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Uganda: the number of community environmental and land rights defenders targeted for challenging irresponsible business practices has reached more than 1500 victims as of June 31st, 2023.

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A mid-year update report by Witness Radio – Uganda

From the day the Kampala government embarked on a mission to make Uganda a middle-income nation by 2020 and passed a national policy on industrialization in 2018, land became a commercialized product. For years, there’s been a notable influx of ‘investors’ with different interests in mining, oil, and gas, carbon offset tree projects, industrial farming, infrastructure, energy, and others.

The increased use of land as a commodity and the increasing demand for land has resulted in more forced land evictions. In a week, through the land eviction portal, Witness Radio – Uganda, monitors and documents between 3 to 5 cases.

In every forced land eviction case documented, the majority of investors are against people raising concerns about their blatant disregard for land acquisition procedures as prescribed by the law, and respect for land rights, the environment, and the planet, thus subjecting activists and defenders to a range of attacks, such as threats, smear campaigns, arbitrary arrest, and targeting them with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

According to Witness Radio – Uganda data, in 7 out of 10 cases of forced evictions, there are incidents where community activists and community environmental and land rights defenders are targeted with arbitrarily arrested and detention, falsely charged with limitless criminal offenses, and imprisoned.

These charges range from criminal trespass, inciting violence, threatening violence, aggravated robbery, and attempted murder to theft and others just because defenders and activists are speaking against practices that undermine the respect for human rights and projects that do not protect the environment and the planet.

Our data further reveal many incidences of judicial harassment through unfavorable bail conditions, pro-longed trials, and imprisonments that have pushed many defenders and activists to total silence.

In the Bukaleba sub-county where Green Resources established the Bukaleba forest reserve, communities reported that the project which grabbed their land is constantly causing arrests accusing them of trespass, theft, and others.

“I am right now from police to bargain the release of two of my community members. They have not been released because the police demanded some money that we did not have at the time. I feel this is too much because almost every day, police on behalf of the forest company arrest members of my community.” The Bukatube Sub-county Local Council III Chairman William Otube told our researchers in February this year.

Similarly, in the Nyairongo sub-county in Kikube district, a camp of over 100 community members reported that more than 30 community members have been arbitrarily arrested by Uganda People’s Defense Force Soldiers guarding Hoima Sugar Company, and the area police denying them access to their land and arresting whoever is founding cultivating their land. By 9 am, everyone was still in their makeshift houses.

“We cannot tend to our gardens because when you are found there, you are beaten and arrested. And to release you, the police demand huge sums of money which we don’t have, currently, we have some of us that have not been released yet.” One of the victims reported.

In Kiryandongo district, community land rights defender Fred Mwawula is one of those that have ta sted the wrath of multinational companies. He reveals that he has been arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned over 7 seven times, and slapped with different criminal charges by police on behalf of Great Seasons SMC Limited, one of the Multinational companies that have forcefully grabbed community land in Kiryandongo district.

Among the cases documented by Witness Radio include the 28 community land rights defenders in the Mubende district. Grace Nantubiro, Ronald Mugwabya, focus Mugisha, Sekamana Kalori, Mwikirize Keleti, and Sewanyana Kiiza John among others were arrested on 28th August 2017. The 28 were framed, arrested, and jailed because of their stiff resistance against an illegal and forceful eviction of over 3000 inhabitants off their 322.5-hectare piece of land in Mubende Municipality, Mubende district by one Kaweesi George.

Others are Atyaluk David Richard, Akiteng Stella, Sipiriano Baluma, Mwawula Fred, Ndahimana Ramu, Kusiima Samuel, Martin Munyansia and many others have faced multiple charges orchestrated by multinational companies in Kiryandongo district.

Environmental defenders include Sandra Atusinguza, Venex Watebawa, Joshua Mutale, Sam Kayiwa, Vincent Sekitto, Ismail Kashokwa, Joseph Mujuni, Moses Mukiibi, John Kibego. The 9 defenders were challenging the giveaway of Bugoma forest for sugarcane plantation.

In Kapapi and Kiganja sub-counties in Hoima district, 14 community environmental and land rights defenders were arbitrarily arrested, charged with multiple offenses, and imprisoned and other incidents.

