Farmers, civil rights groups oppose Uganda’s oil project

Farmers and civil society groups in Uganda are opposing the agreement between oil giant Total, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the governments of Tanzania and Uganda greenlighting oil production in the Lake Albert region of western Uganda.

They contend that the project threatens the wetlands and forests that support lives and livelihoods in Albertine, central and southern Uganda, as well as the wellbeing of Lake Albert itself, a transboundary lake shared with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They want the environmental and climate impacts of the projects evaluated before the project proceeds.

The groups said in a statement that they reject the agreement signed April 12 in Kampala by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and his Tanzanian counterpart, Samia Suluhu Hassan. 

The statement read in part: “Before the Tilenga, Kingfisher and EACOP [East African Crude Oil Pipeline] oil projects are launched, we demand the climate change, environmental and biodiversity mitigation management plans for the Tilenga, Kingfisher and EACOP oil projects with the public for review to determine their adequacy.” 

The Lake Albert project is the latest development in Uganda’s entry into the fossil fuel industry. More than six billion barrels of oil have been discovered since 2016, 1.4-billion of which is classified as recoverable. The oil projects include a network of more than 400 wells, hundreds of kilometres of feeder pipelines and a new refinery in Kabaale, Uganda. 

Francis Ntegyereaize, of Navigators of Development Association (Navoda), a Ugandan nongovernmental organisation, said the Kabaale refinery has led to “an unprecedented destruction of riverine forests”.

With displaced former landowners unable to afford land caused in part by speculators, they have encroached on protected areas, putting wildlife at risk.

“People who moved to give way to the project in 2014 have not found new land to settle on. Some misused their money while others could not afford new parcels after land prices went up by as much as eight times between 2012-2014. This left them unable to afford new parcels, turning them into squatters cultivating on the forests and wetlands,” Ntegyereaize said.

The Lake Albert project will process oil from the Tilenga and Kingfisher projects, and it is estimated to produce 230 000 barrels a day upon completion. The oil will be transported to the planned export hub in Tanga off Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast, through the pipeline, which is set to be the world’s longest electrically heated pipeline. The scheme is expected to take off in 2025.

In the heart of the Tilenga project in Bulisa district, farmers living next to Murchison Falls National Park are unhappy. They are reeling from the effect of wells already drilled in the park, which the River Nile cuts through.

Elly Munguryeki, a 35-year-old father of six, lost a hectare of maize and cassava to wildlife. His farm is along the border between his village of Kilayngo and the park, about a kilometre from the Nile. 

“We have always had a problem of human-wildlife conflict in this village, but with drilling and road construction across the park, the invasions are more frequent. We keep reporting the losses to park authorities but nothing happens,” he said. “Each night a herd of buffaloes, baboons and hippos from the park would invade my farm and neighbouring plots and eat our crops until dawn. Whatever they left would be eaten by baboons and wild pigs during the day, forcing us to harvest premature crops,” Munguryeki said. 

Maxwell Atuhura, a project officer and human rights activist at Navoda, said the government is ignoring valid questions regarding the negative effects of the project.

“Total and the government claim they are using limited space and advanced technology to avoid harming the park, but negative effects are already evident,” he said.

“The majority of people detained at Bulisa prison have been arrested for entering the park for fishing in the Nile, collecting firewood or for harvesting papyrus for domestic use, yet more destructive activities have been allowed by the government inside it.”

Atuhura said the number of cases of buffaloes and hippos killing people in the neighbouring villages have increased in recent years, a marked departure from when they occurred infrequently.

“Nowadays hardly a year elapses before you hear reports of wildlife killing people or invading crops. The animals are fleeing noise caused by human activities, and are seeking safety in the villages,” he said.

Uganda’s oil regulator, Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU), disputes these claims. The government agency says it has put in place measures to address the direct and indirect harmful effects of the projects. The PAU’s executive director, Ernest Rubondo, said: “The PAU monitors activities in the field to ensure compliance and reduce the risk of any potential negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity. It is important to appreciate that oil and gas exploration activities were successfully undertaken within MFNP [Murchison Falls National Park], and the integrity of the park was maintained. The aim is to ensure co-existence with Uganda’s rich biodiversity.”

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