AMURU: Members of Atiak Sugarcane Out Growers Cooperative in Amuru district are decrying the frequent outbreak of fires that have devastated their farms and left them counting huge losses.
About 3 fires targeting Atiak Sugarcane plantations have broken out in quick succession in the last 4 months, destroying millions of shillings’ worth of sugarcane. The latest fire broke out on Thursday last week, destroying 200 acres of sugarcane worth shs.600million in Gem Village, Pacilo East Parish.
The source of the fire is not yet understood, but the affected farmers say such fires have become a routine occurrence in recent months. Last year, 85 acres of sugarcane in the same area were consumed by a similarly conspicuous fire, while before, it in December 2018, 600 acres of sugarcane were also burnt, in a worrying trend that has left farmers unsure of how to protect their farms.
On Thursday, a case of arson was reported at Atiak Police station under CRB 08/2020, and police authorities say they’re doing their best to get to the bottom of what’s causing these fires.
While the real cause of the fire is still a mystery, other locals in the area suggest the fires could be an inside job, with some members of the Atiak Sugar Community aggrieved with the management of the Atiak Sugar project choosing to sabotage the enterprise.
Amuru LCV Chairperson Michael Lakony told theCooperator that they (district authorities) been long receiving complaints and disputes between the out-growers and Atiak Sugar project management many of which remain unresolved to date.
Although the Atiak Sugar Factory has provided needed income to thousands of sugarcane out-growers in the districts of Gulu, Amuru, Kitgum, Lamwo, Omoro, Pader, Agago, and Adjumani, majority of these (women constitute 80%), in order to maximize output are staying on the farms with neither security nor decent accommodation. TheCooperator has learned that most of the women spend nights in makeshift tents in camps within the farms. Moreover, sometimes, the factory delays to pay them, yet for the majority, sugarcane growing is the main source of livelihood.
“We have advised them to deal with the grievances they might be having in some areas so that harmony is realized. Nobody should reach a point of wanting to burn down their wealth. As a district, we have advised Haryal investment Holdings Limited officials on how they can do business on win-win situation but nothing much has been implemented,” says Lakony.
Joyce Laker, the chairperson of the out-growers is however adamant the fires will not drown their production momentum. “Preventive measures will be put in place, vigilantes who are also members of the cooperative will be on the high alert to keep closely monitoring their plantations,” she says.
Aswa region Police PRO Jimmy Okema told theCooperator that because of the size of the plantations, the fires are realized late after they have already consumed millions of shillings of crops, with the Police responding after so much damage has already been done. “There is need to have a watchtower so that fire can be seen from afar and firefighters called to rescue the situation early enough,” he said
He said the Police are embarking on a sensitization campaign in the community on the dangers of bush burning which often becomes rampant in the dry season. “The fires are rampant then (in the dry season) because people here are hunting for edible rats commonly known as Anyeri,” Okema said.
Lakony told theCooperator that the authorities will do their best to get to the bottom of what’s causing the fires because government has invested so much in the Atiak Sugar Factory to see it ruined or abandoned by frustrated out-growers.
The government has so far invested in excess of shs.127billion in the Atiak Sugar Factory, including shs.62.5billion through NAADs to support out-growers to clear land and buy sugarcane seeds to be able to supply the factory with constant sugarcane.
Started in 2014, the factory is a joint investment by Haryal investment Holdings Limited owned by businesswoman Amina Hersi and the Government of Uganda through Uganda Development Corporation, in which the latter owns 32% shares.
The factory currently sits on more than 25,000 acres of land at Gem Village, Pacilo East Parish, Atiak Sub-county in Amuru District and is once complete, expected to process 1,650 tons of sugarcane per day at full capacity, employ at least 1,500 workers directly and about 5000 out-growers indirectly.
Presently, the factory consumes sugarcane from about 15,000 acres, which are expected to increase to at least 25,000 acres when it begins full operation expected this year.