Torture and kidnaps:

As the struggle to protect communities’ land, environment, and the planet continues, frontline community defenders in Uganda have tasted the wrath of people and institutions that are supposed to protect them just because of raising concerns about land grabbing. For many years, the portal has documented incidences where government soldiers and police officers raiding defenders’ homes in the wee hours severely beaten, kidnapped, and detained incommunicado and tortured.

Tears streamed and streaked Mr. Mbambali Fred, a community land rights defender and a landlord in Hoima district while narrating his ordeal. With an agonizing look, he revealed that he had repeatedly been arrested and tortured for defending his land.

On one of the arrests, Mbambali narrated that he was brutally arrested at noon, on 26th December 2015 by a group of 30 Katonga police officers and Uganda People’s Defense Forces soldiers allegedly accusing him and others of refusing to leave their land. These were acting on orders of senior officers from the office of the Prime Minister in the Kampala government.

The angry and armed officers with guns and batons came on 3 government cars, and a police patrol, they found him with some village mates at Katoma Center and rounded up the whole group of 36 people.

According to Mbambali, while the rest were being loaded into the police patrol, he was first held separately and severely beaten for almost thirty minutes, he was named as a land grabber who is resisting vacating government land before tightly holding him, forcing him to fit in the already waiting full police patrol.

Profusely bleeding, he revealed that he and others were driven to Katonga police where they recorded statements before later being transferred to Kikuube police station where they were locked up in a filthy, foul-smelling small room.

“All of us the 36, were locked in a cell meant to accommodate a maximum of 10 people, and sadly during the night, our torturers brought a big group of men which was used to beat and torture us.” He revealed, adding that in a blink of an eye, the officers closed the windows that could let air into the cell with old iron sheets, making it difficult for them to breathe.

“Many of us collapsed and remained half dead. Now like me, I needed to have treatment but this was not possible until I was again transferred to another torture chamber. I was tortured and my leg and an arm got broken. My entire body and the head were severely wounded,” the defender added while displaying to us torture marks and borne fractures damaged by agents of the evictors during the scuffles.

Getting off the hook;

Despite the challenging situations and hardships; community defenders and activists have registered some achievements in their efforts to defend their land, and protect the environment and the planet.

In mid of 2023, the eight land rights defenders, Mwawula Fred, Ramu Ndahimana, Samuel Kusiima, Martin Munyansia, Martin Haweka, Amos Wafula, Eliot Talemwa, and George Rwakabisha of Kiryandongo district were set free by Kiryandongo Magistrate court. This was after their case was dismissed for want of prosecution. They were facing a charge of threatening violence after being arrested on orders on Great Seasons SMC Limited, a Kiryandongo-based multinational company growing maize and soya beans.

Other cases include Otyaluk David Richard’s case, which was dismissed in August 2022 for want of prosecution among others. These successes have been possible due to the tireless efforts of Witness Radio’s legal team that have provided criminal defense without discrimination.

“We are concerned about the high level of impunity and failure of the criminal justice systems in Uganda to detect and accept to criminalize land matters which are supposed to be of a civil nature. This method will not deal with or solve the question of land injustices instead the situation with worsen, and people will continue to lose trust in state systems which is likely to breed insecurity or lawlessness.” Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, the team leader at Witness Radio – Uganda.

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How Kiryandongo land conflict has affected children

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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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Chip in to take Bayer down!

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If the lawsuits keep on coming, it could finish off this brutal corporation – and send its bee-killing, cancer-linked chemicals into history.

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Anything extra raised will power Ekō and our campaigns worldwide fighting for people and the planet.

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Oil project-affected persons express disappointment in Uganda judiciary

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The Tilenga and EACOP oil project-affected households have expressed deep disappointment over the failure of key stakeholders in Uganda’s judicial system to grant them audience to discuss their grievances stemming from a lawsuit filed against them by the government in December 2023.

In a press conference organized at Hotel Africana in Kampala, some members of the 42 of the families sued by the government claimed having travelled from Buliisa district to Kampala with the aim of meeting Norbert Mao, the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo and the deputy chief justice.

They also intended to meet the principal judge, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and others. Additionally, the households wanted to meet Total Energies’ managing director. However, they were unable to meet any of them, stating that their refusal indicated lack of responsiveness and dialogue on critical issues affecting the rights and livelihoods of project-affected people in the oil region.

