Environmental Human rights defenders in the Albertine region under attack: The Tilenga Oil development project raise these threats
Environmental human rights defenders play significant roles in promoting and defending their communities to stand up for and demand their rights: they reveal and expose injustice, claim accountability from their governments, and advocate against the laws that violate human rights. They also directly confront the prevailing political and economic conditions. They are advocates, community organisers, trainers, educators and the bridges between laws and community. Because they are the very last point of defense between frontline communities and ecosystems, and powerful individuals and corporations that seek to extract and exploit those resources, their lives and security can be always threatened. Their work is critically important and their protection and security must be a priority by all stakeholders.
At this year World Economic Forums in Davos (21—24 January 2020): Activists and human rights defenders and the United Nations leaders are putting pressure on the companies and the governments to tackle the climate crisis. While this is a bold move, there is an urgent need for the protection and strengthening of the global strategies for the safety of Environmental human rights defenders and other categories of activisms.
In December 2018 the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders marked the 20th anniversary. Despite their important work, or maybe because of the nature of their activism, Environmental human rights defenders are increasingly under attack. More than Three hundred killings of human rights defenders were reported in 2019. 40% of those killed worked on the land, indigenous peoples and environmental issues, the worst on record. The scale of killings indicates a truly global crisis. Because indigenous people, by definition, live in close connection to high areas of biodiversity and fertile lands, and often they live on valuable resources and the individual elites who want to exploit those resources are always on the hunt for frontline leaders standing against exploitation of those valuable resources, sadly, Environmental human rights defenders are always over-represented in death statistic of human rights defenders killed each year.
In addition to the killings of Environmental human rights defenders, there are also other threats and attacks against them that is of grave concern these other threats include torture and disappearance, physical violence, rape, criminalization including illegal arrest and arbitrary detention, and using criminal, defamation, and libel laws to silence Environmental human rights defenders. There are also digital surveillance and online harassments among others.
Women Environmental human rights defenders have specific gender-related threats including threats that contain sexualized and gender-related messages, and sexual assault originating from their status as both women and as Environmental human rights defenders. For example on August 15, 201, Batwaimasa Janepher, an Environmental Human Rights Defender working with the Navigators of Development Organisation (NAVODA) in the Albertine region was directly attacked by the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) Mr.Samuel Kisembo Araali. In one of the meetings held at the Hoima district headquarters, Mr.Samuel Kisembo stated that “Janepher Batwaimasa and her organization have been planted to fail the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the 2021 elections” and he threatened to use all “possible avenues available for him to break Janepher legs” in case she continues with her human rights works. Prior to the direct threat by the RDC, Janepher received life-threatening and intimidating calls on her mobile phone, and via WhatsApp provoking her such that she can attack the government. Janepher has also been forced by the truck drivers of Hoima Sugar factory, one of the large scale agribusiness in Hoima district that is implicated in Human rights violation, environmental destruction and deforestations in and around Kijayo in Kikube district to delete pictures which she had taken of poor waste disposal by the factory.
Threats and violence against Environmental human rights defenders are not in isolation but instead as a result of deliberate and concerted efforts by persons capitalizing on major institutional weaknesses such as collusion between governments and corporations, corruption, and where indigenous rural communities, in particular, are excluded from decision-making processes in relation to their lands and Environments and the lack of political will to halt attacks and threats.
Throughout the Albertine region of Uganda, communities are standing between the two major world’s most powerful corporates including Total and CNOOC and government the elites who are so much interested in exploiting the Albertine rift most valuable natural resources including the Oil, land, and wildlife which these individual and corporate elites want to do anything possible to exploit. Although any project that extracts and exploits, and or that which will have detrimental impacts on the lives of communities needs to be fought. Not surprisingly, this has attracted attack, and threats against Environmental activists who at large are culturally connected to the oil and gas sectors, and too large scale agribusiness, logging, hydropower, and large infrastructure projects, which are being carried out by state actors and vested business interests. For example, the African Institute of Energy Governance (AFIEGO) has been singled out by the government and the Hoima district officials for allegedly inciting the project affected persons. There has been intimidation and threats of closure of AFIEGO. Individual HRDs in the region continue to cite harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests.
Just like in too many other parts of the globe, attacks against Environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region of Uganda are rarely investigated and very fewer cases are litigated or get a serious legal consequence for the perpetrator. Failure to take any action against the perpetrators of abuse against Environmental human rights defenders does not only increase the risks posed to Environmental human rights defenders, but it also shows how irresponsible the government of Uganda is to address the impunity committed against Environmental human rights defenders and other HRD’s.
