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A Century of Agro-Colonialism in the DR Congo

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Plantation workers holding a bunch palm oil fruit. The photo was taken in the Belgian colony of Congo, probably in the 1930s or 1940s. 

Many oil palm plantations’ concessions in West and Central Africa were built on lands stolen from communities during colonial occupations. This is the case in the DRC, where food company Unilever began its palm oil empire. Today, these plantations are still sites of on-going poverty and violence. It is time to end the colonial model of concessions and return the land to its original owners.

Many of the oil palm plantations now owned by multinational corporations in West and Central Africa were built on lands stolen from local communities during colonial occupations. This is the case in what is known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the Anglo-Dutch multinational food company Unilever began building its palm oil empire. Today, these plantations are sites of on-going poverty, conflict and violence. There can be no solution to these problems until lands are returned to the communities and justice is realised for the harms that have endured.

In 1911, King Leopold of Belgium granted the British industrialist Lord Leverhulme vast concessions over lands that are within what is now the DRC. These forested areas, twice the area of Belgium, were full of oil palm groves, that the local inhabitants had cared for and developed over generations, converting what was once a savannah into one of the world’s most important tropical forests.

Leverhulme wanted a cheap source of vegetable oil for his company’s leading brand of detergent, Sunlight– and he wasn’t the only one turning to the people of the Congo for it. Palm oil, long an important part of food systems in Central Africa, was of growing interest to European traders, especially Portuguese traders who by then were regularly visiting communities along the Congo River to purchase palm nuts. The competition was increasing local prices for the nuts, much to the displeasure of Leverhulme. (1)

The concessions did not give Leverhulme’s company, Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB), rights over the territories of local communities living within the concession, and there was supposed to be a process to demarcate the lands within the concessions. But Leverhulme was impatient and he pushed the Belgian authorities to grant him a monopoly over the purchase of nuts in the area– under infamous “tripartite agreements” between Leverhulme, the Belgian colonial authority and local communities, who in reality had no say over the matter. From then on, locals were treated as thieves if they dared to supply nuts harvested from their own palm groves to anyone other than Leverhulme’s company– even though the open market price was generally three to four times higher than that paid by Leverhulme.

In 1924, Portuguese traders active in the area of Basoko, in today’s Tshopo province, sent a letter to the Belgium colonial authority decrying the agreements:

“This contract concluded on 5th July last prohibits anyone purchasing in whatsoever fashion products deriving from the [oil] palm, be it nuts, kernels or oil, in the concession granted to this company [HCB], and what is still more detrimental to our interests, this measure also covers products harvested on land occupied by the natives…. The natives have strictly defined rights over the fields and plantations, and over the products harvested there. How then could it be acceptable for them to be forced to surrender their palm produce to just one company? Does this obligation not deprive them of the benefit of competition? What authorised representatives of the natives could ever have concluded, in their own name, a contract which brings them only disadvantages?” (2)

Leverhulme and the Belgian colonialists justified this scandalous monopoly on the grounds that Leverhulme’s company was making significant investments in the area by building palm oil mills and providing the locals with jobs, schools, medical clinics and churches. They also concocted, without any scientific basis, an argument that the palm groves were “natural” and not, as was widely known to locals and foreigners who spent time in the area, that the palm groves were the result of generations of care and work by local communities. If the palm groves were “natural'”, the State (i.e. the Belgian colonial authority) could thus claim dominion over them and more easily justify handing control over them to Leverhulme’s company.

