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Acholi leaders call for investigations into persistent wildfire outbreaks at Atiak Sugarcane works

AMURU – Leaders from Acholi sub-region have called for an investigation into the persistent wildfire outbreaks that have devastated sugarcanes belonging to Atiak Sugar Company and out growers.

In December last year, more than 300 hectares of sugar belonging to Atiak Sugar Outgrowers Cooperative and Ayuu Alali Sugarcane Outgrowers were destroyed by wildfire. The cause of the fire outbreak is yet to be found.

This has been a common trend for the last three years where wildfire destroys hundreds of hectares of sugarcane leaving both the outgrowers and company in billions of losses.

Now members of the Acholi Parliamentary Group (APG) are calling for an investigation into the circumstances under which wildfire keeps devastating the sugarcane plantation.

Simon Wokorach, the Aswa County Member of Parliament says, the continuous stories of fire gutting the plantations are not nice given the billions of funds the government has injected into the project, leave alone the infrastructural developments coming along with the projects.

“Currently, plans are underway to tarmac the Okidi, Lamwo road, with a bridge to be installed to ease access for farmers and locals to and from the factory as well as other businesses in Atiak and Palabek Ogili sub-counties in Amuru and Lamwo districts respectively. These are some of the opportunities that are coming along with this project. Why would someone who is aggrieved fail to come up and resort to burning sugarcane?” Wokorach wonders.

“Besides the infrastructural developments resulting from the factory, hundreds of people are already employed by the factory. This implies we must sustain the factory and keep it functional for its benefit to multiply in larger numbers for the population of Acholi,” added Wokorach.

“We all know that the region is recovering from the war and a huge percentage of the population didn’t have time and resources to study. This would be an opportunity for them to get employed since the jobs being provided don’t require much academic qualifications,” Wokorach observes.

Peter Okot, the Tochi County Member of Parliament said, it is the only factory in Acholi and this is gradually changing the narrative on investments in the sub-region that used to be a no-go zone given its previous background of conflict over land especially with the Madhvani project in Lakang sub-county.

Okot wants the aggrieved, to use the rightful and peaceful mechanism of raising their voices so that the differences are ironed out and the investment is not lost.

“In any investment, there will always be a party which is not satisfied with how things are run, but for this particular case, we need this factory running as a region, meaning we need to provide audience to the aggrieved party so that their concerns are listened to and addressed so that we don’t lose this factory,” OKot says.

Gilbert Olanya, the Member of Parliament for Kilak South in Amuru district believes that the factory has an uphill task to ensure that grievances are settled. He says, there are groups of people who are not happy with how the land was acquired, this could also be one of the reasons for the wildfire outbreaks we are seeing today.

“If one or two people are not happy, that is what we will be seeing, let the factory owners meet the land owners to solve this. There is also a group of returnees who were first employed at the factory and they claim, they have not have been paid their money yet the government has released money meant to pay them. This money is allegedly being eaten by the leadership of the cooperative societies and the political leaders. This could also be another reason to the fire outbreaks,” Olanya explains.

In a recent interview, Anthony Akol, the Kilak North Member of Parliament, also the Chairperson of the Acholi Parliamentary Group said, there could be two major issues that should be investigated including the grievances of the neighboring landowners who claim to have been forced into the project without adequate compensation for their land or unpaid workers who have reportedly been working for close to six years without proper payment.

“I have been told that there is a category of casual laborers who reportedly worked at the factory for about six years and were never adequately paid and also a section of neighboring landowners who claim that only one family is benefiting from the project yet their land was forcefully annexed into the sugar project. These are some of the notable leads that we could interest ourselves in investigating to really find out more of what is happening at the factory,” Says Akol.

When contacted, Mahmoud Mohamed, the Agricultural Director at Horyal Investments which owns the Atiak Sugar Works declined to comment on the call of the members of parliament.

However, Santa Joyce Laker, the Chairperson of Atiak Sugarcane Out grower’s Cooperative Society blames the local leaders for being reactive and always coming after fire outbreaks.

Laker says, in October last year, they reported a fire outbreak to police and informed all the leaders but none of them took interest to understand what exactly happened. She further says, for three years, fire has been destroying sugarcane and no police report has been given to the public as to the cause of the fires.

“Instead of calling for investigations, the APG and other stakeholders should call for sensitization meetings with the members of the cooperative societies and the community members so that the root causes of the fire outbreaks are discussed and mitigated,” Laker suggested.

Atiak Sugar Factory, sits on a 60,000-acre piece of land in Pacilo, Atiak sub-county in Amuru district. In recent years, the government of Uganda disbursed billions of shillings to fund the project with a long-term aim of benefiting the local community.

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