Albertine Watch is very much concerned with the reluctances of the government institutions (the police, and the Uganda Human rights commission) responses in addressing the structural issues that are causing threats to EHRD’s, including to prevent the shrinking of civil space; reveal and expose a light on collusion and corruption, and obtain justice for victims by holding the perpetrators accountable.
An EHRD is someone who advocates for the protection of the environment and the right to a healthy environment, and the corresponding human rights necessary to defend threatened and sensitive ecosystems on which people and communities depend for survival. These corresponding rights include the right to speak out, assemble, and protest in defense of their lands and livelihoods, and the right to participate in the development decisions that affect them. They are characterized as such through their actions to protect environmental and land rights. Although they may work as journalists, activists or lawyers, and bloggers who expose and oppose environmental destruction or land grabbing, they are often ordinary people living in remote villages, forests or mountains, who may not even be aware that they are acting as Human rights defenders. In many other cases, they are indigenous leaders or community members who defend their traditional lands against the harms of large-scale projects such as mining and dams.
These categories of HRD’s are instrumental in supporting their communities to stand up for and claim their rights: they expose injustice, demand accountability from their governments, and change the laws that undermine the realization of everyone’s human rights. They also directly challenge the prevailing political and economic systems. They are also advocates, organizers, trainers, educators, and connectors whose lives and safety are always threatened due to their work of human rights standing between frontline communities and ecosystems, and powerful elites that seek to extract and exploit those resources, their lives and security are threatened.
The work of EHRD’s is a very crucial one in advocacy. It is a universal human right embodied in the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association, and because it works, it is now under attack and therefore needs to be protected.
Threats and attacks against Environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region are linked to Oil and gas development project.
Considering the shrinking civil space and hostile political, legal and socio-economic work environment in the Albertine region. This environment has manifested through various forms of abuse, mob attacks, illegal evictions from residential and business premises, media propaganda, illegal arrests and detention, death threats, digital and physical surveillance, seizure and theft of office equipment and personal electronic devices to mention but a few. Dozens of grassroots organizations and individual human rights defenders in the Albertine region have reported incidents of threats and attacks such as; hijack and denial of access to the email address and blog, the theft of laptop and office equipment, illegal arrest, intimidation, and many others. These incidents have increased after the recent lawsuits against Total in France by a coalition of civil society organizations and on-ground human rights defenders and community affected by the Total oil development project dubbed the Tilenga project.
The categories of individual Environmental human rights defenders and organizations, as well as communities facing these threats, are those who are opposing land grabbing, Oil and gas exploration project activities, industrial timber trade and large-scale development projects including road constructions and the hydroelectricity dams in the region. Indigenous communities and ethnic as well as the minority tribes in Buliisa, Hoima, Nwoya, Pakwach, Nebbi, Kasese, Kikube and Adjumani districts are particularly vulnerable to these attacks and intimidation mounted on them.
They are the most affected because the Tilenga project and the EACOP projects are located in their lands; they lack legal protection while exerting strong and vocal opposition; many tribes do not hold formal title over the land they have lived on since times in memorial, and their access to justice is limited because of poverty and high level of illiteracy in the region compared to central region of Uganda.
For example, dozens of residents of the Albertine region are suffering from the ‘curse of land dispossessions’ because of short notice massive forced evictions and the eventual changes in land tenure relations. The politics of oil-based accumulation has changed land tenure relations and facilitated land dispossession in the Albertine region. This has altered land tenure systems and dispossessing citizens through two causal mechanisms, first, disrupting land governance institutions and second, reconstituting land ownership rights.
Kabaale Parish in Hoima District and Kasinyi village in Buliisa District are the two geographical locations in which various oil activities are taking place and where people were evicted for oil development projects. Specifically, Kabaale Parish is where the oil refinery is being constructed and a total of 7,118 people including 3514 women and 1,344 children under five years were affected (Resettlement Action Plan, 2012). Kasinyi village is where land equivalent to 787 acres for an industrial park, including oil Central Processing Facility (CPF) has been set aside and enclosed with around 610 persons evicted (Resettlement Action Plan, 2017).