Neither argument held any weight. The schools that the company established were of poor quality and largely unattended by local children, who were busy labouring for the company anyways. The company’s medical services were equally inaccessible to local villagers, and as one colonial administrator admitted: “Even in the most favourable circumstances, it is still doubtful whether the benefits of medicine offset all the ills that exploitation of the palm groves causes the population … The compulsory labour is generally too onerous … The time devoted to collecting and transporting the fruit is often excessive, and the contribution made by the women and the children often puts impossible demands upon their physical strength.” The annual mortality rate around the Leverhulme’s Huileries du Congo Belge operations was said to be at a “murderous” 10 per cent. (3)

Moreover, the employment provided by the company was in reality forced labour. In a letter from 1925, a district commissioner from Basoko wrote to the provincial governor about the labour situation at Leverhulme’s operations:

“Recruitment of workers for the HCB has been for many years so unpopular with the natives that the moral pressure exerted by the territorial administrators barely prevails …  The whole of Aruwini district is rich, and a worker gathering natural produce of the forest (palm nuts especially) may readily earn a living and create resources not available to him through labour in industry or trade …  The only way to effect an easy transition between [forced] labour and free waged labour would be to pay the worker a wage that is at least equal to what he can earn without leaving his village or changing his habits. The only firm established in the district [the HCB] offers its workers a wage that in no way compensates them for their sacrifices.” (4)

When it came to the palm groves, it was clear to anyone who had spent a minimum of time in the area that these groves were created from the labour and care of the local communities. The Belgian agronomist and missionary Hyacinthe Vanderyst, who spent years studying the palm groves in the Congo, published an article in the Belgian periodical Congo in 1925, in which he wrote:

“All of my own observations, researches and studies confirm in the most positive and absolute fashion the argument espoused by the natives… Conversely no one has so far openly attempted to prove that the palm groves are natural formations. This is no more than an assertion, wholly lacking supporting arguments …  The natives declare themselves to be the owners of the palm groves, and perhaps secondary forests, and this on several grounds: on the grounds that they were the original occupants of the country in terms of stable settlements, hunting, fishing and the harvesting of natural products; on the grounds that they were farmers who cleared and exploited the savannahs, which were thereby turned into forests, and later into palm groves; on the grounds that they were creators of palm groves thanks to their direct and deliberate intervention, which had involved introducing the oil palm into the country… For what reasons does the State deny these grounds, or refuse to take them into account?”

Vanderyst then warned his Belgian audience, “The question of the palm groves, if it is not resolved according to native customs, will remain open forever, because of its great material significance.” (5)

Leverhulme and the Belgian colonial authorities ignored his advice. A few years later, the two sides moved forward with plans to demarcate more clearly HCB’s lands, and enclose the local populations in their villages. Here is how one HCB managing director described the arrangement in a letter to the governor of Equateur Province in 1928:

“They [the natives] will be forbidden to move their villages and their cultivated fields outside the boundaries assigned to them, and they will be forbidden to gather fruit from palms on our land without rendering themselves liable to persecution …  They should remain confined to their reservations. …  We shall not allow them to take palm fruit from palms growing on our own concessions, in order simply to sell them to other traders; and if they engage in acts of violence against our workers or against our European agents– as they have threatened to do– we shall invoke the protection from the state guaranteed us by article 18 of our Convention.” (6)

The ‘Pende rebellion’ of 1931 – in reference to the Pende People living in the southwest of what is today DR Congo – was one of the biggest rebellions during the Belgian colonial occupation. It started in the Kwango district, in particular in the territories of Kikwit and Kandale, areas dominated by HCB’s palm oil operations, and one other company called Compagnie de Kasaí. One of the major reasons, if not the main reason, for the rebellion was the brutal policy of the colonial administration in the area, which, due to a lack of workforce for the oil palm activities, sent soldiers to the villages to violently recruit workers. The mortality among those recruited was extremely high: for every 20 workers recruited to collect oil palm fruit in and around Lusanga – the center of HCB’s oil palm operations in the region – hardly 10 returned to their villages. The economic crisis of the early 1930s further reduced the wages of workers and led the colonisers to increase taxes, which worsened the overall situation. An estimated 500 villagers were killed in clashes with the colonial army during the rebellion, and hundreds more perished in camps where they were imprisoned under brutal conditions. (7)

From colonial occupation to finance capitalism

Leverhulme’s company, which would later morph into the Anglo-Dutch multinational food giant, Unilever, eventually converted large chunks of its concessions into industrial oil palm plantations and stopped sourcing palm nuts from the remaining local palm groves. Over hundreds of thousands of hectares in various parts of the Congo, HCB implemented a racist and violent occupation of community lands according to the plan that its managing director described in 1928. For the affected communities, little changed as far as labour conditions, access to land and forests or the quality of medical, education and infrastructure services that the company was supposed to provide in exchange for this imposed occupation of the communities’ lands.