According to a one Bamutuleki, one of the affected members, they had written letters to various stakeholders, including the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, the chief justice, deputy chief justice, principal judge, Judicial Service Commission (JSC), and Total Energies, seeking for a meeting to discuss their grievances. However, they were unable to meet any of them for a crucial discussion.

“This lack of interaction leaves us feeling neglected and unheard in our quest for justice and fair treatment in the face of potential evictions related to the oil projects,” Bamutuleki said.

Julius Asiimwe, another oil project-affected person, raised similar concerns about their failure to meet the key stakeholders in the judiciary to address their grievances.

“We are not happy with all these offices. We are aggrieved. We wrote them letters requesting for meetings on specific dates and none of them wrote back to us. Based on the reception we received at the offices we visited, we don’t think that the judiciary understands the implications of its actions on our families, and our children,” Asiimwe said.

The failure to meet any of the officials leaves the future of the affected households in uncertainty after the High court in Hoima gave the government a go-ahead to evict them from their land.

GENESIS

In December 2023, the government filed a lawsuit against the households affected by the Tilenga and East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) projects in Uganda. This was after the affected households had rejected the compensation offered by Total Energies, a French company, which was acquiring the land on behalf of the ministry of Energy, citing it as inadequate, unfair and low.

The affected people said the government valuation did not reflect the value of their land, and the impact of losing their property. They expressed their preference for land in exchange for their property rather than monetary compensation in order to maintain their livelihoods.

Additionally, they claimed it was a violation of Article 26 of the Ugandan Constitution, which protects property rights and ensures fair compensation. However, the rushed court processes led by Justice Jesse Byaruhanga of the High court in Hoima resulted in a judgment against the households within four days of the case being filed, which is arguably one of the fastest court cases to be resolved in Uganda in recent memory.

The court ruling stated that the people’s compensation could be deposited in court and the government could proceed and gain vacant possession of their land.

The affected households did not participate in the court hearing because some of them were even unaware that they had been sued.
According Bamutuleki, other project- affected persons could not travel to the court in Hoima, which was far away from Buliisa, due to the short notice provided for the hearing and their lack of financial resources to cover transportation costs.

“This lack of adequate notice and financial constraints hindered our ability to participate in the legal proceedings and defend our interests,” Bamutuleki pointed out.

Additionally, Bamutuleki stated that they were given a pile of legal documents by the court and no one was there to make the interpretation for them. Most of the project-affected persons are illiterate, a factor that made it harder for them to get a fair hearing.

UNCERTAINTY

Many families say their eviction from land for the Tilenga and East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) projects makes their future unknown given that land is their primary source of income.

While at the press conference, Jelousy Mugisha stated that their daily lives depend on the land for various aspects such as generating income, sending children to school, and accessing medical assistance.

“I have been using my land for many years now to take care of my family because I don’t earn any monthly salary. So, the government giving me money to leave my land and get a smaller one is completely unfair and unconstitutional,” he said.

The families highlighted that they weren’t fighting the government and its projects but only want a fair compensation for their land, which will restore them to their former positions. Mugisha stated that the money the government proposed in compensation for their land is completely low compared to the market prices of the land in the area.

“The size of my land that was acquired is 2.5 acres. The government wants to give me Shs 5 million per acre yet the market price for one acre is Shs 20 million in my area,” Mugisha said.

“If the government really wants the land, let it get us another land equivalent to what we had and we shall agree,” he said.

Dickens Kamugisha, the executive director of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), an organization that has been supporting the affected families for a long time, expressed deep concern over the plight of the poor families from the oil region who are facing injustices.

He emphasized the importance of all Ugandans to take a keen interest in their struggles, highlighting the broader implications of the government’s actions and court precedents that allow for the violation of constitutional rights and unfair treatment of landowners.

“As these poor families from the oil region suffer injustices today, all Ugandans should take a keen interest in their plight. With courts setting bad precedents that allow the government to violate Article 26 and other human rights provisions of the Ugandan Constitution, where affected landowners are forced to accept low, unfair, and inadequate compensation, and courts deny people fair hearings, any Ugandan could suffer the same fate,” he warned.

Despite facing legal battles, evictions, and disruptions to their livelihoods, these individuals remain resolute in their pursuit of a just resolution to their grievances.

Source: The Observer.

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