When Innocent Mutatina’s father bought a large tract of land on the edge of western Uganda’s Bugoma forest in the late 1990s – in a traditional informal sale – it was “a wilderness” covered in trees and elephant grass, his son said.

Now, the younger Mutatina wants either to build a ranch on the 15-square-kilometre (6-square-mile) piece of land, located by one of the country’s largest rainforests, or sell it to the National Forestry Authority (NFA) for conservation purposes.

But he is not the only one laying claim to the land.

Mutatina is in a three-way legal battle for ownership with a major sugar company that is using the land to expand its sugarcane fields, and the NFA, which says the property belongs to the reserve and that its protection is vital to the country’s efforts to slow forest loss and curb its carbon emissions.

“We want to graze cows, but I am also aware of the changes in weather caused by deforestation, and the locals have nowhere (else) to collect firewood,” he said in an interview.

“I am therefore open for negotiation with the (NFA) for a buyout.”

About 40% of Uganda’s public and private land is untitled, according to the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.

Conservationists say the lack of formal ownership documents lets people and companies get titles to protected land – either through ignorance of land boundaries or local government corruption – allowing them to cut down the nation’s forests.

The country’s environment authority has attributed much of the deforestation to land-hungry farmers, including those active in designated conservation areas.

About 15% of Uganda’s Central Forest Reserves – which cover almost a sixth of the country – are used for housing or farming, according to the NFA.

With more than 500 protected areas nationwide, the forest authority’s head legal officer, Moses Muhumuza, said the agency lacked the manpower to keep away encroachers.

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