Unfortunately, Unilever’s plantations and concessions survived the end of Belgian colonial rule over the Congo in 1960. The empty promises of “development” under the colonial occupation were followed by the same empty promises under the Mobutu’s dictatorship during the late 1960’s (when the new DRC government took a minority ownership in the company and renamed it Plantations et Huileries du Congo- PHC). They were again repeated when the Canadian company Feronia Inc bought PHC from Unilever in 2009 with over US$150 million in backing from European and US “development” banks, and then again most recently when the operations were handed over to a private equity firm based in the tax haven of Mauritius– backed this time by university endowments, philanthropic giants and pension funds. (8)

In each of these iterations, the company’s owners and investors relied on a set of manufactured land documents to justify their occupation of over 100,000 hectares of lands. When the consortium of European development banks took over PHC between 2014-2016, they were aware that PHC’s flimsy land documents had expired, and they pushed the company to manufacture a new set, fragmenting the concessions into hundreds of parcels, without consulting the local communities and without even passing through the appropriate governmental decision-making bodies. The development banks, like the owners that had come before them and that would come after, rolled out the usual justifications for this theft of community lands– schools, roads, housing health clinics and good jobs. But today the communities and workers within the PHC concessions remain desperately dispossessed and therefore poor and the company’s new private equity owners are once again promising that they will soon start adhering to the country’s labour laws, that they will soon start paying minimum wages, and that they will soon provide functioning schools and medical clinics.

The communities are sick and tired of these false promises, and want to take back their lands to produce their own palm oil and other products, as they used to do generations back. But violence keeps the company in control. PHC has outlawed artisanal oil palm mills within its concessions and villagers caught with palm nuts are routinely beaten, jailed, tortured and even murdered by PHC security guards and police, who accuse them of “stealing” nuts from the company’s disputed concessions. (9) Workers trying to improve their situation face similar violence. In early January this year, police called in by PHC opened fire on workers protesting unpaid wages at its offices in Boteka, badly injuring two villagers. (10)

The company’s response to community demands for their lands is always that if it leaves there will be no employment for the locals– as if no economy existed before Leverhulme entered the picture. PHC’s former Canadian owners, Feronia Inc, even argued that it could not give the still forested parts of its concessions back to the locals because of the risk of deforestation!

This charade of “development” should have been quashed long ago. The lands that PHC and its predecessors have stolen and occupied for over a century are, as the Belgian recognised, “rich”– and the local people know, better than any, how to care for and utilise these lands and forests for their own benefit. It is time to put an end to the colonial model of concessions and plantations, and its endless promise of “development”. The rightful interests of the communities can only be served by an immediate return of their lands. Meanwhile, those foreign agencies claiming to be concerned with “development” should shift their focus to holding Unilever and the other foreign profiteers to account for this past century of labour violations, land grabbing and other abuses and preventing companies and investors from their countries from committing more abuses.

GRAIN www.grain.org

(1) The information in this article about Leverhulme’s colonial exploitation in the Congo is derived from Jules Marchal’s incredible book, Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts, Verso Books, 2008.
(2) Marchal, p.54
(3) Marchal, p.60 and p. 89.
(4) Marchal, p.71
(5) Marchal, p.58
(6) Marchal, p. 109
(7) Wostyn, W. 2008.  De Opstand in de Districten Lac Léopold II en Sankuru (1931-1932). Een vergelijkende analyse met de Pende opstand (1931).
(8) See, RIAO-RDC, FIAN Belgium, Entraide et Fraternité, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, FIAN Germany, urgewald, Milieudefensie, The Corner House, Global Justice Now!, World Rainforest Movement, and GRAIN, “Development Finance as Agro-Colonialism: European Development Bank funding of Feronia-PHC oil palm plantations in the DR Congo,” January 2021Oakland Institute, “Meet the Investors Behind the PHC Oil Palm Plantations in DRC,” February 2022.
(9) Numerous reports and articles detailing these abuses can be found on the website farmlandgrab.org. See here.
(10) RIAO-RDC, “Policiers et militaires tirent à balles réelles sur des ouvriers de PHC en grève à la plantation de Boteka,” January 2022.