As women, we would be given land from our husbands and relatives to grow crops for our own income. We would join farmers’ groups and through concerted effort, we could produce around 40 sacks of groundnuts each and sell in large quantities. Land was available for every woman who was energetic and willing to make money. However, since oil refinery, there has been a renewed interest on land. Those who used to give us land can no longer give us because they want compensation and many households have migrated because of oil discovery. We no longer have access to farmer’s groups. We have really been alienated from our land rights.IDI in Kitegwa village, 10 March 2018
In respect to human capital and education, residents have witnessed the real curse of dispossessions by losing four schools namely, Kyapaloni Primary School, Bukona Nursery and Primary School, Nyaihara Nursery and Primary School, and Relieve Nursery and Primary School, which were closed in preparation for the establishment of the oil refinery. According to RAP (2012), 52.8 percent of the population in the area set aside for the refinery was under 18 years. This implies that the majority of the population are school-going age children. RAP (2012) also indicate that 2,485 children were enrolled in schools within Kabaale Parish or neighboring areas by the time the land was earmarked for the oil refinery. Out of these, 926 pupils (37.3 percent) were studying at the four closed schools (RAP, 2012). After compensation, all school-age going children had to relocate to other schools in newly settled areas. However, most of them were not able to join new schools either because there were no schools at all or because they lacked economic sources and money to pay for school uniforms and other school necessities such as books and pens. There were also no officers from the Ministry of Education or local leaders mandated to follow up to see that all children were resettled in new schools. The one school which was constructed in the resettled area in Kyakaboga was not yet operational by the time of research for this article. Consequently, most of the children dropped out of schools and were just roaming around the villages.
It was, however, learned that some of the children joined makeshift schools that were started up in the area by the people who had just relocated to Kyakaboga resettlement village. In an FGD, men commented as follows:
There is nothing harsh in life like forceful eviction from your own land where you have been earning a living. The only source of school fees for our children was our land, we could grow crops, earn good money and pay school fees for our children, but now, we are worried of our children’s future because we cannot afford paying fees for them. The money we were compensated with could not even afford to buy a half of the land we had in Kitegwa(FGD Men, 17 March 2018, Kitegwa Village).
In Kasinyi village, Buliisa District, the conditions were not different. Farmers, pastoralists and fishermen have been dispossessed of their land in preparation for the establishment of the central processing facilities and industrial park that took 784.504 acres of land from the population. The people have been stopped from accessing the already enclosed land since May 2017, yet, they have not received their compensation by the time of writing this article. During fieldwork in Kasenyi village, we found a signpost that reads:
The Kasenyi Village Local Council Chairperson (LC1), when asked about his perspectives on the signpost, he said that he had nothing to say other than seeing his people and animals die of hunger because of lack of food and pasture. He narrates that:
The curse of dispossession was also witnessed in the breakdown of family ties, social networks, and social structures. When people were compensated and others resettled, they scattered in different areas. However, findings show that when some men got money, they abandoned their families and moved on to marry new wives. Others, such as the elderly, were resettled forcefully in areas where they not in touch with their relatives and friends. In an in-depth interview at Kyakaboga resettled area, an 87 old man narrated:
I had five sons, all married with children and we were staying together as one family. When the government decided to take our land for oil refinery, I opted for cash compensation so that I can relocate with my sons. However, the government forced me to resettle here in Kyakaboga and since 2012 when my land was taken, I was given this house in December 2017. Unfortunately, I don’t know where my sons went and in case I get sick, I don’t know who can help me. In this ‘camp’ we speak different languages (IDI, 26 January, 2018, Kyakaboga Village).Interviews with residents of Kyakaboga conducted by Niringiyimana Julius, Muhumuza William, Murindwa Rutanga and Uhuru/Albertine Watch
Oil companies signed an agreement to work with Police and the state House presidential Intelligent Units
At the beginning of 2012, the two multinational oil companies Total of France and CNOOC of China signed an agreement with the Government of Uganda through the Uganda Police force demanding total government protection and support for Oil companies from the community and civil society interference. Because their plan is to get the Oil and gas in any way, they paid the government to start a new police unit concerned with Oil and gas in the Albertine region. This police unit would be responsible for the protection of companies, to spy on environmental activists, other human rights defenders, journalists, funders, and to monitor and conduct digital and physical mass surveillance in the Albertine region of Uganda. In the agreement, it was agreed that Oil and gas police units would be set up to help control the influence of civil society, journalists and other human rights defenders and also to provide security for both the Tilenga, Kingfisher, and the EACOP projects.
