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Criminalization of planet, land, and environmental defenders in Uganda is on the increase as 2023 recorded the soaring number of attacks.



By Witness Radio team.

Close to 200 community human rights defenders and activists have paid a price for protecting the planet, land, and environmental rights in Uganda in the year 2023, Witness Radio – Uganda reports.

The abridged report titled “The State of Planet, Environmental, and Land Rights Defenders in Uganda 2023” by Witness Radio documented 181 cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, imprisonments, disappearances, and other retaliatory attacks.

Witness Radio‘s findings reveal a disturbing pattern wherein all arrests are marked by extreme violence, particularly targeting those who boldly stand up to fight for nature, food sovereignty, and biodiversity and mobilize communities to push back violence against them. Beyond the mere detentions, these defenders often fall victim to kidnapping, torture, and arbitrary arrest, fostering an atmosphere of fear among them and the communities they represent.

Nevertheless, defenders who persist and stand up for their beliefs are at a higher risk of violent attacks from investors and their agents. Notably, the Western region emerges as a fiery epicenter for the unjust criminalization of these brave individuals, where the flames of oppression burn most intensely. It is followed by Central, Northern and Eastern regions respectively.

The report also highlights a concerning trend in Uganda’s agricultural sector, marked by a significant increase in violent and retaliatory attacks and detentions. It is closely followed by similar issues within the oil sector, as the infrastructure sector underscoring the urgent necessity for comprehensive action to address the escalating threats and attacks faced by land and environmental defenders in Uganda.

Witness Radio’s Community Empowerment officer, Ms. Bulyerali Joan, reveals that the prevalence of the continued unforceful evictions and escalating criminalization of community land and environmental defenders is a result of insufficient due diligence by both government entities and investors in their business investments.

“Land and environmental rights defenders are consistently targeted for arrest as a means to intimidate them into relinquishing their land. The collusion between the police, who are tasked with protecting the community, and investors results in the detention of these defenders, leaving them vulnerable to the whims of the investors. Furthermore, the government and various project funders fail to conduct proper due diligence to ensure that the entities they support uphold human rights standards,” Ms. Bulyerali emphasized.

“Over the past years, we have been documenting the complicity between the police, army, and private security guards in carrying out illegal evictions, as well as their roles in suppressing protesters advocating for land and environmental rights,” added Ms. Bulyerali. “Unfortunately, 2023 has seen a continuation of this pattern, with the police, private guards, and army actively involved in violent evictions, resulting in the arrests and detentions of critics of various projects.”

In one of the communities mentioned in the report, Rwabunyonyi village in Hoima district, a community member named Venessa not real name due to fear of retaliation from land grabbers, disclosed that in March 2023, 21 land defenders were forcibly arrested by local police, allegedly in collusion with land grabbers. Shockingly, these defenders were falsely charged with murder and aggravated robbery, a blatant attempt to silence them and instill fear among the communities they represent.

“Our land remains heavily guarded by private security personnel, preventing us from accessing and utilizing it for our livelihoods. These guards have intensified violence against us and persistently target our land for large-scale investments” Vanessa told Witness Radio.

Shockingly, despite Junior Lands Minister Mr. Sam Mayanja’s attempt to intervene and protect the community from land grabbing on August 24, 2023, security guards affiliated with the Pyramid Private Security group stationed on the land resorted to threatening him with gunfire.

According to the Rwabunyonyi community members, they perceive this act as demonstrating the impunity with which these powerful land grabbers operate to the extent of ordering the guards to shoot at the minister. They questioned how ordinary citizens like themselves could challenge the oppressive tactics of these guards if they showed no fear in confronting high-ranking officials.

In the oil sector, the controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) has persistently inflicted detrimental effects on the very individuals it purports to benefit. From unfair compensations and land grabbing to relentless harassment and violent arrests of critics, its impact is starkly evident. Notably, among those forcefully arrested and falsely charged for raising legitimate concerns about the environmental damage caused by the pipeline project is Bob Barigye.