Original Source: World Rainforest Movement

Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Leaders adamant on ending charcoal trade

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The authorities of Paibona Sub-county in Gulu District have blamed political leaders for promoting massive tree cutting for commercial charcoal production.

 Mr Joseph Otim, the National Forestry Authority (NFA) sector manager, in an interview on Friday, said local leaders at sub-county and district levels connive with charcoal dealers in the guise of raising revenue.

“One of the biggest challenges in forest governance in this country is that the people who should be taking action are relaxed. The ones in office, the foresters, and the leaders at all levels view charcoal trade as a lucrative business. So everyone looks at what goes into their pockets, at the expense of conservations,” Mr Otim said.

He said some of the forest officials have been targeted and threatened by such leaders, especially whenever they impound forest products.

 “Another challenge is the people who are highly placed and connected in the security organs who issue threats,” Mr Otim added.

During a field assessment by the district authorities to map deforestation in the area last week, heaps of cut trees being burnt for charcoal were found but no dealers found on site.

 But in Akor and Ayweri villages that have chunks of deforested land, there are 193 registered commercial charcoal dealers. Some of these dealers were found on site and have been asked to abandon the trade. For fear of prosecution, some of the dealers withheld their identities. They, however, told Daily Monitor that they cannot abandon charcoal business because it is their only source of livelihood.

Mr Jackson Ayoli, the chairperson of Paibona Sub-county, however, said leaders cannot fight commercial charcoal burning because it is a major source of revenue.

He noted that the sub-county collected Shs3 million in the Financial year 2021/2021 from taxing charcoal and other forest products. From the September to November 2022 quarter, Mr Ayoli said the sub-county collected Shs3.1 million from forest-related products.

“Forest products are one of the major sources of local revenue in this sub county and without it, paying the allowances of the sub-county councillors and other staff would be a huge challenge,” Mr Ayoli said.

 The Sub-county Chief, Mr David Kercan, said Paibona projected to collect Shs 16 million in local revenue in the last Financial Year (2021/2022). Local revenue sources include local service tax, trading licenses, and operations from Non-Governmental Organisations. “However, we realised only 67 percent of local revenue projections, translating to Shs 10,720,000 out of Shs16 million,” he said.

Ms Betty Aol Ocan, the Gulu City Woman Member of Parliament, said local governments should be innovative and find other sources of revenues.

The Global Forest Watch says  Gulu District lost 988 hectares to illegal logging and charcoal burning in 2021—an equivalent to 440,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

It is also estimated that between 2001 and 2021, Gulu lost 38,700 hectares of tree cover.

Source: Daily Monitor

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Environment And Renewable Energy

EACOP Partners With Surveyors Body as Pipeline Land Acquisition Nears Completion.

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The East African Crude Oil pipeline Company (EACOP) Ltd on Wednesday entered a partnership with the Institute of Surveyors of Uganda (ISU) which will see them work together to among others bolster local capacities ahead of the construction of the regional oil pipeline.

Through this arrangement, USU undertook to conduct training of EACOP staff and offering internship programs for university students from universities of Makerere, Ndejje and Kyambogo.
The initiative will provide a three-months training and internship placement for selected participating university students twice a year during the breaks between semesters.

The Institute of surveyors of Uganda (ISU) has over 2200 members that brings together land surveying, quantity, surveying, valuation surveying, mining, and hydrological surveying professionals whose mandate is to promote professional surveying practices that can enhance the quality of services under the various surveying disciplines in Uganda.

