined by piles of smashed cycads. It transpires that, while Ugandan conservationists awaited a response, NEMA had quietly approved the EIA, giving the green light for the bulldozers to chug down into the world’s largest cycad forest.