KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on Friday revived a controversial plan to hand over a swathe of rainforest to a local company to be destroyed and replaced with a sugarcane plantation.
In an address to his party published in newspapers, Museveni called those who oppose his plan to give 7,100 hectares or about a quarter of Mabira Forest reserve to the private Mehta group's sugar estate "criminals and charlatans."
Uganda's government scrapped the original plan in October after a public outcry and violent street protests in which three people died, including an ethnic Indian man who was stoned to death by rioters.
Mehta is owned by an ethnic Indian Ugandan family.
"Mehta wants to expand his factory ... in the under-utilised part of Mabira ... criminals and charlatans kicked up lies and caused death. We suppressed the thugs," Museveni said.
Critics said destroying part of Mabira would threaten rare species of birds and monkeys, dry up a watershed for streams that feed Lake Victoria and remove a buffer against pollution of the lake from Uganda's two biggest industrial towns, nearby.
"This issue should be resolved," Museveni said. "If we do not industrialize, where shall we get employment for the youth? I will mobilize the youth to smash ... these cliques obstructing the future of the country."
Analysts say the plan to lift protection from Mabira is so unpopular that even parliament, which is hugely dominated by Museveni's supporters, would oppose it.
Stopping deforestation was high on the agenda at this month's global conference on climate change in Bali.
Scientists estimate some 20 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change, results from deforestation. Trees suck carbon from the air and experts say Mabira sinks millions of tons of it.
Foresters estimate the value of the wood in the part of Mabira Mehta wants to axe at around $170 million and say it can be logged in a sustainable way. This compares with about $11 million per year from what Mehta expects to be 35,000 tons of sugar.
(Editing by Wangui Kanina and Richard Balmforth)