In fulfilling its mandate of the agreement, the office of the president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni instructed the former inspector general of Police Kale Kayihura to initiate a new Oil and Gas police unit for the purpose of protecting Oil and gas project. In the process of the operations of the Oil and gas protection police units, the police have turned the Albertine region which was once very peaceful into a high and sophisticated militarized region in Uganda resulting into forced evictions, human rights violation, restriction of civil society operations, threats, attacks, and intimidation of Environmental defenders and other human rights activists, digital and physical surveillance, land grabbing, extrajudicial killings rape, torture, lootings on lake Albert, and attacks on communities who are at large indigenous and minority tribes.
The Uganda People Defense Forces (UPDF) have been pushing for a bigger base in the Albertine region. It has a Special Oil Protection Unit, which behaves like political intelligence, and security arm. They collect intelligence at every local level and monitor local leadership who defend people’s land rights. They also disperse CSOs that are suspected to awaken peoples land rights ideals through community sensitization(Key informant interview, 10 February 2018, Buliisa District).
Both Total and CNOOC are partnering with Oil and gas protection police units and the Uganda Peoples Defense Force to aid massive land grabs, forced evictions, indiscriminate killings, looting on Lake Albert, murder and beating of community members in the Oil-rich region of Uganda.
Civil society and community response to the challenges
In response to these challenges Civil society organisations in the Albertine region together with the communities and the Friends of the Earth International France chapter have brought a lawsuit in Uganda and also in France against Total and the Tilenga project. This case is largely based on the first hands evidence and information collected by Albertine Watch, Citizen Response on Environment and Development CRED, Navigators of development Association NAVODA, African Institute of Energy Governance AFIEGO, National Association of Professional Environmentalists NAPE and Ngetha Media Association for Peace among other groups involved in the case.
The Albertine Watch director and co-founder Uhuru, a Ugandan civil and human rights activist trained dozens of women, youth and civil society leaders as well as individuals human rights defenders in the Albertine region who together, and at great personal risk, traveled to the Total camp in Ngwedu and also at the refinery proposed site in Kabale to gather the testimonies of people who had experienced or witnessed gross human rights abuses directly connected to the Tilenga project and the EACOP and to the foreign companies that are building it. Uhuru and his team of Albertine Watch and community leaders together with other civil society organisations including NAVODA provided evidence that facilitated the lawsuits in France against Total. By merely providing evidence and their times to reveal the dark side of the Tilenga project, they play their parts of defending the human rights of the entire community in the Albertine region affected by the Tilenga project.
Attacks, intimidation, and violence against one EHRD can silence entire communities and have a chilling effect on others working in the Albertine region.
The recent study by the National Coalition of Human rights defenders on the situation of human rights defenders working in the context of elections also shed light on the threats and attacks against environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region who are most frequently connected to the mining, oil and gas sectors, and to agribusiness, logging, hydropower, and large infrastructure projects.
Friends of Zoka, an environmental civil society group based in Adjumani district has suffered from the effects of constant surveillance by security agents in the district. For the past several years, Zoka forest has been plundered by unregulated cutting of trees by unscrupulous timber dealers, who have apparently destroyed more than half of its cover. Because of the threats, the environmental HRDs find it difficult for them to organize community engagements to discuss about deforestation and protection of the forest because of intimidation, attacks and difficulty of holding public community meetings. “On three occasions, our meetings have been blocked by the police even after following the legally stipulated due process in Adjumani,” said Amanzuru Leslie William, an environmental HRD and team leader of Friends of Zoka. He is the honoree of the EU Human Rights Defenders Award 2019Democracy on trial report by National coalition of Human rights defenders in Uganda
In March 2019, environmental HRDs under the Friends of Zoka and Walkers Association walked 470 km (from Kampala to Adjumani) to raise awareness for Zoka forest and other forests in Uganda. Along the way, they received threats from cabals that benefit from unscrupulous timber and charcoal deals. As they approached Adjumani, they also received threats from unknown people who vowed that they will not walk into Adjumani town alive. However, with the help of some leaders on the district security committee and legal support from Chapter Four Uganda and Defend Defenders, they walked into the town safely and all their events went wellDemocracy on trial report by National coalition of Human rights defenders in Uganda
Special obligations such as requiring organizations to have Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) with districts have already started causing trouble. For example, several organizations are reporting challenges operating in Buliisa District.
Ngetha Media Association for Peace, for example, has reported challenges conducting public human rights education in the district because of intimidation by district authorities. Although MOUs can and should be encouraged, they should not be mandatory.Democracy on trial report by National coalition of Human rights defenders in Uganda
“In the Albertine Region where the oil and extractives sector is taking shape, HRDs in those communities are equally facing challenges restricting their freedoms to assemble, associate, and express themselves. As HRDs organizations move to sensitize people on land compensation, state agents continue to be inquisitive on who is building the capacity of the locals. AFIEGO has been singled out by government and district officials for allegedly inciting the project affected persons. There has been intimidation and threats of closure of AFIEGO. Individual HRDs in the region continue to cite harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests.”
