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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

Close to 20 local farmers are in jail for fighting for their land not to be taken by the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

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By Witness Radio Team.

For the last 50 years, local farmers in Waaki North, Kapapi Central, Waaki South, Runga, and Kiryatete villages in both Kapapi and Kiganja sub-counties in the Hoima district have been surviving on subsistence farming and rearing animals on their land as a source of livelihood for their families.

Until 2022, when their land was surveyed for the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), this brought smiles to the faces of the local communities hoping that doors for opportunities associated with the project had emerged. Immediately, the registration of Project-Affected Persons (PAPs) started.

The East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline Project (EACOP) is a pipeline that will transport crude oil produced from Uganda’s Lake Albert oilfields to the port of Tanga in Tanzania to world markets.  EACOP runs 1,443km from Kabaale, Hoima district in Uganda to the Chongoleani Peninsula near Tanga Port in Tanzania.

EACOP has been criticized from different sections all over the world and environmentalists expressed serious concerns as it endangers the fight against climate change and breaches the international Paris Agreement with an estimated production of 34 million tons of CO2, twice as much as Uganda and Tanzania’s emissions.

But the story slowly altered from smiling to grief.  Along the way, those who had registered to be compensated for their land started getting threatened and intimidated. Others were arbitrarily arrested and detained on trumped-up charges by the area police. Later, this violence escalated after land grabbers brought in guards from Magnum, a private security company.

Future dreams got shuttered: On the 10th of February 2023, security forces including; Hoima district police, soldiers, and private guards, raided homes of close to 500 families sitting on 1294.99 Hectares in the wee hours, torched and destroyed houses, assaulted dozens of locals, looted animals and harvested grains from stores among others.

For the last three months, Witness Radio statistics show that close to 20 local farmers have been arbitrarily arrested and trumped up with charges of theft, threatening violence, and malicious damage among others.

Some victims that were produced before the court, charged, and currently in Hoima prison include; Mbombo Steven, Rubyogo David, Mulega Eria, Rangira Steven, Karongo Edward, Karongo Steven, and Kataza Sam, and others.

Criminalization of farming activities of local farmers and the work of community land and environmental defenders is common in Uganda. It is a tool used by economically powerful and politically connected individual investors/companies to put critical locals in jail and grab their land.

According to the 2022 report by Frontline Defenders, a global human rights group, criminalization is one of the biggest threats faced by defenders of land and the environment.

The report further revealed that the environmental, land, and indigenous peoples’ rights sector was widely affected at (11%) of the total cases tracked. Additionally, the arrests and detentions did put at risk the lives of the outspoken community members.

Mr. Mbombo Steven, one of those currently in jail, was arrested on 24th February 2023, a day after the Ugandan minister for lands, hon. Nabakooba Judith had visited the area and directed the community to return to their land.

His family members revealed that Mbombo had been arrested and persecuted many times for fighting for his land rights. By the time of his arrest at 8 am local time on the 24th of February 2023, he had returned to occupy and use his land.

“He had gone back to check on his land shortly after the minister’s orders but when the guards saw him, they arrested, and handcuffed him before being taken to Runga police. He was later transferred to Kitoba police,” a family member who preferred anonymity due to fear of retaliation revealed.

The escalating arrests have forced many family heads to abandon their families and go into hiding. The violence has left many mothers with responsibilities to care for their children. One of the women whose husband is in jail narrated. She added that ever since the husband was arrested, she’s been challenged with feeding children and looking for a house to sleep in.

“I have eight children to take care of. We have no food, and they don’t go to school because we have lost everything. Imagine being in this situation with no land, shelter, or no food among others. How can I feed and educate them?” She revealed.  She added that they (her and 8 of her children) are currently living with their relatives.

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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

Breaking: Witness Radio and Partners to Launch Human Rights Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy Project Tomorrow.

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By Witness Radio Team.

Witness Radio, in collaboration with Dan Church Aid (DCA) and the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD), is set to launch the Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy for Human Rights in Uganda (MDA-HRU) project tomorrow, 22nd February 2024, at Kabalega Resort Hotel in Hoima District.

The project, funded by the European Union, aims to promote the protection and respect for human rights, and enable access to remedy where violations occur especially in the Mid-Western and Karamoja sub-regions where private sector actors are increasingly involved in land-based investments (LBIs) through improved documentation, and evidence-based advocacy.

The three-year project, which commenced in October 2023, focuses its activities in the Mid-Western sub-region, covering Bulisa, Hoima, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kikuube, Kagadi, Kibale, and Mubende districts, and Karamoja sub-region, covering Moroto, Napak, Nakapiripirit, Amudat, Nabilatuk, Abim, Kaabong, Kotido, and Karenga districts.

The project targets individuals and groups at high risk of human rights violations, including Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs). It also engages government duty bearers such as policymakers and implementers in relevant ministries and local governments, recognizing their crucial role in securing land and environmental rights. Additionally, the project involves officials from institutional duty bearers including the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), Equal Opportunities Commission, and courts, among others.

Representatives from the international community, faith leaders, and business actors are also included in the project’s scope, particularly those involved in land-based investments (LBIs) impacting the environment.

The project was initially launched in Moroto for the Karamoja region on the 19th of this month with the leadership of the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD).

According to the project implementors,  the action is organized into four activity packages aimed at; enhancing the capacity and skills of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs) in monitoring, documentation, reporting (MDR), and protection, establishing and reinforcing reporting and documentation mechanisms for advocacy and demand for corporate and government accountability;  providing response and support to HRDs and marginalized communities; and lastly facilitating collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagements that link local and national issues to national and international frameworks and spaces.