Barigye, a climate activist and an advocate for social justice and human rights, working with the African Initiative on Food Security and Environment (AIFE) was arbitrarily arrested and detained more than three times in 2023. He recounted one harrowing incident on January 24th 2023, while in Kampala. He revealed that during this arrest, 15 police officers manhandled and severely beat him. The catalyst for the activist’s arrest was his involvement in organizing a debate addressing the environmental, human rights, and economic ramifications of the EACOP project.

Barigye further described being forcefully placed into a police van, where officers compelled him to lie on the floor beneath the seats. He was then transported to and detained at Wandegeya Police Station, in Kampala district. He reported being charged with obstructing police officers while on duty before being released on police bond on January 27th 2023.

Despite the increasing number of reported cases, the report anticipates a potential reduction in land evictions shortly. This optimism follows President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to ban the involvement of the army in evictions. Museveni’s action was later complemented by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Kahinda Otafiire, who warned against the participation of both police and private guards in illegal land evictions.

Following growing concerns about the army’s role in carrying land evictions, in December 2023 the President announced a ban prohibiting the involvement of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in land matters and guarding grabbed land claiming, that the actions by the army deviate from its primary mandate of securing the country’s borders.

Additionally, Otafiire, earlier this year cautioned police’s involvement in illegal land evictions and added that he has always advised the Ugandan police to stay away from land involving conflicts. Otafiire also gave a directive barring private security company groups from manning people’s land.

The report also advises the government to enforce regulations mandating thorough human rights and environmental due diligence processes before endorsing any land-based investments. It suggests conducting periodic evaluations of such investments. The Uganda Investment Authority should engage with investors and companies to establish Internal Grievances Appeal Mechanisms to address adverse social and economic effects of their operations, among other measures, to curb rising criminalization.

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Ugandan Activists Face Criminal Charges Following Pipeline Protest



More than 30 environmental and human rights defenders, many of them students protesting the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, have been arrested in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021. Photo courtesy of Phototheque AT.

Human rights watchdogs sound alarm on crackdown on environmental advocates in the East African nation.

IN UGANDA, the climate crisis poses a real and present threat to citizens. So too does the act of protesting against climate-polluting projects, due to the state’s brutal crackdown on climate activists.

That threat is being felt by 11 young climate activists, all of the them Kyambogo University students, who have been embroiled in Uganda’s criminal-legal system since late last year. The students were arrested while protesting against the controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), a 1,443-kilometer pipeline that will transport crude oil produced in Uganda’s Lake Albert oilfields to Tanzania’s port of Tanga for export.

The most recent crackdown came on Dec. 15, when four activists, members of Justice Movement Uganda, were arrested — and, they say, beaten — by security forces during a peaceful march to deliver a petition to the country’s parliament. The petition asked parliament to halt the pipeline project and free seven of their colleagues who were arrested in November and locked up in the country’s Luzira Maximum Security Prison.

“My friends and I, numbering over 50 students, marched from our hostels of residence to parliament, but only a few us managed to reach the gate of the parliament because we were attacked by police from the start,” Bwete Abdul Aziiz, one of the four students arrested on Dec. 15, told Earth Island Journal. The 26-year-old Kampala resident was separated from the main body of protesters along with a few other marchers. Although this separation helped the smaller group reach the grounds of the parliament, it led to their alleged assault and arrest by Ugandan security forces.

“They kicked us all over our body and slapped us repeatedly,” Abdul Aziiz said of the assault. The security forces then drove the activists to the Central Police Station, where they were detained for four days. On Dec. 19, the same day the first group of seven protesters gained their freedom, Abdul Aziiz and three others, Lubega Jacob, Lutabi Nicolas, and Kalyango Shafik, appeared in court on the charge of causing public nuisance, which carries a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment. From there, they were remanded to Luzira, where they spent the holidays. It was not until Jan. 10 that they able to obtain a bail. They appeared in court on March 11, and are due back on April 17 for further hearing.

Since their release on bail, the activists say they have been receiving anonymous calls often accompanied by threats of physical harm unless they stopped campaigning against TotalEnergies. The French energy company, together with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Tanzania State oil companies, is currently building the pipeline.