“Hoima District Local Government has levied up to 500,000 Ugandan shillings that all CSOs, including CBOs, to pay. That is an amount that has to be paid every year. It is not in the law but it is something that has been put up as a source of revenue. That ideally means many CSOs that cannot afford that amount of money won’t be able to associate or express themselves as a group.”
Women Environmental activists and indigenous women organisations in the Albertine region face even greater challenges and dangers, as they confront the brutal intersection of environmental devastation, cultural dislocation, and sexual violence and gender-based persecution. They are particularly vulnerable to the threats of status as both women and as Environmental activists. As part of their work defending human and environmental rights, these women are subjected to intimidation while challenging systemic power, inequality, and discrimination, including companies’ power and deeply rooted patriarchy, and question patriarchy or misogyny, sometimes within their own communities.
In December 2015, Global Rights Alert, a local human rights group working in the area of Natural Resource Governance, was verbal via phone call summoned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to answer allegations of inciting violence among communities on issues of oil and gas after a presentation. On November 13, 2015, the organization had presented a paper titled, ‘The status of oil and gas industry in Uganda, Institutional and Regulatory Framework’ at the Uganda Petroleum Institute – Kigumba. The organization submitted a report about the training and appeared for a brief interrogation. No further action has been taken since their response. In March 2015, the Executive Director of Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED) noted that RDCs had on “several occasions blocked oil conferences” and that they direct the civil society organisations to first get clearance from the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department (PEPD).
Main causes and the perpetrators of threats against Environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region
Throughout the Albertine region, activists are standing up against violations by Oil and gas companies, government and private companies as well as individual elites. They are doing this because such a project if allowed to continue in their territories, will have detrimental impacts on their lives. The mining, oil and gas, agribusiness, logging, and hydropower projects that are frequently connected to threats and attacks against environmental human rights defenders can negatively impact the right to food and clean water, and the right to a healthy and safe environment Natural resource extraction and other major development projects in or near Lake Albert, Murchison Falls National Park, Budongo Forest, Bugungu Wild Life, and the Kabwoya Wildlife reserves would be a significant sources of abuse of the rights of rural indigenous peoples in the region. This is because oil and gas exploration and drilling activities carry the risk of pollution and contamination of water from their activities, and mine waste tailing dams have a consistent record of failure, unleashing toxic and otherwise hazardous waste on communities. Large agribusiness projects are also a significant source of abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples and other communities. Human rights abuses arise out of the loss of land and property, involuntary resettlement and forced eviction, reduced access to land used for hunting, gathering, or grazing, and the destruction of sites of religious, spiritual, and cultural importance. Throughout the Albertine region, human rights are being trampled in the rush to build mega-infrastructure projects, including large dams, road, oil and gas pipelines, highways, and railways, and to develop Oil and agribusiness projects.
Although the communities are up against these projects, the government is increasingly promoting the projects together with the private sector and the domestic financial institutions and their international counterparts. For example, constitutional mechanisms are used to declare some projects ‘national priorities’ and extraordinary powers are given to public agencies to move these projects forward. As noted above, insecure land tenure and lack of respect for FPIC make it extremely difficult for communities to stop these developments.
This is exacerbated by a lack of information and transparency, collusion between governments and corporations, and corruption. Opaque decision-making processes are not only major laws in the implementation of large-scale development projects but also lead to the marginalization and vulnerability of defenders and affected communities, and seriously undermine the credibility and legitimacy of both state and non-state actors involved in the projects.
Research on the corruption in the mining sector found corruption in the mining approval process can result in environmentally unsound and socially destructive mining projects being approved, rights to a country’s mineral wealth being granted to unqualified or unethical operators, and politicians or government officials taking advantage of their position to benefit from the project.
For example, although there was inadequate oil legal framework by 2007, the Government of Uganda signed the first PSAs in 2007 through the Minister of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD) with Heritage Oil Limited and Energy Africa Uganda Limited. By 2012, five active PSAs had been signed with five MOCs namely, Tullow Uganda, China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC Uganda), Total E&P Uganda, Dominion Petroleum and Neptune Petroleum. According to Kasita (2012), these PSAs were not done adequately because of scanty legal frameworks in place. Okuku (2015) describes that an effective award of contracts and licenses demands three major measures: first, is a clear legal and regulatory framework. Second, is a transparent and non-discretionary process for awarding contracts and licenses; and three is a well-defined institutional responsibility on the mandate of government departments and their ability to coordinate with each other. He concludes that the PSAs Uganda signed in 2007 were negotiated and signed without clear consideration of these measures. This has been a source of tax disputes and has long term implications on oil activities including land acquisition processes and constructing oil refinery and CPFs.
