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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

The New Forests Company in Uganda: Villages Evicted, Deceived and Dumped into Poverty

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In the early 2000s, neighbouring villages envied Kanamire, a village located in the Mubende district, in the central region of Uganda. It had made a name in farming, and its story of success was spreading like a wild bushfire. Its inhabitants had set a high bar for anyone who practiced small-holder farming. The arable land and farming practices was the magic behind their success.

Kanamire’s villagers used to spend the entire day either tilling their gardens or weeding their crops in anticipation of a bountiful harvest.

“The population in the village had surged and was now entirely thriving on farming. Bigger and sprawling shops were everywhere. Houses made of baked brick were replacing the grass thatched ones. We proudly called it home,” 54-year-old Obutu Danial reminiscences about the heydays.

As a norm, amongst the rural women, there is an unwritten creed of maintaining peace with your neighbours. The first person to harvest, at least, shared part of the harvest with the neighbours. This belief had stood the test of time and Kanamire’s women were no exception. “We had enough land. We grew enough food for the families. We would give yields to our neighbours, for example beans, and in return, they would also do the same when theirs are ready. And [we would] also sell the surplus to cater for other needs”, a woman farmer reveals.

Twenty years down the road, the exemplary village no longer exists. Acreages of banana, coffee and maize crops, among others, were razed down, and families were brutally evicted by the London-based New Forests Company (NFC).

New Forests Company and the carbon market

NFC was founded in 2004 with the “vision” of producing “sustainable” timber in East Africa amidst rampant deforestation. It was funded by Agri-Vie Agribusiness Fund, a private equity investment fund, and UK-bank HSBC Private Equity. The East Africa region in which Uganda lies is one of the most fertile regions and thus, it was chosen for the plantations business.

In 2005, the tree plantations company signed a deal with Uganda’s National Forestry Authority (NFA) to develop 20,000 hectares of tree plantations in the Namwasa and Luwunga forest reserves under the carbon trading program, a market-based approach to privatize the carbon dioxide stored in trees for selling it as carbon credits to polluters. This generates additional profits for the Company.

NFC is currently also benefiting from a new project supported by the Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD); a 160 million euros (more than 185 million dollars) from Dutch government fund that aims to mobilize private sector finance into carbon projects. The DFCD is managed by investment manager Climate Fund Managers (CFM), NGO Worldwide Fund for Nature Netherlands (WWF-NL) and NGO SNV, and it is led by the Dutch Development Bank, FMO. (1)

On august 2020, DFCD approved a 279,001 euros (around 327,000 dollars) grant and WWF technical assistance package for The New Forests Company (NFC), with the aim of developing the final business investment proposal for carbon certification in Uganda, for sustainable smallholder growth and timber market diversification. This in reality would translate into generating carbon finance to support expanding their monoculture plantations and land grabbing.

The Kanamire village’s eviction

The National Forestry Authority (NFA) is a Government agency established under the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act of 2003, as a corporate body responsible for the so-called “sustainable development,” the management of Central Forest Reserves (CFRs) and the provision of technical support to stakeholders in the forestry sub-sector.

Between 2006 and 2010, more than 10,000 people were evicted from their lands in the district of Mubende to make way for the NFC plantations. Despite this, in 2008, the Uganda Investment Authority, which is mandated to “advise Government on appropriate policies conducive for investment promotion and growth” (2) named NFC an ‘Investor of the Year’ for planting monocultures of pines and eucalyptus while villagers miserably live on a barren and crowded piece of land.

In February 2010, residents of Kanamire woke up to a hail of NFC representatives and graders, who were under the protection of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Uganda Police Force (UPF), which in turn were under the command of the then Mubende Resident District Commissioner Nsubuga Bewaayo. They destroyed the villagers’ properties worth billions of Uganda shillings before the forced eviction, to give way for a NFC monoculture plantation.

The others villages that suffered forced eviction in the Mubende district due to NFC plantations are Kyamukasa, Kigumya, Kyato, Kisita, Mpologoma, and Bulagano villages.

Three years after the evictions, NFC agreed to resettle victims after fretful engagements with human rights activists and other villagers’ supporters addressing the violence that locals experienced during the evictions.

In an agreement signed by the company and the villagers of Kanamire, NFC agreed to pay them a total of 1.2 billion Uganda Shillings (around 340 thousand dollars). And residents were requested to form and join a cooperative society, which would allocate half of the money to buy land and the other half to cater development projects, such as boreholes and schools. Evictees were forced to pay subscription fees to become a member. Those that had no money by then to join the cooperative, were not included in the resettlement process. (3)

“We formed Bukakikama Cooperative Society and 600 million [Uganda Shillings] for land was wired on the cooperative account,” (around 170 thousand dollars) Mr. Bakesisha William, the former cooperative chairman said.