“Ever since we got bailed out, life has not been the same, due to continuous threats from unknown people, and we have been shifting our places of residence over and over due to fear for our safety,” says Abdul Aziiz. He has since lost his job, which he relied on to support himself, his two siblings, and his mother, and to pay his tuition at Kyambogo University where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Arts and education.

THEIR ORDEAL, analysts say, demonstrates the incredible odds faced by Ugandan climate justice activists trying to stop a massive fossil fuel project in a continent that is on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe. “What has been happening is that the judicial system is harsh for those against the project, like any other advocates who asks question about governance issues in the country,” a Ugandan oil and gas expert, who wishes to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told the Journal.

Under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, a staunch backer of EACOP, climate activists in Uganda regularly report being threatened, harassed, and prosecuted. At least 30 environmental and human rights defenders, many of them students, have been arrested in Kampala and other parts of Uganda since 2021, according to a November report by Human Rights Watch, which was published before the November or December arrests.

“The illegal arrests and fake trials of activists who are protesting against EACOP is part of the government and oil companies’ strategy to instill maximum fear among Ugandans so that no one questions the excesses happening in the EACOP plans,” Dickens Kamugisha, CEO of public policy research and advocacy group AFIEGO-Africa Institute for Energy Governance, told the Journal. “In effect, the arrests and trials have no legal basis but just evil objectives to continue shrinking the civic space.”

Once described as a mid-sized carbon bomb by the Climate Accountability Project’s Richard Heede, the EACOP, which will cost an $5 billion to construct, comes with six pumping stations to maintain the oil flow and pressure in the pipeline (two in Uganda and four in Tanzania). It will terminate at Tanzania’s coastal city, Tanga, with a terminal and jetty from which crude oil will be loaded onto tankers. It is expected to be operational by 2025, and if completed, would be responsible for 34 million tons of carbon emissions per year for some 25 years.

Human Rights Watch has warned that the oil pipeline has already “devastated thousands of people’s livelihoods in Uganda” by displacing them from their homes “and will exacerbate the global climate crisis.” The project passes through multiple ecologically sensitive areas in Uganda and Tanzania and requires land acquisitions covering some 6,400 hectares. Consequently, villagers have reported cases of land grabbing, displacement, disruption to families and villages, and unfair and inadequate compensation for losses.

Impacted communities say the Ugandan state has enabled TotalEnergies in violating their rights. Nyakato Magreat, a single mother from Kasinyi village in Buliisa District, which had previously rejected TotalEnergies plan to make use of their lands, provided an example of the government’s role. Speaking at a mock tribunal organized by a coalition of civil societies, Make Big Polluters Pay (MBPP), last May, she recounted how soldiers invaded their village to force them to back down.

“The Hon. Minister for lands came to our community with many soldiers who were carrying guns, and most of us accepted the compensation amount of UGX 3,500,000 ($905) per acre, which we had earlier rejected out of fear. Total then gave me a small one-bedroom house on a small plot of land, despite my large family,” she said.

A December report by international NGO Global Witness also outlines evidence that TotalEnergies has been involved in efforts to intimidate impacted communities to accept offers for their land. The report documents cases where community members say they were forced to sign agreements without a chance to read them, as well as cases where armed security forces accompanied company and government officials making the compensation offers, pressuring them to sign.

TotalEnergies has denied involvement in the arrests of climate activists or pressured disposition of lands. In response to request for comment, the energy company said that it is committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights and standards anywhere it operates. A similar request for comment sent to the Ugandan Police Force went unanswered as at press time.

But activists continue to insist that the company is an accessory to violations committed by the Museveni government. “I think that the actions of Total and others amount to aiding and abetting injustices. By virtue of contract with the government, they have powers and can walk away if the other party/government violate people’s rights,” Kamugisha said via text. “But they are enjoying the outcomes of violence, displacements, and fear created.”

