Human Rights Abuses in the African Development Bank (AfDB) funded LEAF II project in the Albertine region of Uganda and DR Congo.

AfDB-funded project to reduce poverty and promote sustainable livelihoods for men and women in the local fishing communities of Lake Albert and Edward in Uganda and the Democratic Public of Congo has resulted in human rights abuse, eviction, intimidation of fishing communities, and harassment of human rights defenders.

The Uganda People’s Defense Forces arm of Fisheries Protection Unit-FPU has been deployed on the lakes to enhance compliance and sector standards as set out in the project. By so doing community’s fishing gear is destroyed, and more than 30,000 fishing boats, engines, and nets are impounded from various landing sites on Lake Albert and Edward in Uganda and DR Congo. Fishing activities have been severely disrupted leading to risky encounters between both cross-border communities and the enforcement arms, declined state of food security and livelihoods are visible. Fishermen on both sides accuse soldiers of using excessive force in their operations.

Although some members of the communities are forcefully relocated by the conditions, some with no option continue accessing the water bodies to earn a living resulting in retaliation fatalities, arrests, and destruction of properties among others. Human rights defenders and community leaders vocal against the harassment are threatened by enforcement officers.

Male adults are harassed, arrested, and sometimes fatally injured while fishing on the water bodies during enforcement by the military patrolling the lake.

Some Human Rights Defenders have been subjected to forms of harassment and intimidation because of questioning the conduct of the law enforcement officers. Such acts have caused tension and agony on the landing sites. Albertine Watch has documented cases of killings and attacks on fishing communities and violence by military personnel against women and girls.

In February 2020, UPDF on Lake Edward shot at two fishermen at the Kisenyi landing site killing one and leaving the other with a broken arm. From 2018 until to date, over 200 fishermen from Dei, Butiaba, Runga, Kaiso-Tonya, Kiibiro, Waki, Kabolwa, Buguma, Ntoroko, and Kondo landing sites in Uganda have gone on missing. The data on the Killing of Congolese fishermen are not verified due to a lack of details and difficulties in obtaining information on violence, killings, and the threats linked to the LEAF II project on the DR Congo side.

In 2018, the Police marine at the Dei landing site in Pakwach district raped a woman fisherperson, they beat her and burnt her fishing equipment . As a result of the injuries sustained from the attack, she is permanently disabled.

Human Rights defenders and community leaders working against the criminalization of fishing activities have also been deliberately targeted, harassed, and risked their lives for openly advocating against the acts of the armed patrolling forces on the Ugandan side of the lakes. Some of them have been forced to relocate for their lives following increasing threats of attacks. The deployment of armed personnel and law enforcement agencies to regulate fishing activities has forced growing numbers of human rights activists and the wider community prefer to stay silent about the injustices they face as a result of the AfDB-funded project.

Multinational Lakes Edward and Albert Integrated Fisheries and Water Resources Management (Leaf ii) Project was developed on the ground that “environmental degradation in the Lakes Edward and Albert basin is a main source of threat not only to fish resources but also biodiversity degradation and over-exploitation of plant species. This has led to soil erosion, and pollution of soils, water, and the atmosphere, as well as vulnerability to climate change, and all of these, raise concerns about the inherent risks in the basin’s immediate environment. Consequently, residents of the basin (close to 12 million) live in precarious and increasingly vulnerable conditions”.

For this reason, the project was developed with the main goal of poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods for men and women (in the local fishing communities), and global environmental benefits in sustainable management of natural resources. The project objective is to ensure sustainable utilization of fisheries and allied natural resources of the Lakes Edward and Albert Basin through harmonized legal framework and policies. The project has three components namely: 1) Fisheries Resources Development & Management; 2) Integrated Water Resources Management and 3) Project Management and Coordination among others.

The project is jointly financed by AfDB Loans and grant resources from the International Water allocation of the Global Environmental Facility-GEF at a total cost of USD 24.54million, the AfDB loans totaling UA 11 million (representing 65.6% of the total Project Cost) comprising UA 6 million for the Democratic Republic of Congo and UA 5 million.

The project is taking place in the communities within the catchment area of Lakes Edward and Albert. These Lakes are part of the series of Rift valley lakes shared by the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Uganda. Lake Edward (90 km long and 40km wide) is situated at an altitude of 916 m and is bordered on the west by the high mountains of the Mitumba Range including the famous Mount Kyavirimu (3,117m), on the North and South by two alluvial plains, respectively, the Semliki (outlet) and the Rwindi- Rutshuru (tributaries). Its average depth is estimated at 34m, with a maximum of 117m towards the Congolese side. The lake is enclosed by two national parks, the Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in Uganda and the Virunga National Park (PNVI) in the DRC. In Uganda, the lake waters are not included in the park, unlike in Congo. Lake Edward has a hydrographic basin estimated at 12,000 km2.