The government signing of these contracts was politically motivated rather than ensuring that oil wealth benefits all citizens in Uganda. Consequently, there were serious contestations. The first issue of contestation was with the 2007 PSAs that government and MOCs failed to make public until November 2009 when Platform clandestinely accessed them. Lay and Minio-Paluello (2010) elucidate how Platform, an NGO based in London, secretly obtained the contracts and uploaded them on to the internet, dubbing them, “Cursed Contracts”. Although the laws and policies in Uganda show efforts to open up the decision-making process to the public, this is not reflected in the methods so far exhibited in the oil sector, which remains secretive (Schwarte, 2008). Four reasons account for this: (i) the culture of secrecy within government bodies on oil which they argue is a strategic national resource; (ii) weak civil society structures that have been repressed whenever they try to engage in oil-related matters; (iii), politics of patronage in which the awarding of contracts and licenses was done in a non-transparent and discretionary process by lobbying the president and his associates, without competitive bidding; and (iv) the profitability and lucrativeness associated with oil wealth at the global level that made MOCs fear to expose oil contracts to avoid global scrutiny before the oil production in Uganda matured.
This could explain why, after Platform released its report, which exposed the terms of the PSAs, Tullow Oil Country Manager at the time, in reaction told the BBC: “Our PSAs are in line with oil agreements throughout the World”. In this, he insinuated the universalization of PSAs and downplayed the uniqueness of oil-producing countries. Analysis of the PSAs indicates that oil PSA for Uganda represents the worst practices and serious shortcomings: (i) the way profits-split is structured according to the volume of production alone, without taking into account oil price changes. This has also been pointed out by Norway and IMF to the Government of Uganda; (ii) the legal right is given to MOCs to flare gas; (iii) the complete absence of environmental penalties and fines (Lay & Taimour, 2010). In addition, The Platform offers a broad critique of several provisions of the 2007 PSAs and they include production sharing; recovery costs; taxation; stabilization clauses; environment protection; local content; state participation and arbitration, and many other loopholes.
To this end, it can be argued that the executive desire to extract oil wealth and the vested economic interests of MOCs, has made oil politics a complex issue in Uganda thus affecting the working environment for Environmental human rights defenders and other categories of human rights defenders in the Albertine region. This complexity of oil politics spread through land acquisition for oil development and compensations and altered land tenure relations in the area. In all these, people in the Albertine region are suffering disproportionately because this influenced the changes in the available land tenure and people dispossessed of their land rights. Project Affected Persons (PAPs) are not only suffering from delayed and inadequate compensations, but they are also dispossessed of their land rights. They are restricted from accessing their land and they could not use it productively, neither they are compensated on time. Findings indicate that PAPs took 2 to six years without compensation. Such land enclosures for capitalist oil developments resonate with the ideas of Ferguson (2005) on “seeing like oil companies” because of the enclave and territorial character that oil companies and state exposed against the local population in oil-producing states.
Another driver threats and violence against Environmental human rights defenders and community in the Albertine region is the government move to regulate the activities of CSOs in Oil and gas sector, sometimes by imposing ad hoc regulations applicable only to organisations working on oil and gas and in the oil-rich region. The 2016 NGO Act is viewed as part of the range of regulatory laws that could negatively impact on the work of CSOs working on oil and gas.
Other concerns relate to the acquisition of land by both the government and private sector to facilitate oil activities and revenue-sharing with local communities. Indeed, negative experiences of other African countries have encouraged CSOs in Uganda to raise public interest in this sector, albeit causing some discomfort on the part of the government.
According to Oil Change International:
There is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations, resulting in appropriation of land, forced relocation, and even the brutal and sometimes deadly suppression of critics. In addition to strong evidence for a ‘repression effect’ from oil production, in which resource wealth thwarts democratisation by enabling governments to better fund internal security, dependence on oil is associated with a higher likelihood of civil war. Additionally, oil production has been found to negatively impact gender equality by reducing the number of women in the labor force, which reduces their political influence.