The Ugandan activists are not alone in their experience. Around the world, environmental activists face serious threats of violence as they defend their lands and the climate. What’s more, governments are increasingly criminalizing peaceful protest by climate protesters. That includes through the enactment of new anti-protest laws in places like Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and the enforcement of existing ones in places like Germany, Italy, France, India, and Egypt.

“EACOP IS A TIME BOMB which needs to be stopped as soon as possible due to the environment hazards and social violations it encompasses,” Mpiima Ibrahim, a climate activist and student of Kyambogo University, told the Journal. The 22-year old, who escaped arrest during the march in December, believes that although “many people say it is a pathway to development, EACOP is actually a pathway to extinction, since science has made it very clear that we have approximately one decade to cut down our global emissions before we face severe climate catastrophe.”

Despite contributing only 2 to 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, Africa continues to experience extreme weather events ranging from floods to droughts and to heatwaves, which leave a trail of destruction and fatalities. Last year, Libya’s storm-fueled flood claimed over 11,300 lives in September.

At around the same time, more than 3,000 people lost their lives due to flash floods in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and at least 860 people were killed in Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which affected Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius, Malawi, Réunion, and Zimbabwe, according to reports. Today, over 29 million people continue to face unrelenting drought conditions across Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Niger.

All of which is why, amidst the brutal crackdowns, Ugandan climate activists are not backing down. “Everyday we make sure that we are doing something to stop this deadly project,” Abdul Aziiz says, “and our goal is to see that climate justice prevails and climate destroyers must be punished.”

Original Source:

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Insurance firms should shun the East African Crude Oil Pipeline



Police officers detain a Ugandan activist during a demonstration on September 15, 2023, over plans to build the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), in Kampala, Uganda [File: Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters]

The project is already devastating local communities and will contribute to climate change if completed.

Last year was the hottest on record, with extreme weather events in many corners of the globe. It was also the year in which countries reached a landmark agreement at the UN Climate Conference (COP28) to begin “transitioning away from fossil fuels”.

If governments are to comply with this agreement and avert global climate collapse, there cannot be any new expansion of coal, oil and gas production. This includes the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), one of the largest and most controversial fossil fuel projects currently under development.

Financing for EACOP is yet to be secured, but if it is and the project moves forward, a 1,443km (897-mile) pipeline will stretch from oil fields in western Uganda to the port of Tanga in eastern Tanzania.

The project’s completion would not only contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions which fuel climate change but also harm local communities. That is why, Human Rights Watch is calling on insurance firms to stop providing support for it.

The pipeline is planned to traverse some of Africa’s most sensitive ecosystems, including Murchison Falls National Park and the Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Ramsar site. Pipeline ruptures, inadequate waste handling, and other pollution impacts would cause significant damage to the land, water, air and the species that rely on them.

Our research found that the project’s initial land acquisition process has already devastated thousands of people’s livelihoods in Uganda, causing food insecurity and household debt that has resulted in children dropping out of school.

During our interviews with local communities, many described being largely self-sufficient before the project began, using revenue from coffee, bananas and other cash crops to pay for school fees and other household expenses. When their land was allocated for the pipeline construction, they were not compensated immediately for it.

They waited an average of three to five years after the land evaluation process took place, and interviewees repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that the payments they received were not adequate to purchase replacement land. They said they were worse off than they were previously.

While they were waiting for compensation, many farmers understood that they were not permitted to access their land to tend perennial crops, and were therefore deprived of crucial income.

Residents described how the payment delays impacted their food security, pushing them to sell household assets, including livestock, or borrow money from predatory lenders at excessive rates to buy the food they would have previously grown on their plots and cover other expenses. This has left many families poorer and more insecure about their future.

If the pipeline is completed, more than 100,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania will permanently lose land to make way for it.

Civil society groups in Uganda and Tanzania have called for the pipeline not to be built, citing climate, environmental and social risks. Ugandan civil society groups say that, instead of building the pipeline, the Ugandan government should develop its abundant renewable energy resources – particularly solar and hydropower – to drive economic development and secure access to energy without further contributing to climate change.

