The struggles to protect the Albertine region of Uganda amidst the growing Environmental threats and Ecological degradation resulting from extractives and Agri-business

The greatest threat Uganda should prepare to face today is not political, nor economic, but environmental. Uganda is going to face an unprecedented crisis of water resources that threatens to render vast swathes of the country near-uninhabitable within the coming decades. Groundwater reserves will have exhausted, rainfall will decline, and the country’s greatest lakes and rivers will evaporate into nothing, to be replaced by vast, dead salt pans.

In order to mitigate the fore coming threats, there is thus need for the Ugandan citizens to organize to protect the country from such a crisis. There is already an urgent environmental threat looming over Uganda and only the citizens can be capable of confronting the threats.

The most effective avenues that the Ugandan citizens, as well as community activists, can use to raise the awareness and create public understanding of the threats is the use of Information and Communication Technology as well as social media platforms.

Activists and Environmental Human rights defenders must consider this situation urgent and thus there is an urgent need for them to actively participate in the mobilization and organization of the community throughput Uganda by engaging in information sharing on the challenges ahead of us. Development partners should support Ugandan activists and Environmental Human rights defenders as they prepare to confront environmental challenges, through providing long term support to Environmental Human rights defenders and community leaders as well as journalists, bloggers, and citizen media, NGO’s that lack adequate support necessary for the actions needed to confront the environmental challenges.

There are many highly educated youthful, and politically engaged citizens of Uganda and this can be turned into a good force in the battle against climate change and environmental decay.

The Albertine Region

The Albertine region of Uganda is an important biodiversity hotspot known for being a habitat for 39% of Africa’s mammal species, 35% of Africa’s insect species, 51% of Africa’s bird species, 19% of Africa’s amphibian species, 14% of Africa’s plant and reptile species plus 79 threatened terrestrial vertebrates according to the IUCN Red Data book and lists. The Rift also harbors approximately 70% of Uganda’s major protected areas including seven out of ten National parks, eight out of 15 forests, 12 wildlife reserves, 13 wildlife sanctuaries, and five wildlife community areas according to the 2010 Uganda Environmental Sensitivity Atlas, 2nd Edition. However, the ecosystems that provide water, food, and climate stability are increasingly coming under heavy pressure in and within the Albertine region of Uganda. There is an unprecedented environmental crisis as a result of the emerging oil exploration and exploitation activities including refinery and pipeline developments in addition to plantation activities such as sugarcane growing which require massive clearance of forests to secure land.

Biodiversity is collapsing, and some of Uganda’s most iconic wildlife is on the brink of extinction. The agricultural sector faces an emerging crisis, food prices are on the rise, and immense new strains will be placed upon the Ugandan economy in the years to come.

Unsustainable land, water, and energy resources utilization and management in commercial agriculture and in particular sugar cane, tobacco, and tea growing and expansion are among the critical factors causing deforestation and degradation of natural forests and ecosystems in Uganda’s Albertine region and in particular the Murchison landscape. These threaten the sustainability of Mother Earth such as water, climate, and food necessary for the wellbeing of peoples’ livelihoods, ecosystems, and in general economic developments. In the Albertine region, Sugar cane, Tobacco, and Tea growing continue to expand into protected areas and with no appropriate biodiversity management plans despite their known negative impacts on natural resources and biodiversity. Only recently, the World Bank and African Development Bank have been put in funds to help Uganda develop and implement its Forest investment plan and some of the planned interventions will attempt to tackle the negative impacts of increasing large scale commercial monoculture crops on forest and biodiversity.

The situation facing Uganda is huge and the threats are great. There is much need for the Environmental Defenders, community leaders, and activists as well as media in ever greater numbers to campaign for pro-people development, to educate the public about the dangers of environmental degradation, and to develop initiatives that can protect local communities from the worst effects of the crisis.

Environmental Human rights defenders throughout the Albertine region of Uganda are facing difficult situations ranging from threats, intimidations, and closing of civic spaces for civil society and the media. There is a need for the activist’s networks to engage with the government, oil companies, and the agribusiness highlighting the institutional openings and barriers to greater collaboration between government and civil society.

Uganda has a set of clear obligations to defend the environment, as established under international law. In its early stages, the development of international environmental law primarily consisted of responding to urgent environmental problems such as marine pollution or wildlife and habitats conservation, of which the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is a notable example in which Uganda is a signatory to. The convention provided a definition of wetlands and internationally accepted standards for identifying wetlands of international importance, as well as guidelines for managing and planning conservation programs and protected areas.

The 1972 Stockholm UN Declaration on the Human Environment was the first global meeting of developed and developing countries that was set up to address environmental issues at the global level. As a result, the Stockholm Declaration espouses generally broad environmental policy goals and objectives rather than detailed normative positions. However, following Stockholm, global awareness of environmental issues increased dramatically, and many countries established government ministries for the environment, to better coordinate environmental planning and management at a national level.