In Uganda, civil society organisations working in the oil and gas sector have organised themselves in coalitions such as the Civil Society Coalition for Oil (CSCO) and the Albertine Watch among others which plays a significant role in human rights advocacy in the oil and gas sector. The umbrella organizations fulfill their objectives mainly through advocacy; capacity building; research; and engaging with oil companies and government departments and communities in areas directly affected by oil exploration. Action Aid has established a website on ‘Oil in Uganda’ which is dedicated to providing necessary and significant information to the general public on oil and gas activities in the country. CSOs have also been very instrumental in legislative advocacy through making submissions on various laws before they are passed into law.
History of Oil discovery in the Albertine region of Uganda and its connection to human rights violations and threats against Environmental Human rights defenders and the civil society organisations
In Uganda, oil exploration began as early as the 1950s but was halted following a sharp fall in the price of oil, only to be aggressively resumed in the mid-2000s. The 2000s were an incentive for oil exploration as one witnessed a sharp and steady rise in the price of a barrel of oil. The first discoveries were made in 2006, and since then the government has made strenuous efforts to establish the requisite legal and administrative infrastructure to enable it to produce approximately 1,4 billion barrels estimated to be recoverable out of the total estimate of 6,5 billion barrels that have been discovered to date.
In December 2013 the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) published a report on what it described as emerging human rights issues in the Albertine oil region. The Commission report indicates that its publication followed investigations conducted in the districts of Hoima, Bullisa, Nebbi, Nwoya, and Amuru, prompted by various petitions alleging human rights violations in these districts. The Commission found issues with respect to compensation by the government to those whose land had been expropriated to pave the way for the oil exploitation and processing activities, especially in Hoima District. In some respects, the compensation rates used were inadequate and in some places in Nebbi, the land was taken away before compensation had been finalized .
The UHRC also took issue with regard to the extent to which people were consulted and involved in making decisions on matters that affected them, thereby asserting the right to participation. There were participation deficits in determining the compensation rates as well as with respect to the choice of services that some corporations provided as part of corporate social responsibility. Equally, the traditional institutions in the area, including the Kingdom of Bunyoro, had not been involved in the oil activities which, according to the UHRC, implicated a violation of the right to self-determination. The Commission examined this issue from the perspective of the right of peoples to dispose of natural resources, stating:
It is important that people are not denied a meaningful say in government and in decisions on disposal and benefit of natural resources. The African Commission clearly underscored the obligations of the states to take precautionary steps to protect their citizens to exercise the right to freely dispose of wealth and natural resources. It was held that the nonparticipation of the Ogoni people and the absence of any benefits accruable to them in the exploitation of oil resources by the Nigerian government and the oil companies was a breach of its obligations under the ACHPR to exercise this right in the exclusive interest of the people and to eliminate all forms of foreign economic exploitation.
Public Order Management Act
In addition to the principal NGO legislation, recently retrogressive and draconian legislation, at the very least in their implementation, have been adopted. The legal regime has created an environment where CSOs cannot objectively interrogate issues without fear of reprisal or prosecution. Among these is the POMA, which in itself presents impediments to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. A number of activities by CSOs involve what would constitute a public meeting under the POMA.
The POMA has generally been criticised for its failure to create a presumption in favour of the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly or the duty of the state to facilitate peaceful assemblies. The Act does so by creating a de facto authorization procedure for peaceful assemblies, which is unnecessarily bureaucratic with a broad discretion for the state to refuse notification. The Act further grants law enforcement authorities the mandate to use force to disperse assemblies, without proper guidance for alternative methods of managing public order disturbances. It equally criminalises the organisers of assemblies for the unlawful conduct of third parties. The Act has the effect of shrinking civic space in Uganda and stifling civil society efforts in the discussion of governance, accountability, the rule of law and human rights.
Organisations working on oil and gas issues in the Albertine area have testified that for a long time working on oil and related issues has been considered sensitive and taboo. This was the case even with organisations engaged in activities such as empowering people to demand adequate and prompt compensation. At a certain point, the government threatened to revoke the permits of some Organisations. Indeed, the perception of many government agencies, including security personnel, is that CSO work is intended to oppose the government and interferes with government programs, in addition to promoting donor interests.
What makes the oil sector unique arises from the fact that this industry is globally characterised by serious rights violations, including land grabbing and environmental degradation. In addition, the sector is controlled by giant actors such as multi-national corporations and powerful state agencies. Also involved are individuals who appear to have a vested interest in the sector, which the state has positioned as the country’s ‘saviour’.