Their demands have been met with hostility from the Ugandan authorities. Our research documented the Ugandan government’s systematic harassment, arbitrary arrests of and threats against environmental defenders and anti-fossil fuel activists for raising concerns over the pipeline project and oil development.

In this context, it is deeply troubling that insurance companies are enabling this and other big fossil fuel projects by providing insurance for them. This is despite the fact that new oil projects are wholly inconsistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding the worst consequences of climate change.

In late 2023, Human Rights Watch wrote to 15 insurance and reinsurance companies and shared our findings on the grave environmental and human rights risks associated with the pipeline. Only two companies – Lloyd’s of London and Chubb – responded to us, and neither agreed to reassess their involvement in the project.

In early March, civil society groups across the world organised a global week of action to end fossil fuels, including confronting insurance companies about their role in the climate crisis and asking them to rule out support for fossil fuel projects. Anti-fossil fuel activists held peaceful protests at regional offices of the insurance companies still involved in the East African project with the message: “Insure our futures, not fossil fuels.” Increasing numbers of insurers have made public commitments to not underwrite the pipeline, but others have persisted.

Continued support for EACOP is a mistake. By underwriting the project, insurers are helping to build the longest heated oil pipeline in the world at a time when the world is warming at dangerous levels. Insurance companies should refuse to support this project.

Original Source: Aljazeera

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How Kiryandongo land conflict has affected children



Parents affected by the seven-year-old land conflict in Kiryandongo District have said hundreds of their children are facing hunger and lack of education.

The children have been forced out of school since 2017 and their parents, who derived livelihood mainly from cultivation, are now struggling to put food on the table since their land is now occupied by a ranch.

Currently, the farming families are now trapped in the middle of farms belonging to Agilis Partners, Great Season SMC Limited, and Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, who have set up ranches measuring about 9,300 acres in Mutunda and Kiryandongo sub-counties.

The ranch land had for long been occupied and farmed by more than 35,000 families who came to the area after they fled war and natural calamities from other districts in Uganda, according to Witness Radio, a non- governmental organisation.

Ms Esther Namuganza, a resident of Kimogoro Village, Mutunda Sub-county, lives with her five children in an area known as Ranch 20.

She recalls that on November 23, 2017, agents of Agilis Partners told the people living within Ranch 20 and 21 that it had acquired the land and that they would have to vacate.

“The first eviction took place on November 23, 2017. It was a Thursday. We grew big-headed and refused to vacate the ranches because we are the citizens of Uganda, we have nowhere to go,” she says.

Her family is one of a few that still remain on the land but with nowhere to grow food.

“We eat one meal a day and even at times we just take porridge. We don’t eat during the day to save for tomorrow. If you say I’m going to have lunch and supper, what about tomorrow?” Ms Namuganza wonders.

Annet Muganyizi, a former Senior Four student who dropped out of school in 2017, says all the schools, health facilities and water sources on the land have all been destroyed.

Mr John Byaruhanga of Nyamutende Village in Kiryandongo Sub-county said agriculture used to be their only source of livelihood in the ranches.

“When Agilis Partners came, everything changed for the worse. We were beaten, tortured and evicted at gunpoint. When we ask those armed men where they want us to go with our children and cattle, they just tell us to vacate. When you try to resist, they arrest you. I am one of those who have been arrested twice,” he says.

However, the spokesperson of Agilis Partners, Mr Emmanuel Onyango, earlier dismissed the allegations of unending forceful evictions.

“To be honest, I don’t know why people keep on accusing us of evictions yet we still have people residing on Ranch 20 and 21,” Mr Onyango said . He explained that if indeed they were evicting people, “there wouldn’t be anyone left on the land.”

Mr Jonathan Akweteireho, the Kiryandongo deputy RDC, said the Bunyoro land question cannot be sorted out without thinking about its history.

“We had 38 ranches here, which, on guidance of these international organisations, told the government to restructure the ranches. The ranches were restructured, people settled there, they were never given titles and up to today, there are big problems in all those ranches,” he said.

Source: Daily Monitor

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