Growing public awareness around the importance of environmental protection and sustainable development led to the adoption of the UN Declaration on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (commonly known as the Rio Summit). It not only reaffirmed the Stockholm Declaration but also brought together developed and developing countries in order to provide a benchmark to measure future development, as well as to define the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and determine its applications

The Rio Summit was the occasion for the adoption and opening for signature of three more ‘sister conventions that were developed to encourage states to improve their sustainable development strategies with regard to a number of specific environmental issues:

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

UNFCCC is a multilateral environmental agreement that aims to “achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD)

The UNCBD establishes and upholds global standards for sustainable economic development. The convention has three primary goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

The UNCCD represents a global authority and normative reference on desertification, land degradation, and drought and is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainability. It particularly encourages the participation of local people in combating desertification and land degradation

Uganda levels of participation with international environmental and developmental mechanisms are generally sufficient, at least on paper. Uganda frequently articulates ambitious plans for the development of management processes and regulatory bodies, although their record in terms of delivery is frequently inconsistent.

Action plans

Environmental activists have developed a number of networks of organizations’ active in the Albertine region of Uganda to facilitate cooperation, collective action, networking, and information sharing. One key organization are the African Institute for Energy Governance AFIEGO, Ngetha Media Association for Peace NMAP, Civic Response on Environment and Development CRED, Navigator of Development Association NAVODA, National Association of Professional Environmentalists NAPE  among others. These organizations actions are visible and they are proving particularly central roles to community efforts to organize and develop their capacities in order to defend communities and environment in the Albertine region.

In April this year, AFIEGO filed the complaint to cancel the environmental Certificate given to TOTAL for the TILENGA project. The complaint is against the state agencies NEMA (National environmental authority) and PAU (Petroleum Authority of Uganda). Basically, the case is based on the fact that the consultation process to approve the Environmental Social Impact Assessments was not done according to Ugandan law and also for ignoring the human rights of the community.

Also in 2014, AFIEGO filed a case against the government related to communities forced displacement and unfair compensation in the framework of the refinery project, led by the government. 5 years later, the case is still pending.

The “Tilenga” project operated by Total includes the Development of 6 oil fields: 419 wells will be drilled on 34 oil platforms, mainly inside the oil field. The protected natural area of the Murchison Falls, producing about 200,000 barrels a day, Construction of an industrial zone, including a processing plant (“CPF”), on the edge of the park, in the Buliisa district, A refinery, and an airport, built by the Ugandan government, A mega-pipeline (“EACOP” – East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline), built by a consortium consisting of the French multinational Total, the British Tullow, the Chinese CNOOC and the Ugandan and Tanzanian governments, which will cross 1445 km from the refinery to Tanga Port in Tanzania and  Other associated infrastructure, built by Total, its partners and the government, mainly: a water pumping system from Lake Albert for the needs of oil wells; a network of 180 km combined pipelines, including under the Nile, to transport for some the oil and gas produced, and for others the water; sites for the storage and treatment of petroleum waste; new roads to facilitate the development of this oil industry.

Together with communities in the Albertine region, the network of Environmental Human rights defenders has accused TOTAL and filed a lawsuit against TOTAL for Violating Human rights and threatening the Environments. Tens of thousands of people are likely to be impacted by the exploitation of oil and the construction of associated infrastructure. In Uganda, according to the testimonies collected by the communities throughout the Albertine region; Families are intimidated and have to leave their land, totally upsetting their way of life; some residents are no longer allowed to farm because land grabbing has begun: whole families are being left behind. They cannot afford to buy food and can no longer benefit from the fruits of their land; some of those who have been deported are desperately waiting for a new home. For those who have already received financial compensation, they strongly dispute the amount, explaining that it is not enough for them to buy land and crops equivalents; Children must leave school: their parents can no longer pay school fees. The inhabitants are mainly dependent on agriculture and fishing; sectors directly threatened by this mega-project. If nothing is done, thousands of lives will be disrupted with the utmost impunity. This mega project is developed in the heart of a protected natural area that houses exceptional ecosystems.

It is a sanctuary of fragile biodiversity. There are more than 500 species of animals, including some, threatened: lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes, warthogs, and many species of birds. Lake Albert, one of the sources of the Nile, is also in the area where Total is about to drill. Contamination could be dramatic for fish and fish-dependent populations on this one of the world’s two longest rivers. To keep the global temperature below the 1.5 ° mark is imperative for the survival of humanity and the planet. This type of oil project, in addition to posing a direct risk to the environment, only contributes massively to climate change and leads us straight to the disaster. Every tenth of a degree counts: we must prevent this project from coming into being if we want to avoid climate chaos.

In order to win this case, different organizations in the Albertine region led by Friends of the Earth International France are teeming with different partners, international experts, and media to dismantle the power of multinationals and to fight for the adoption of the French law on the duty of vigilance of multinationals finally promulgated in 2017.

Total is one of the 25 largest multinationals in the world and its business divided into thousands of subsidiaries, franchises and subcontractors have rarely exposed it to legal sanctions.

This is the system that this new French law tackles: concretely, the parent companies of the multinationals can finally be held responsible for the human rights and environmental violations that their activities can cause, in France and abroad.

With this concrete case, the activist groups want to ensure the ambitious application of this new law as this will allow them to seize justice before any damage, to prevent Total from imposing considerable and irreversible risks on the inhabitants, biodiversity, the environment, and the climate. Above all, if the judges confirm that violations are proven, this law can allow the activist’s group to condemn the company to repair the damage and compensate the affected population.

Total is a very powerful multinational. Its considerable financial resources are likely to prolong this legal battle over several years. She will try everything to make the activists groups give up. That is why the support of all is essential: the citizen power can finally allow activist groups in the Albertine region to obtain justice in the face of Total.



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