Mr. Bakesisha said the 600 million Uganda Shillings bought land equivalent to 473 acres (around 190 hectares) in the Kampindu village, in the Mubende district. Out of the 901 families, 453 were allocated 1 acre (less than half an hectare) of land. The remaining 448 families haven’t been compensated or resettled up to date.

Everyone in the cooperative had to pay 30,000 Uganda Shillings (around 8.5 dollars) to join. There were additional payments victims had to make, namely: 3,000 Uganda Shillings (almost one dollar) for having a share in the Cooperative and 5,000 Uganda Shillings (1.42 dollars) as the initial saving pot. Upon the fulfilment of the above required payments, the cooperative chairman would issue identification numbers.

And only those who had met such requirements would be registered as an eligible member of the cooperative to benefit from one acre of land to resettle.

In Kampindu, the place where the evictees from Kanamire were ‘resettled’, malnourished children in tattered clothes wandering all over the village are your first sight. The angry, hungry and mean-looking youth and their fatigued elders are crowded in makeshifts and muddy houses. Others with hoes on their backs and dirty feet reveal their destitution.

Even those that received one acre of land are not in any way better than those that did not receive it. They too are wallowing in poverty. They were resettled on a barren piece of land.

It has been established that even what is supposed to be claimed as resettlement has not been met. No relief support was offered, like basic housing, foodstuffs, water or clothing. They were dumped and abandoned by the UK-based multimillionaire company.

“Both groups are living poor lives. Those that got a chance to resettle on an acre of land are suffering. The land is too small to cultivate. It is located in hilly areas that can’t either be built in or be farmed. And the others that had no chance are starving and working as labourers on other people’s plantations for survival. About 5 cases of fatality resulting from the displacement have been recorded in the areas,” a researcher at Ugandan media platform Witness Radio noted.

Mr. Rwabinyansi Charles is one of those that were allocated land in Kampindu. The 75-year-old father of 11 cannot forget the ruthless manner in which NFC grabbed his land and threw him at Kampindu, a place he describes as hell.

“It is as if I don’t have land. Look, it is filled with stones hard to build in or farm. When you plant crops, they dry. Look at the maize that was planted last season,” he said while referring to a piece of land he had received from NFC.

11 years back, Mr. Rwabinyansi was a happy villager. Before his eviction, he had 30 acres (around 12 hectares) filled with crops of coffee, bananas, cassava, among others. Besides this, he also practiced animal husbandry on his land.

“On a good season, I would harvest over 30 bags of coffee, 20 of maize, and 15 of cassava. I would sell them while my wife at home would grow what fed us. We also sold the milk from our four cows, so it was indeed a good life,” he narrated.

Now, on a well-wisher’s piece of land in Kampindu, stands a makeshift tent that Mr. Rwabinyansi and his family call home, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Not even death will relieve the eviction-related pain because even in death, the eviction has continued to haunt them.

“I cannot build on that land. It is not safe for me. I cannot also build here, because any time, the owner may want to use it. I recently lost my daughter in law and I had nowhere to bury her”, he reveals.

When someone dies, among the Baganda indigenous, a condolence message is accompanied with a decent burial and a farewell message to the deceased, “Wummula mirembe” which is akin to “Rest in Peace”, however, this was not the case for Mr. Rwabinyansi’s daughter in law. “We struggled to get where to bury her. But finally, God had mercy on us. A nearby friend gave a portion of his land to lay her to rest,” he added.

The chairperson of the affected communities for NFC, Mr. Julius Ndagize, faults the criteria that informed the processes of allocating the evictees the one-acre piece of land.

“Firstly, the land is too small to accommodate all of us, and the procedures of first buying shares and savings in the cooperative were also not favouring my people since they had no money. People including those who got land to have nothing to eat. Imagine a family of 15 children, all have grown and built on the same land, where will they dig. The only benefit that the group which got land has ahead of those that did not get is that they have where to bury their beloved ones,” he explained.

The pain of losing a promising young generation to an eviction

The evictees are now grappling with shocking eviction-related consequences, including child pregnancies, child labour, and school dropouts.

“Cases of early marriages and child labour are high in the area, children no longer go to school because ideally if a parent lacks what to eat, can he educate a child. And people are dying because they have no money to go to the hospitals” he further said.

Mr. Ndagize said the smallholder farmers are now working as casual labourers. “Given the fact that the land is small and infertile, these people go and work in the neighbouring farms to get what to eat,” he added.

Smallholder farmers’ contribution to the national food basket remains unrivalled, but when you speak to them, they believe they have been let down by their government, and thrown under the bus by multinationals like NFC.

“If agriculture is the backbone of Uganda as they say, why do they take the small we have, we were not starving, and neither were we begging anyone. But look at me now. Next time you will either find me on the streets begging or dead in my house,” depressed villager Rwoga Nyange concludes.

Efforts to talk to the Corporate Social Responsibility Programme Manager from New Forests Company, Mr. Kyabawampi Alex, were unsuccessful, as he did not respond to Witness Radio’s emails by press time.  

Original Source: World Rainforest Movement

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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