The Project area is also rich in minerals such as gold, gypsum, coltan, and most importantly oil. The population in the fishing villages fluctuates according to the fishing seasons. In DR Congo it is estimated that about 50,000 people who are dependent on fishing live in the Parc National des Virunga. It is estimated that over 10,000 people live in the five gazetted landing sites-fishing villages along the shores of Lake Edward. In the Kaiso/Tonya area along Lake Albert, there are about 9,000 people. In Dei fishing village, there are about 10,000 people. The main economic activities in the project area are fishing and subsistence smallholder farming. Nearly 73% of the population is dependent on fishing as a livelihood. The main crops grown are beans, maize, cassava, and bananas for subsistence but sometimes for cash. Tourism is becoming an increasingly important activity in the Project area.

According to the project documents that were seen by the Albertine Watch, the estimated number of direct beneficiaries for the LEAF II project is about 400,000 people consisting mainly of the members of BMU/UGREP in the two countries who are active stakeholders along the value chains. They include about 35% fishermen who actually do fishing on the lakes, 10% crew members of the fishing boats/vessels while the rest is made of 55% who are involved in the various value addition processes where the women predominate.

While some fishers were consulted, the number of consulted fishers is too insignificant to reflect the interest and aspirations of all entire communities affected by the project. Some communities on landing sites were not consulted at all.

In the same consultations, communities were influenced to agree to the terms of the project by providing half of the information about the project. For instance, with the use of the Lakes Edward and Albert Integrated Fisheries and Water Resources Management (LEAFII) project information brochure, communities are promised 45,000 jobs, improved fishing tools to ensure maximum productivity, capacity building and skills enhancement, safe water, electricity, good roads among many other benefits but nothing is mentioned about how the project is going to negatively impact on the livelihoods and welfare of community members within the project area. In fact, communities were not prepared for the consequences of the project activities like enforcement to ensure environmental restoration programs take shape. Communities’ decision to support the project was based on the promise that the project will contribute towards poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods for local communities and global environmental benefit without taking into consideration the immediate risk this had on the needs and livelihood demands of communities in the short term.

Moreover, the project was developed and commenced before sufficient consultations were made and not all information with specific emphasis on the consequences of the project was provided. Communities were not provided a fair chance to decide on a project with far-reaching consequences.

Furthermore, to buy the communities support and approval of the project, people were promised alternative sources of livelihood like financial, technical, and material support to start up environmentally friendly businesses, and jobs among others as a way of improving the social-economic well-being of the locals. This program was also intended to fix the challenges the new project may cause to the communities’ livelihood. These promises were never fulfilled.

Similarly, communities were not prepared for life during the project implementation. The lack of preparations and support to communities has denied them a fair chance to smoothly transit from dependency on water bodies to other alternative forms of livelihood.

The affected communities have been present for thousands of years, preserving their language, traditions, culture, and livelihoods, many times barely surviving by living in isolated and remote areas. They face critical challenges for their survival and the preservation of their cultures. They typically have higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition than non-indigenous populations.

Having lost their traditional grazing lands and cultivation plantations to the colonialist scheme of creating National Parks like Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Park in the 1950s on their farmlands, these communities lost a livelihood but found an alternative source in fishing on the mentioned lakes.

As a result of the bank-funded project, on the one hand, their rights, territories, and livelihoods are seriously threatened by the activities of the project’s pressure, compounded by the extractive industries’ appetite for resources from other investors in the same community.

The African Development Bank Group Gender Strategy 2021 – 2025 recognizes that “gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment is not only a critical human rights issue for women and girls, it is a prerequisite for the achievement of broader development goals, effective humanitarian response and sustainable peace and security”. Moreover, the bank recognizes “challenges that hinder women’s economic empowerment in Africa“, and thus has, pledged increasing focuses on mainstreaming gender in its operations to ensure gender equality and women and girl’s empowerment at regional and national levels.

By financing projects that violate human rights, cause violent eviction, force relocations, and rape women and girls, the AfDB perpetuated rape, starvation, homelessness, and lack of access to education, water, and health among them.

By failing to stop this project, AfDB has failed to live by its 2021-2025 vision for “gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment” vision to transform Africa’s key sectors into grounds of accessible opportunities where women, girls, men, and boys, regardless of their background, enjoy equal access and control over productive resources and benefit from supportive infrastructure and services to thrive.

The Albertine Watch urges the Bank to suspend the LEAF II project and initiate immediate investigations into the reported pieces of evidence of human rights abuse in the project.

Instead of funding projects that cause violence and livelihoods risk, the Albertine Watch urges the African Development Bank to consider funding livelihood restoration and work directly with local community organizations, fisheries associations, and women saving groups across the landing sites, helping them improve their livelihoods so that they can uplift themselves from poverty.

The Albertine Watch calls on the African Development Bank to immediately investigate violence committed against women by the project implementing security agencies and for the Bank to ensure that women and girls evictees are protected from future rape, sexual harassment, and beatings by security agencies.

Both Ugandan and DR Congo governments have adopted a restrictive range of legislations. They increasingly hijack the independent and nonviolent civil society groups and have launched numerous attacks against human rights defenders. This makes independent monitoring of projects such as LEAF II extremely challenging and dangerous for human rights defenders and activists. Therefore, we urge that the bank stop funding any project that lacks safeguard policies in place to prevent retaliation against critics of such projects.

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