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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

………Special Report; Abridged testimony……. Militarized land administration is promoting violence against poor landowners; an experience of one of the tortured defenders.

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From extreme right, Bakaleke Joseph the former Kiryandongo Police commander together with other police officers during a visit on a contested land.

By witnessradio.org Team

A quiet and peaceful mood defines what used to be a busy community of smallholder farmers whose entire lifestyle depended on farming fields. During the rainy season, the entire family coupled with young, youths and the old would spend the entire time in the garden and they would return when it turns dark. Tea, lunch, and supper meals would be cooked and taken from there as a family targets to plant more acre of land using ordinary farm tools (hand-hoes) for a big harvest.

What used to be grazing fields for animals, gardens of cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, bananas, or burial grounds, among others, are now sugar plantation farms and some shrubs that have almost closed what used to be the feeder roads.

The village is called Kikungulu, Kitwara Sub-County, and 40 km deep in Kiryandongo district, which is bordered by Nwoya District to the north side, Oyam District to the northeast, Apac District to the eastern side, and Masindi District to the south and western side.

With almost all roads closed and the available ones being bushy, thorny, and impassable, it is easier for one to assume no families live in the village.

Deep down in the village is the home of Atyaluk David Richard a land rights defender trapped in the middle of a large sugarcane plantation owned by a multinational company, Kiryandongo sugar limited.

Kiryandongo Sugar Limited is one of the many companies owned by the Rai Group of Mauritius. The dynasty owns several other companies in DR Congo, Kenya and Malawi, and Uganda. They own companies such as West Kenya Sugar (which owns Kabras Sugar), Timsales Limited, Menengai Oil Refineries, RaiPly, and Webuye Panpaper.

In Uganda, the Rai Group of Mauritius owns Nile Ply limited, Kinyara Sugar Limited, and Masindi Sugar Limited among others.

Atyaluk’s problems stem from 2017 when he “refused” to surrender his land to the company. His actions attracted severe torment from the company and its agents to give way to large-scale sugarcane projects.

Then came a role of mobilizing and empowering his community to resist land grabs by the same multinational company. The latter brought real-life threats including torture and abductions that almost led to death. A selfless defender has faced more than 4 times of arbitrary arrests and torture for his work.

Before the violent eviction in 2017, Atyaluk and over 35000 villagers lived and cultivated peacefully on the land their parents and relatives occupied since the 1930s.

Out of his 50 acres of land he owned, Atyaluk now farms on less than an acre. The rest were forcefully grabbed by the sugar company at a gunpoint.

He is currently leading some families that have resisted surrendering their land also have withstood all the violent actions of the company being guarded by soldiers from the 4th Division of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF).

UPDF is a national army whose constitutional obligations to the people living in Uganda is to; Article 209 (a) of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda mentions four functions of UPDF namely;

(a) to preserve and defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda;
(b) to cooperate with the civilian authority in emergency situations and in cases of natural disasters;
(c) to foster harmony and understanding between the defense forces and civilians; and

(d) to engage in productive activities for the development of Uganda.

However, the narrative that the force depicts is different. One of the most recent violent attacks on the defender was on 25 March 2020 when company workers, accompanied by four soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), entered his property with a tractor and plowed his maize fields. When he tried to stop the tractor from destroying his crops, the soldiers grabbed him, and was severely assaulted

According to Atyaluk, he was alerted by his neighbor that his maize farm was being destroyed, he rushed to talk to them but instead he was arbitrary arrested and taken to an unknown detention center and tortured.

He claims he was able to identify one of the soldiers as Captain Omoro, who was one of the commandants at the military detach where he was held incommunicado and tortured…” When they took me inside, Captain Omoro came and shouted at me, said they are trained to kill, that whoever disturbs them he/she will not like the repercussions, he vowed to torture me until I leave the land,” Said Atyaluk

Omoro’s statements were also reechoed by a 52-year-old and a mother of 11, Janet Akiru. She said similar threats and intimidatory statements led her and the family to painfully leaving their land as precaution measures.

According to Akiru, she relocated to her relatives in Bugiri District, the Eastern part of Uganda.

“When soldiers kidnapped Atyaluk, my husband abandoned me and my family. All our gardens got destroyed and houses demolished and I couldn’t take care of my family. These are the people who could come to our home, without explanation, beat up everyone. Because of fear of our dear lives, we had to abandon the invaluable heritage,” Said Akiru.

In a description of the Ndoi military detach where Atyaluk was illegally kept, the place is fenced with barbed wires and polls. It has many small houses and a slightly bigger house where villagers are illegally detained and tortured. According to Atyaluk, soldiers can only stop torturing upon seeing blood fussing from one’s body, which soldiers call a lesson to villagers that can be shared with others.

For Atyaluk, after being tortured, he was taken to Kiryandongo district Central Police Station, without any treatment and he was detained for seven days before being charged with criminal trespass and released on police bond.

According to Atyaluk’s medical reports from Kiryandongo hospital, the defender sustained severe injuries on one of his legs,  libs, and back.

While on police bond, early this year, Atyaluk was attacked again, because he was constructing a house on his small piece of land left for him by the company.

He reports that with no explanations he was kidnapped from his home at around 8:00 am local time on 12th March 2021.

“We saw three armed soldiers in full army uniform coming to our home. As soon as they got into our compound, they announced that we’re taking him. We asked them who, they replied that Atyaluk. He was immediately arrested and ordered to sit down. A few minutes, later, Atyaluk was ordered to get up and walk. The soldiers walked with him up to Ndoi village, where he was ordered to enter into a car labeled with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) banners, car registration No. UAW 796Z” Said Olupot James, a brother to Atyaluk.

According to Olupot, upon Atyaluk’s abduction, he followed the car until it was seen entering a military detach at Kamusenene village where he was severely beaten and flogged by Uganda People Defense Forces soldiers.

“While in there I was badly beaten before police intervention. A police pick-up double cabin car registration number UP 7684 with 8 police officers commanded by the Kiryandongo district police commander, SP Odonga Tonny came and picked me from the military camp at 3:00 pm local time on the day of kidnap. I was later taken to the Kiryandongo Central Police Station,” Said Atyaluk.

Atyaluk,  41, and breadwinner of 8 children, was illegally detained at Kiryandongo for five (5) days before he was charged with setting fire to the crops and released on bond.

In this and countless other cases, soldiers resorted to arbitrary arrest, and torture as methods to intimidate those who amplify voices for the communities in resistance to violent land grabs.

What hurts the defender and other residents is that attempts to open up charges against the multinational company workers, guards, and individual security officers for their violent acts are curtailed.

“We are not accepted to register complaints of locals against the multinational companies, why, these are orders from above,” Said a police officer at Deyle police post who preferred anonymity.

However the Kiryandongo district police commander SP Odonga Tonny, said no actions of violence against the defenders and the project-affected persons have been reported.

“Some residents are arrested for being violent but have not been tortured. If there allegations of abductions and torture, I and my team will investigate the matter,” he added.

However, he denied allegations of providing security to Kiryandongo Sugar Limited and other multinationals to arbitrary arrest and harm defenders.

But the Kiryandongo sugar limited maintains it never evicted any person on the land and denies the allegations of torture, and arbitrary arrests against the locals in the area where they are operating. They rather claim that they worked with community leaders to develop a humanitarian compensation and resettlement plan for all of the illegal occupants.

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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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