An example is a recent fracas dubbed the ‘golden handshake’, where government officials shared millions in oil money for ‘winning’ an oil tax dispute. Evidence emerging shows that laws on rewarding civil servants were not followed. Another good illustration of this is the outburst by the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, in 2012, when he accused some organisations working on oil and gas as being purveyors of foreign interests. This followed advocacy work by these organisations around draft laws in this sector that were intended to ensure that the laws promote transparency. Indeed, following some engagements with members of parliament, the legislature appeared to see the need for this transparency. This development angered the President, who indicated that he had written to the Inspector-General of Government to investigate some CSOs that had led the advocacy. This attitude flies in the face of the National Oil and Gas Policy for Uganda which recognises the role of civil society in the oil and gas sector.
It has been established that with or without the 2016 NGO’s Act, CSOs working in the Albertine region have been facing challenges accessing communities mainly as a result of the application of the POMA. Although the POMA does not give the police powers to authorise public meetings and only requires notice, these provisions have been misinterpreted by the police to mean that every person organising a public meeting must seek the permission of the police to do so.
CSOs in the Albertine region are concerned that if they engage in activities the authorities do not approve of, it may compromise their chances of having their operational permits renewed. For instance, it is feared that although the Act does not appear to give RDCs a role in the bureaucracy for the supervision of CSOs, there is the fear that RDCs may still interfere in the operations of legitimate structures. This is based on the previous conduct of some RDCs and their ‘bullish’ style of work
Other issues or concerns
Other issues of concern are lack of independent and prompt investigations into attacks perpetrated against Environmental human rights defenders and organisations in the Albertine region largely by the Kampala based protection organisations who are in most cases reluctant to consider the challenges that activists in the Albertine region are facing. This is largely because of the lack of interest in supporting rural-based activists and organisations.
There are too many bureaucratic procedures in obtaining emergency legal support, relocation and medical support by rural-based HRDs in the Albertine region who are always beaten and intimidated by a combination of law enforcement officers, oil companies and individual elites.
Among those affected most by bureaucratic procedures in obtaining emergency legal support are the women land rights and environmental activists with no formal education qualification relevant for them to write compelling and convincing emergency grants application and funding proposals which are always required to be written in highly sophisticated and technical English language which many rural human rights defenders are not well-positioned to do as a results of their disadvantaged in the country.
Rural Environmental activists and organisations, as well as the community, do not always have the financial, legal and human resources capacity to challenge decisions in courts or they do not have access to mass media. This is also due to the nature of their struggles as human rights defenders. Many became activists by “accident” and “by circumstance unfolding in the region” taking a stand against injustice and harmful environmental practices to their environment. This has made them irrelevant in the larger Human rights NGO’s movements because in most cases, they are not considered human rights defenders and therefore they are always unaware of their rights or existing protection measures, mechanisms, and organisations that could support them.
Plans of action
Empowering Environmental defenders and land rights activists.
The Albertine Watch beginning this year will embark on the protection of Environmental activists, land rights defenders and communities affected by the ongoing Oil and gas exploration and development projects in the region. Our goal is to contribute to the full respect of the rights of EHRDs and strengthen their security. Moving forward, we aim to ensure effective and robust protection measures specifically; our works will focus on; “holistic and digital security support” to defenders; supporting a flexible and adaptable protection measures for Environmental human rights defenders, land rights activists and at-risk community in the Albertine region; rolling a gender perspective in the Albertine Watch protection work, and recognizing the diversity of defenders be it illiterate, educated, rich, poor, young, very old, etc. The Albertine Watch shall support them considering their needs specific needs. Albertine Watch will build an alliance with International groups and regional groups as well as the national groups capable of collaborating with the Albertine Watch. This is possible because of the need for technical support that financial support that will help Albertine Watch map the threats and the vulnerabilities more effectively and to develop workable security plans for the at-risk Human rights defenders and organisations in the Albertine region. The Albertine Watch will also build an International alliance because Litigation against perpetrators requires technical expertise and familiarity with judicial systems that are foreign to the community in the Albertine region, especially when the legal action in question takes place far away from Uganda like the recent lawsuits in France against Total. In such cases, Albertine Watch requires legal advice, as well as sustained material and psychological support, to pursue these claims. Initiatives supporting the on-ground community, land rights defenders and other human rights defenders by connecting them with international law firms and overseas lawyers like we have done in the case against Total in France. And also to prepare the community and individual witnesses on how to submit in courts as the witness of human rights violations and environmental harms.
For more details on the Albertine Watch new action plans, see this link
Photo credit, Afiego