Transparency International Zambia chapter president Rueben Lifuka has demanded that President Edgar Lungu cancels offers of land and ensures that partial degazettion of Forest No 27 is reversed in order to protect the forest reserve.

And Lifuka has challenged the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate if there was any abuse of office in the manner in which allocation of plots was carried out, noting that it was strange that only politically exposed persons benefitted.

In a statement, Thursday, Lifuka said the statements of justification from the Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya and the Commissioner of Lands were unsatisfactory.

“We did wait for the authorities to give us satisfactory answers to all the questions surrounding this issue and we note that the Chief Government Spokesperson – Hon Dora Siliya, together with other officials from the Forestry Department and the Commissioner of Lands, did recently engage the media and the nation on this matter. We found the answers and justification given by Government inadequate and very unsatisfactory. As a preamble, we wish to state that we are alive to the fact that under section 17 (1) of The Forests Act No. 4 of 2015, the Republican President has authority by Statutory Instrument to gazette and degazette any local forest in Zambia. And in exercising this authority, the president is not obliged by law to state the purpose of his action. However, the practice has been that whenever this action is taken, it is for developmental reasons,” Lifuka stated.

He noted that practice had been that whenever a forest was degazetted, it was for developmental purposes.

“We take note of the fact that Forest No. 27 has been the subject of degazettion on a number of occasions and at each instance, portions of Forest 27 have been hived off for different reasons. We are aware of three Statutory Instruments that have been passed in relation to Forest 27 and these are SI No. 62 of 2017, SI No. 59 of 2018 and SI No 13 of 2019. We have taken time to research for the reasons for degazetting of Forest No 27 and the reports of the Parliamentary Committee on Delegated Legislation are instructive. In relation to SI Nos. 62 of 2017, the Permanent Secretary of the responsible ministry submitted to the Committee on Delegated Legislation that Statutory Instrument was issued in order to allow the partial de-gazettion (excision) of Lusaka East Local Forest No. 27, to enable Lusaka District to meet its growing development needs,” Lifuka stated.

“For SI No 59 of 2018, the Committee of Delegated Legislation was informed that the objective of the Statutory Instrument was to alter the existing boundary description of Local Forest No. F27 by deleting it and substituting it with the boundary description specified in the SI. It was thus submitted to the committee that the alteration was meant to facilitate the construction of office space and staff housing to allow Lusaka District meet its growing development needs. The 2019 report of this Committee is not yet in public domain and the reasons therefore for the degazettion not yet known. However, it is evident from the foregoing that the reasons for degazetting part of the forest reserve have been stated as developmental and for specific infrastructure developments.”

He, therefore, asked government to clarify some outstanding issues surrounding the degazzetion and allocation of plots.

“Against this background, Transparency International Zambia wishes to raise a number of issues which need further clarification from Government. 1. Objective for the 2019 partial de-gazetting of forest reserve No.27. Government has not clearly stated the reasons and objective for the issuance of SI No 13 of 2019, in which it seeks to further degazette Forest No. 27. We would like to know whether the main reason was to pave way for the parcels of land that have subsequently being offered to mostly Politically Exposed Persons?” Lifuka asked.

“2. Purpose for Degazzeting of part of Forest 27 from being a forest to an area for residential plots. We would like to know, a) at what point was this decision made to allocate this piece of land to individuals as opposed to it being used for ‘development purposes’ as stipulated in SI No 62 of 2017, and b) what prompted this decision to change the intended land use to private residential land use? The justification given by the Commissioner of Lands during the recent media engagements, was that there is need for more land for residential developments. While this is true, what the Commissioner of Lands failed to highlight was why this need for land seems to be confined to a small group of persons in high office and those who are politically connected or indeed a few ordinary citizens, some of them who have benefitted from other parcels of land around the country. If indeed there is a long list of applicants, how is it that politicians and government officials- including those working for the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, were the ones given priority?”

He insisted that an environmental impact assessment was necessary, contrary to what the Commissioner of Lands said at a media briefing.

“3. Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. We found the answer given by the Director of the Forestry Department which suggested that there was no need for an EIA to be conducted in this instance of partial degazettion of Forest No 27, not only unfortunate but misleading. First and foremost, we wish to remind the Director and his colleagues of section 23 of the Environmental Management Act No 12 of 2011, which requires proponents of policy, programme or plan that could have an adverse effect on environmental management or the sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, to mandatorily conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment. This Assessment should be formally approved by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency. As far as we know, no such Strategic Environmental Assessment has been undertaken before reaching such decision to partial degazette Forest No 27,” Lifuka stated.

“A SEA was inevitable given the environmental significance of Forest No 27 in terms of water resources management for the surrounding communities and those living downstream. We do recall that in November 2017, the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources- Hon Jean Kapata, in the National Assembly, in responding to a question by Hon Mulenga – MP for Ndola Central, who wanted to know whether government was about to degazette the land belonging to ZAFFICO in Ndola to pave way for the construction of a Multi-facility Economic Zone; the Minister refuted this. She indicated among other reasons that the role of the Ministry is to ensure that forest reserves are conserved as part of environmental protection and sustained production and utilization of forest resources. Clearly, the answer by the Director of the Forestry Department, did not reflect this policy of the Ministry.”

He stated that failure to advertise any piece of land disadvantaged ordinary citizens.

“4. Lack of Advertising of this land. It is self defeating for a Government which professes to uphold the the tenets of transparency and accountability to fail to advertise the plots created at the Forest No 27 and we find the reasons given for this that no law compels the Commissioner of Lands to do so, unfortunate. In a country where corruption has affected every sector, including land administration, the most prudent thing to is to have an open process. It is wrong to have a process where those policy makers, technocrats and those with power to influence decisions, are the first ones to acquire enormous acreage of these contentious plots. This is not only conflict of interest, but amounts to insider dealing and definitely disadvantages the ordinary people. What message are they sending to an ordinary Zambian out there? Under normal circumstances, it would be safe to assume that the minister of lands exerted undue influence over decisions around this land allocation or indeed abused her office despite ‘following procedure’ as we were informed,” stated Lifuka, who also demanded that President Lungu cancels the land offers.

“The Commissioner of Lands claims there is no law that compels the commission to advertise land, the question we have is does the commissioner need a law for him to do what is morally right? Are our leaders going to be using the deficiencies in our statutes to do wrong things? Are we going to do wrong things provided these are not illegal? Good practice requires that land is advertised before allocation otherwise how will the general public know that there is land available? The Commissioner of Lands knows this and the fact that this was done silently, speaks volumes of the motives at play. We demand that appropriate answers be given and we particularly demand that President Lungu cancels these offers of land and ensures that partial degazettion of Forest No 27 is reversed and the forest reserve protected. We also challenge the ACC to investigate if there was any abuse of office particularly by policy makers and those involved in making decisions on this matter. Finally, we want to urge that all future land schemes should be advertised and handled in a transparent manner. Access to land should never be the preserve of only the rich and powerful or politically connected. Land is a national asset and we should guard it jealously.”