Speaking during the MOU signing ceremony held in Kampala today, EACOP Managing Director Martin Tiffen said while they are currently employing several surveyors registered with ISU, they needed a platform for a stronger collaboration.

The partnership is hoped local content and capacity building in the oil sector in Uganda

“We have been consumers of services of different kinds of surveyors…but this agreement is a way for some of our staff to improve on their professional qualifications” he said“It also gives us a mechanism to receive students who need (internship) positioning into our organization.”

On his part, Dr. Nathan Kabwami, the President Institute of Surveyors echoed the significance of commitment of EACOP to the partnership with the Institute of Surveyors of Uganda to facilitate the delivery of quality training to future surveyors that will work on this incredible project.

“I thank EACOP for this commendable skilling initiative and urge all University students who meet the criteria for this program and are interested in being part of the transformation of Uganda’s oil and gas industry to embrace it.” He said.
Land Acquisition.

Meanwhile, Mr Tiffen revealed that EACOP is progressing well with the process of acquiring land for the pipeline.
Since February last year when the oil Final Investment Decision was signed, Tiffen says over three quarters of project affected persons (PAPs) have been paid off.

There is a total of 3648 PAPs spread across 170 villages where the oil pipeline will pass through inside Uganda.
The EACOP MD also revealed that so far, construction of new houses for people for displaced families is nearly complete and that all 180 houses will be handed over to the owners early this year.

Source: ugnews24.info

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Environment And Renewable Energy

Ugandan communities battle to benefit from mining on their land

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Communities in Karamoja face an uphill task organising to beat international capital and authoritarian politics.

Rupa, Uganda – A handful of artisanal miners stand shirtless in an open pit, breaking boulders that glint white in the sun. Nearby, soldiers stand sullenly at the gate of the Sunbelt Marble Mine and Factory, owned by Chinese businessmen who have sunk $13m into the project.

These are the two faces of the mining rush in the Karamoja region of northeast Uganda: small-scale freelance miners, toiling with basic equipment for scant reward, and a mix of wealthy foreign and local investors protected by the state.

Here in Rupa, a sub-county of Moroto district, the locals have seen companies come and go, buying up land and dividing communities. So in 2017, when they got wind that a Chinese company was coming, they were determined to do things differently: this time, they were going to organise.

It was a pioneering attempt to ensure that local people benefitted from mining, building on customary ownership and exploiting little-used provisions of Ugandan land law.

But the story of how it worked – and how it did not – shows just how hard it is for communities to organise in the face of international capital and authoritarian politics.

Mining rush

Many of the 1.2 million people in Karamoja are cattle-keepers, driving their herds across grasslands managed by clan and custom. The rains are fickle, so negotiating access to pasture involves an element of give-and-take.

But the mining companies that are exploring the region want something solid and immovable: the minerals that lie beneath the soil, including marble, limestone, copper and gold.

In the early 2000s, the army forcefully disarmed the gun-wielding cattle-raiders who once roamed the plains, and speculators rushed in during the ensuing peace.

“The first businesspeople who came were taking over the land,” says Simon Nangiro, chairman of the Karamoja Miners Association, which represents small-scale miners in the region. “Companies come with military accompaniments … [They’re] negotiating behind the scenes with people who are vulnerable.”

According to the mining cadastre, the government has granted full mining leases in Karamoja to four companies – Sunbelt, Tororo Cement, DAO Marble and Mechanized Agro – across 79 square km (31 square miles) of land.

It has also issued licences for exploration to dozens of other local and foreign companies on roughly 4,000 square km (1,544 square miles) and is considering applications on nearly 5,000 square km (1,931 square miles) more.

Documents like leases, licences and land titles are how the modern state speaks – but it is a language foreign to Karamoja, where ownership is rarely written down and only a quarter of people can read.

