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DEFENDING LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS

Thousands of families say they have been displaced from their homes to make way for commercial farms

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By Liam Taylor

KIRYANDONGO, Uganda, Aug 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – People came from all over Uganda to Kiryandongo, uprooted by disaster and dispossession.

In recent decades thousands have settled in the district, some 200km north of the capital Kampala, hacking away the undergrowth on cattle ranches abandoned after the fall of former dictator Idi Amin in 1979.

But thousands of families who had settled on the vacant land are now being displaced from their homes to make way for commercial farms, land activists warned in a report published this week.

“People are crying, people are beaten,” said Richard David Otyaluk, a resident who said he was born on the land and would not make way for a sugar plantation. Those who have left, he added, are now “roaming like weeds”.

Tensions often arise on abandoned land concessions in Africa, researchers and activists say, with landless people settling in these areas, only to be moved out when new owners acquire the land.

Farming accounts for more than 20% of GDP, with about three-quarters of Ugandans working in the sector, according to the International Labour Organization.

A report by civil society group Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, Barcelona-based charity GRAIN and Ugandan NGO Witness Radio accuses three foreign agribusiness firms of “violently evicting people … without notice, alternatives or even negotiations”.

“Small farms that once fed local communities and even the markets of Kampala are being destroyed to make way for plantations owned by foreign companies,” Susan Nakacwa of GRAIN in Uganda said in emailed comments.

One of the companies is Agilis Partners, a U.S.-owned producer of grains and oilseeds, which received an award last year from the U.S. government for building “a thriving agriculture business in Uganda” that pays above-average wages and provides training for workers.

The others are Kiryandongo Sugar, a Kenyan-owned sugar business, and Great Season, a Sudanese- and Ugandan-owned grower of coffee, maize and sesame, among other produce.

All three companies, which operate separately, deny any forced evictions or human rights violations and say they bought the land legally.

People left voluntarily after receiving compensation for crops and buildings, the firms told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Agilis said in an emailed statement that its investment in Kiryandongo has created 75 permanent jobs and more than 400 temporary ones, and that it sources supplies from 15,000 local farmers.

It described the report as “lies” which are “an abomination to Agilis’s core values and mission”.

Ramadoss Rajasekaran, a manager at Kiryandongo Sugar, said it employs 2,000 people, which will rise to 6,000 once its factory opens.

Hilaria Nyiranteziyalyo, who is an internally displaced woman, sits in her makeshift home inside a classroom at Alokolum primary school in Kiryandongo District, Uganda, on July 24, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

MIGRATION

In Kiryandongo, a history of migration and miscommunication created confusion about the status of the residents, according to locals.

Some say they have lived there since the 1930s, but most arrived after the failure of state-backed ranching projects in the 1970s, and some only in the last few years.

In 2013 a government team visited the area and concluded people should stay on the ranches until the cabinet had made a final decision on the matter, according to a government letter seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But another letter from the land minister in 2017 said that the government had allocated four of those ranches to Kiryandongo Sugar, while Agilis had bought two others from a private owner.

Altogether the three companies have acquired more than 70 square kilometres of land in Kiryandongo, according to interviews and statements they gave to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The companies say that a few thousand people have left the area since 2017, while NGOs put the number at about 35,000.

Charles Ntairehoki Amooti, the elected district chairman, said the abandoned ranches had been settled by both “fraudulent” and “bona fide” squatters, and the latter were compensated by the companies.

There are conflicting accounts of how compensation was done.

Agilis said in a statement that it “generously compensated the affected individuals” after completing a digital census and using local government valuation rates.

There was a redress process for those who objected, and some households still remain on the land until compensation is agreed, it added.

But Joseph Walekula, a leader in an association of former residents, said he received just 2.2 million Ugandan shillings ($600) from Agilis for his house, banana plants and eucalyptus trees – an amount he said was paid late and left people in “a desperate situation”.

Agilis said that Walekula had “voluntarily accepted this compensation” and his assets had been “confirmed by an independent surveyor”.

COURT CASES

Nearly 30 displaced people have filed cases before a Ugandan High Court in May, accusing all three companies of human rights violations, which they deny.

The cases do not focus on the ownership of the land but on the manner in which people were moved off it, said Eron Kiiza, a lawyer representing the communities.

For example, court documents state that last year Great Season sent 60 men with sticks, machetes and bulldozers to demolish homes, whether occupants had been compensated or not.

“There has never been any kind of eviction of people,” said Wycliffe Birungi, a lawyer for Great Season, adding that the company had prevented people displaced by other farms from moving onto its land.

The case against Kiryandongo Sugar states soldiers were deployed to support evictions and beat those who refused compensation, according to the documents.

“The whole process was haphazard, was sporadic, but most important was violent,” said Kiiza.

An army spokesman said soldiers are not involved with evictions, although they do “provide security to investors against attacks by the locals, some of whom want to grab investors’ land”.

No dates have yet been set for the hearings.

Lucy Akot, 32 years old, poses for a picture with her family on her compound which used to be over 15 acres of land in Kiryandongo District, Uganda, on July 24, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

NOWHERE TO GO

Some families still live on the Kiryandongo Sugar plantation, where they report ongoing intimidation.

Akot Lucy Auma, who rejected compensation and still lives in Kiryandongo with her seven children, said her father settled in the area in the 1970s.

Now, she has nowhere to go and says she is afraid to walk around in the evening because workers on the surrounding plantation threaten women with rape.

Otyaluk, who lives nearby, said company workers drove a tractor to clear his crops in March, accompanied by four soldiers who fired warning shots.

When he protested he was detained for nearly a week in a crowded police cell, even as a COVID-19 lockdown began.

Rajasekaran of Kiryandongo Sugar said he had not heard any allegations of rape or beatings by his workers.

He added “there were no complaints” during the main relocation phase in 2018, when more than 2,500 people were compensated or resettled, and that the few who remain are living “without disturbance”.

The army spokesman said he had no information on Otyaluk’s arrest.

The district police commander described reports of violent evictions as “malicious propaganda”.

Most people have now left the land, but face hardship.

Near Agilis’ soya fields several families shelter in a school, closed since its pupils left. Drying clothes hang on desks, while pigs oink in an empty classroom.

Hilaria Nteziryayo, who sleeps there with her children, said she came to Kiryandongo four years ago from the south-west, where “there was no land”.

After losing their home her husband went north, looking for more land. Months later, she is still waiting for him to return.

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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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