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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

More women are going to be sexually abused and forced to lose their land to the rich/investors as Uganda goes into a semi lockdown of 42 days

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Opondo entering with a bicycle in her muddy thatched house.

By witnessradio.org Team

Opondo Cathy, (not real name due to the sensitivity of the matter), has never owned even a small radio in her entire life. This is a clear indication that the villager may not be aware of critical developments in the country. And this does not come as a shock, since the first time she heard the news of the COVID-19 in Uganda was when she visited her neighbor who’s 500 meters away from her home, barely a month after Uganda had even registered a first case COVID-19.

Little did she know that land grabbers would take advantage of the lockdown to sexually abuse and humiliate, subdue demolish her house and grab her land.

Before COVID-19 misfortune struck, Opondo lived peacefully on her 6-acre piece of land, where she used to grow crops like banana, cassava, beans, and maize for both home consumption and sale. And experienced a happy life in her muddy structured house with her four children.

She could properly feed her family, and offer basic needs, but now, she rents in a nearby village, working like Trojans to find ends meet.

There were many violent attempts to evict her and others on their land but they would always resist. This time around, the grabbers resorted to sexually abuse her because she’s a woman as a tool to weaken the poor lady and force her to leave the only source of income.

According to her, a dozen of women and young girls have been sexually abused and harassed in their area, because they resisted surrendering their land to the company.

“We withstood all their beatings, destruction of our property, arrests, but the rape thing was intolerable,” she adds while weeping.

On the fateful day of 18th August 2020, Opondo had gone to pick her pieces of stuff at a nearby Bweyale town. While returning home at about 8:00 pm, she was attacked and sexually abused by a private security guard attached to one of the multinational companies involved in large-scale agribusinesses. The rapist attacker her from behind and tried to strangle her neck and grabbed her mouth, and hit her to the ground.

“I struggled with him, but he overpowered me, he put me down and raped me. I yelled louder for my rescue, but the neighbors were far. As soon as the rapist had them coming, he ran away,” she adds.

“The louder yelling brought those nearby to come to my rescue, they did not even bother to ask me what had happened, because I already looked victimized. They decided to look for the rapist. Whereas I had a walking disability after the horrific incident, we went to the company offices where I always used to see him but unfortunately, he was not there,” she further reveals.

During the first lockdown, public transport had been banned, which made it hard to reach out to a police post for help since it was distant.

After two days, Opondo managed to get to the area police to report the incident. In her own words, the officer on duty (a policeman) asked her if she had evidence and if that was not assaulted. When she asked for a police medical form to be examined, she was referred to a nearby Health Centre Three (III) with a small chit of a paper indicating that she was assaulted not raped. On meeting the medical officer, she handed over the chit and was examined on grounds of assault, not rape.

“I could hardly walk and had severe pain in my genital organs, which even a blind person could see, but because the police work with the multinational companies to evict us, they said I was only assaulted not raped, the mother of four adds.

According to Opondo, she had already received several threats and warnings from the agents of her evictors (Agilis Partners Limited). “They used to tell me, if I don’t leave the land I should not regret what will happen to me. Indeed I now regret,” she reveals.

Despite being raped is not even enough, her house was later torched by agents of Agilis Partners who claimed that she had illegally occupied their land. On that day they (her family) slept in cold and exposed to vagrancies of nature.

Agilis Partners Limited is among the three multinational companies that have violently and illegally evicted the poor communities off their land in Kiryandongo district without a court order or following due processes.

Other multinationals include Great Seasons SMC Limited, solely owned by a Sudanese investor based in Dubai, and Kiryandongo Sugar Limited owned by RAI Dynasty.

In the same village, Opondo and others, close to 100 were evicted to pave way for large-scale grain and oilseeds farming business. The company claimed it had lawfully acquired the land.

“I am an emotional wreck, my life was ruined, if I can’t afford to provide for my family, do I have any meaning?” she angrily asks.

“I always burned the candle at both ends to be able to provide for my family, but all their dreams were shuttered, they no longer attend school. I had no money to feed them and had to transfer them to the village, they currently live with their 78 aged grandmas somewhere in northern Uganda”, she adds.

Although the kids were transferred, they face a lot of destitutions due because of the grandmother who can hardly meet their basic needs.

“Even when they went to the village I still the caretaker of the family. I do distasteful works that I don’t want them to know,” she reveals.

While Uganda starts its 42 days semi- COVID-19 lockdown, it is notably clear that a significant number of Ugandans will be sharing the same eviction stories as Opondo’s.

Research findings from Witness Radio show more than 50,000 people across Uganda were subjected to sexual and gender based violence, illegally evicted off their land during the first COVID-19 lockdown, further more women and girls suffered most.

Shortly after Uganda went into a total lockdown on March, 18th 2020, the government through the ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development halted all land evictions throughout the lockdown to comply with the president’s directive of staying at home, but, the evictions suddenly increased as the pandemic gave a total advantage to the opportunists to easily access millions of hectares with the backing of the government and other influential politicians in the country. The first lockdown was later relaxed in mid-August, the same year.

Now, Uganda announced a second semi-lockdown on 6th, June 2021 for 42 days where schools, Worshipping places and inter-district public transport have been burned.

President of Uganda Mr. Yoweri Museveni on a televised address announced 40 new measures to curb the second wave of the pandemic. Among them include, the closure of schools, ban of communal prayers, and public gatherings/workshops all for 42 days, inter-district travel banned for 14 days, private vehicles limited to just 3 people including the driver, and many other measures.

Currently, Uganda has 53,961 COVID-19 confirmed cases, 383 deaths and 47,760 have recovered from the disease.

According to witness radio, evictions will not only live many Ugandans landless but also puts them at higher chances of being sexually abused by people who are supposed to protect them.

Experts say that in a pandemic, an eviction is particularly dangerous, leading a person to double up with friends and family in a crowded housing situation that easily accelerates the virus’ speed.

With no guidelines at the moment to protect indigenous and poor people, it is evident that tens of thousands of Ugandans will be affected by the ruthless actions of the land grabbers.

“If the grabbers managed to disregard the previous guidelines and continued to carry out their dubious schemes, what will happen to people now when there are no political heads of ministries including Land? Says, Witness Radio.

In the meantime, earlier today, the Chief Justice of Uganda, Alfonse Owiny Dollo also suspended court hearings and appearances for 42 days as a measure to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The Chief Justice said the move is in line with President Museveni’s directives on prevention and mitigation of the virus.

Whereas the closing of courtrooms makes sense for public health reasons, the delays are likely to create an overwhelming backlog of cases and have legal ramifications, since defendants are guaranteed a speedy and fair trial under the Constitution.

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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