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KAMPALA, UGANDA – If a tree falls deep in the heart of Africa, will anyone hear?

That’s the question for the outside world, as the debate that often pits the environment against the economy has taken a chilling twist here in Uganda, with riots, murder and parliamentarians jailed.

While the dust is still settling, there’s no resolution on the storm that involves the Ugandan government’s proposed give-away of 7,100 hectares of prime forest, known as the Mabira Forest, to clear it for large-scale sugar growing and processing.

Giving Mabira for clearing to The Mehta Group, a company run by successful Indian nationals in Uganda, is part of the government’s goal of industrializing its developing economy. Processed goods feed your citizens, and sell internationally for exponentially more than raw material.

“It’s much easier for us to grow forest, or allow them to regenerate, than to attract factories,” Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said recently. “Our people have gone without jobs long enough.” And Uganda, now the same size as Canada, will need plenty of jobs at the other end of its breathtaking growth rate. With an average of seven children per woman, that rate will give it 180 million people by 2050.

Like many Africans, most Ugandans, 90 per cent in fact, use either wood or charcoal for cooking. It’s no surprise, then, that scientists say Africa is losing its forests three times faster than the rest of the planet.

You know the rest of the story: rivers dry up, drought hits, floods come, or there’s general weird weather caused by the greenhouse effect, and God knows what else.

In this case, in a developing country without checks and balances, environmental issues have additional political components, namely shady backroom deals. When foreign investors get loans or tax breaks or other incentives — like a forest — while everyday folks starve with unpaid pensions, or in slums with high rent, or with poor public schools, or horrible hospitals, things tend to brew and simmer.

Thus Uganda’s recent firestorm. A public demonstration against the Mabira give-away turned into a riot, an Indian national on the wrong street at the wrong time was beaten dead, and police then killed a few Ugandans in the crowd.

For their roles in leading the demonstration, several opposition MPs were jailed for a few days. While Asian businessmen closed their shops in fear, more hell then broke loose in protest of those MPs incarcerations.

That was then quelled by stick-wielding Ugandan vigilantes dubbed the Kiboko Squad, apparently not even known by police.

President Museveni, meanwhile, who has generally had his way in Uganda for 22 years, may be facing the political fight of his life. Most government MPs, including his cabinet, are strongly opposed to the forest giveaway to Mehta.

Now it’s reported that Mehta already received some 30 billion Ugandan shillings (about $19 million Cdn) from Museveni’s government in recent years, apparently for losses during previous regimes when Asians in Uganda lost holdings and, under former dictator Idi Amin, were expelled by the thousands.

All this, and that first proverbial tree in the forest hasn’t even gone down yet.

“If we just managed our own resources better, we’d have no need for foreign aid,” a Ugandan journalist commented to me, regarding the government’s money deals.

I see everyday issues here and agree. There’s a dearth of domestic leadership everywhere, and while there are plenty of foreign aid workers around, some new help should come in new forms.

The west is reneging on its current promises anyway. Africa’s debts were cancelled after the 2005 G-8 summit, but aid has increased just 2 per cent since, hardly on course, as promised, to go from today’s $25 billion to $50 billion by 2010.

That promised increase, by the way, is less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of the rich world’s income. It’s equivalent to what Wall Street Christmas bonuses are for one year.

Maybe someone should use it to buy a few million saplings. Really. And a whole lot of boots on the ground.

If that kind of aid came, some Africans might see some alternative economic profits — from re-plantation programs — at Mabira or anywhere else. And that might save some African lives, and futures, never mind trees.