“Here in Karamoja we have a customary land tenure system,” explains John Bosco Logwee, an elder in Rupa and one of the leaders of organising efforts there. “As a result, people [from outside] looked at the land and thought it does not belong to anybody.”

In Uganda as a whole, an estimated 80 percent of the land is held customarily although exact figures are hard to come by. The problem of proving who owns what worries everyone from activists, who warn of land grabs, to the World Bank, which wants to spur rural property markets.

Under the 1998 Land Act, communities can create “communal land associations” (CLAs) to defend their collective land rights. More than 600 have been incorporated nationwide, often with World Bank support.

Some of the first to be established were in Karamoja, where 52 were set up in 2012-2013 by a non-governmental organisation, the Uganda Land Alliance. According to Edmond Owor, its former executive director, the CLAs had some early successes in fending off fraudulent investors. But in 2016, the Alliance itself collapsed due to internal governance problems, leaving the fledgling CLAs on their own.

“The creation of a CLA is a very easy process, and that’s where the easy work ends,” says Simon Longoli, executive director of the Karamoja Development Forum (KDF), a civil society group based in Moroto. “We find it very difficult to trust a piece of paper to ensure the rights of the community over a piece of land.”

What people really needed, he thought, was organising and capacity building to assert the rights they had on paper. In short, they needed power.

A makeshift nursery school for children at a small-scale mining site in Rupa sub-county, Moroto district, Uganda, on 24 November 2021
A makeshift nursery school for children at a small-scale mining site in Rupa sub-county, Moroto district, Uganda, on 24 November 2021.

Community organising

Communities in Rupa had been at the forefront of Karamoja’s mining rush. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch described how two foreign-owned companies had come to the area and started exploration without the consent of the locals.

“International capital has come into Karamoja, it has allied itself with powerful political and military elites at the centre, facilitated by influence peddlers,” says David Pulkol, a Rupa indigene who formerly served as a member of parliament, government minister and head of Uganda’s external intelligence agency. “Those three are in the same bed, dispossessing the ordinary people of their livelihoods.”

So in 2017, the three clans of Rupa sub-county joined their CLAs together to form the Rupa Community Development Trust (RUCODET), taking out the formal title to the land on behalf of 35,000 people.

Longoli and his KDF colleagues arranged training for the trust’s leaders in negotiation and other skills. No other community in Karamoja had organised on such a scale to take on mining companies.

The arrival of the Sunbelt mine would give RUCODET its first major test. Under Ugandan law, all minerals belong to the government. But landowners have “surface rights” to the land itself, which have often been trampled by mining companies.

Now, thanks to RUCODET, the Chinese investors would have to negotiate with the community. “It was tough,” says Logwee, the elder. “We had no experience before of that kind of thing.”

Sunbelt had strong backing from Operation Wealth Creation, a sprawling Ugandan military programme that started out giving seeds to farmers and was now helping build fruit factories, disburse credit and develop the minerals sector.

The programme is led by Salim Saleh, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s ubiquitous brother, whom many consider the second-most powerful man in the country. He is a feared general with extensive business interests, who has been accused by UN experts of grabbing resources during the 1998-2003 Congo war – an allegation he has always denied.

As part of the negotiations, a team from RUCODET travelled 400km to Kapeeka, where a Chinese-owned industrial park has been constructed close to Saleh’s personal residence. Longoli of KDF says that some leaders in RUCODET and in local government were taking calls from Saleh himself to get an agreement signed.

Major Kiconco Tabaro, a spokesman for Operation Wealth Creation, claims that it was not directly involved in the negotiations but has “a strategic working relationship with all ministries, departments and agencies of government” to “help bring about socioeconomic transformation”.

It was hard to say no to a man like Saleh, and the leaders of RUCODET did not. In 2018, they signed away surface rights to 3.3 square km of land to Sunbelt for 21 years, receiving compensation of 1.8 billion shillings ($500,000), they say.

By one yardstick, that was a lot of money. Small-scale miners in Rupa say they get just 100,000 shillings ($28) from traders for filling a 7-tonne truck with stone, a task which takes four people at least a week.