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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

Kiryandongo leadership agree to partner with Witness Radio Uganda to end rampant forced land evictions in the district.

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By Witness Radio team.

Kiryandongo district leaders have embraced Witness Radio’s collaboration with the Kiryandongo district aimed at ending the rampant violent and illegal land evictions that have significantly harmed the livelihoods of the local communities in the area.

The warm welcome was made at the dialogue organized by Witness Radio Uganda, Uganda’s leading land and environmental rights watchdog at the Kiryandongo district headquarters, intended to reflect on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

Speaking at the high-level dialogue, that was participated in by technical officers, policy implementers, religious leaders, leaders of project affected persons (PAPs), politicians, media, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and development partners that support land and environment rights as well as the Land Based Investments (LBIs) Companies in the Kiryandongo district, the leaders led by the District Local Council 5 Chairperson, Ms. Edith Aliguma Adyeri appreciated the efforts taken by Witness Radio organization to organize the dialogue meeting aimed at bringing together stakeholders to safeguard community land and environmental rights in order address the escalating vice of land grabbing in the area.

During the dialogue, participants shared harrowing accounts of the impacts of land evictions and environmental degradation, including tragic deaths, families torn asunder, young girls forced into marriage, a surge in teenage pregnancies, limited access to education, and significant environmental damage which have profoundly affected the lives of the local population in Kiryandongo.

Participants attending the dialogue.

In recent years, Kiryandongo district has been embroiled in violent land evictions orchestrated to accommodate multinational large-scale agriculture plantations and wealthy individuals leaving the poor marginalized.

According to various reports, including findings from Witness Radio’s 2020 research Land Grabs at a Gun Point, the forceful land acquisitions in Kiryandongo have significantly impacted the livelihoods of local communities. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 individuals have been displaced from their land to make room for land-based investments in the Kiryandongo district. However, leaders in the district also revealed in the dialogue that women and children are affected most.

The Kiryandongo Deputy Resident District Commissioner, Mr. Jonathan Akweteireho, emphasized that all offices within the Kiryandongo district are actively involved in addressing the prevalent land conflicts. He also extended a welcome to Witness Radio, acknowledging their collaborative efforts in tackling and resolving land and environmental issues in the district.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that the land rights together with environmental rights have been violated in our district, but because we don’t know what our rights are, because we have not directly done what we could to safeguard our rights and now this is the time that Witness Radio has brought us together to safeguard our rights. I want to welcome you in Kiryandongo and be rest assured that we shall give you all the necessary support to help us manage these rampant cases,” Ms. Adyeri said in her remarks during the dialogue meeting.

The team leader at Witness Radio Uganda, Mr. Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala expressed gratitude to the participants for their active involvement in the dialogue and revealed that Witness Radio’s objective is to find a holistic solution to the escalating land disputes in Kiryandongo district serving as an example to other districts.

“We are here to assist Kiryandongo district in attaining peace and stability because it stands as a hotspot for land grabbers in Uganda. Mismanagement of land conflicts in Uganda could potentially lead to a significant internal conflict. Everywhere you turn, voices are lamenting the loss of their land and property. Kiryandongo, abundant with ranches, suffers from a lack of a structured framework, which amplifies these land conflicts. The influx of wealthy investors further complicates the situation,” Mr. Ssebaggala disclosed.

Within the dialogue, Mr. Ssebaggala emphasized the need for the Kiryandongo district council to pass a by-law aimed at curbing land evictions as an initial step in addressing the prevalent land injustices.

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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

A breaking alert! A community land rights defender is kidnapped from his home.

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Kassanda, Uganda: a community land rights defender is missing after unidentified men cladding Uganda police uniform raided his home at around 10 PM local time, his wife has revealed.

Julius Ndagize is one of the community land rights defenders in Kassanda district advocating for the compensation of over 10,000 people illegally evicted from their land by the New Forest Company (NFC) in 2008 to plant monoculture trees.

In early 2020, evictees rose again to revive their demands to repossess their land following NFC’s failure to resettle and compensate them for the human rights violations and damages.

Evictees further narrate that ever since NFC grabbed their land, they have experienced increased deaths among children due to malnutrition and hired out land to bury their relatives who have died. All children who were attending school at the time of eviction have dropped out of school, while others have gotten married at a tender age. Furthermore, many families of the evictees have since broken up, and the list of long-standing impacts goes on.

“Our home was raided by unidentified men in police uniform at 10 PM local time. When they reached home, they banged on the house door and demanded that I should open the door. Upon opening, they forcefully entered the house without identifying themselves, with no explanation. Instead, they asked the whereabouts of my husband. They searched while throwing house properties in every direction until they got him and took him to an unknown direction. Said Mrs. Ndagize

She accused Uganda police of stealing Uganda Shillings 350,000, which is equivalent to about USD 90, which they found in their bedroom. She said the money belonged to a local women’s savings association, of which Mrs. Ndagize is the treasurer.

Since 2011 NFC has benefitted financing from international banks and private equity funds, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) with five million Euros (almost US 6 million dollars) to expand one of its plantations in Uganda; The Agri-Vie Agribusiness Fund, a private equity investment fund, had invested US 6.7 million dollars; the World Bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the UK bank HSBC with around US 10 million has caused unimaginable pain to hundreds of households and continued to suffer gross human rights abuses, mainly in Mubende district.

Lately, NFC has benefited from the carbon offset financing from several financiers, including the Dutch Development Bank (FMO).

Witness Radio has commissioned search for the lost person, but no success had been reached by the time of writing this article.

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