But Sunbelt expects gross revenues of $30m a year, according to the 2021 manifesto of the ruling National Resistance Movement – making the payout to RUCODET equivalent to one week’s turnover. A spokesman for Sunbelt declined an interview request for this story.

The leaders of RUCODET used 100 million shillings ($28,000) to set up 94 educational scholarships for schoolchildren and university students. Some of the rest was handed out as cash to community members.

But there was protest from those who felt left out and mutterings that money was misused or even stolen – allegations which Logwee dismisses as “speculation”. Three people familiar with the matter told Al Jazeera that the lawyer who advised RUCODET charged 400 million shillings ($110,000) for his services, which included the cost of surveying and titling the land.

Then tragedy struck. The leader of RUCODET was a man called Marjory Dan Apollo Loyomo, a brother of the former spy chief Pulkol. “He was very strong, he was very charismatic, he was very committed,” recalls Longoli. He was also the elected chairman of Rupa sub-county, which meant he had to represent his people in disputes.

In 2019, after a decade of peace, the armed cattle-raiders started to make a comeback. Loyomo had disagreed with aspects of the army’s handling of the issue.

On December 17 that year, according to the UN Human Rights office, the army called him to a military detach in Rupa. It had impounded cattle after a raid; local people were angry. Loyomo, as sub-county chairman, tried to deliberate with the officers. A soldier shot him dead.

The regional army commander was transferred soon afterwards. His successor, Brigadier General Joseph Balikudembe, says that he cannot comment on the incident due to ongoing proceedings against the soldiers involved.

Nobody that Al Jazeera spoke to wanted to speculate on the reasons for Loyomo’s killing, but everyone agreed that it was a devastating setback.

“The loss of a torchbearer, the founder chairman, has been a very big loss for RUCODET,” says Logwee, who has succeeded him to the role.

“He was fighting really for his people,” argues Joyce Nayor, an activist and Rupa resident who is critical of the trust’s current leadership. “Since he died, RUCODET has also died a natural death.”

Hardly any local people got jobs in the Sunbelt mine, Al Jazeera heard on two visits to the area with local activists. Some small-scale miners have been allowed to remain in a corner of the land that was allocated to the company, where they break boulders for sale.

They complain that Sunbelt tried to push them into an ever-smaller area and take away the traders who would buy their stone – and that RUCODET has done little to help.

“RUCODET is there in name only,” says Isaiah Aleu, a miner.

John Bosco Logwee (second right) and other leaders of RUCODET outside their offices in Rupa sub-county, Moroto district, Uganda, on 29 November 2021
John Bosco Logwee (second right) and other leaders of RUCODET outside their offices in Rupa sub-county, Moroto district, Uganda, on 29 November 2021 

Choppy waters

Land trusts and CLAs are promising tools for communities to defend their rights, say land campaigners. But there is no consensus about how they should navigate turbulent political waters.

Pulkol is now helping build RUCODET’s capacity through the Africa Leadership Institute, a non-governmental organisation he leads. He thinks the best hope for Karamoja is to work with investors and government for shared benefits, rather than to block them altogether.

Longoli, the activist, is not so sure. Often when it comes to minerals, “the best deal is just no deal”, he says. “RUCODET, because of pressure from above or pressure from within the institution, was in a hurry to close deals.”

Yet he remains hopeful that organisations like RUCODET can be the basis for something better. “These are not perfect but they give a bridge somewhere,” he says.

The next test is coming soon.

In Loyoro sub-county of Kaabong district, 100km (62 miles) to the north, a new company called Moroto Ateker Cement is exploring for limestone. Pulkol, representing the local government of Moroto, sits on its board.

The state-owned Uganda Development Corporation has a 45 percent stake in the project. The seven clans of Loyoro have started the process of forming a trust, after the RUCODET model.

Meanwhile, in the bush, surrounded by soldiers and tsetse flies, exploratory drilling machines bore down into their land.

Source: Al Jazeera

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