Communities Affected by Oil Refinery Project in Uganda Secure Alternative Land and an End to Intimidation
Michael had a generally favorable opinion about the plans to build an oil refinery near his home, even though it meant he and his neighbors would have to give up their houses and lands. He thought the project, as a whole, was a good idea up until the moment he was shown a property assessment document.
“The form stated that I owned a residential house and kitchen. However, my residence was classified as a secondary structure, for which cash compensation would be given as opposed to resettlement, which was my preference. All the trees assessed on my land wouldn’t be paid for as well.”
This was the first indication of conflict for Michael, a project affected person in the area earmarked for construction under the Tilenga Project in Uganda.
As part of this project, the Ugandan government in 2017 set out to acquire 307 hectares of land for the construction of an industrial area including a Central Processing Facility (CPF) in Ngwedo Sub-county, Buliisa district. The project identified 622 people as being directly affected by the project, of which 148 were landowners. Land was acquired through a negotiation process involving officials from various ministries and affected communities. However, the negotiations failed to produce an acceptable rate of compensation and the government unilaterally decided to set a compensation rate of 3.5 million shillings (approx. US$1,000) per acre of land.
Many in the community believed this rate was far too low and contested the decision. The government, in turn, refused to revise or reconsider the compensation rate and began compensating those who agreed to the amount they had set. Those contesting the agreement were in a bind, agree to the government’s terms or risk losing out on compensation.
To prevent the loss of their land, Micheal and 50 other “Project Affected Persons” decided to act. They urgently needed support as they were facing intimidation from the staff of Atacama Consulting, a firm contracted by Total E&P Uganda (TEPU) to acquire land for the project. Michael and other affected persons reached out to Buliisa Initiative for Rural Development Organization (BIRUDO), an organization that works in the Albertine region to support affected communities through information sharing, sensitization, advocacy, and organizing. For Micheal, who has a disability, this was an opportunity to persuade TEPU to consider his demands including the recognition of his residence as a primary structure. Ultimately, he hoped his advocacy would secure a new residence on land that had been promised to him and furthermore, the new residences would be built to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
With support from BIRUDO, a total of 50 affected persons reached out to civil society networks including the Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability (UCCA), Civil Society Coalition on Oil and Gas (CSCO) and the Albertine Regional Land Platform (ARLP) to garner support for their claims. International Accountability Project which is a member of UCCA, provided information about the financing of the project and trained affected persons on how to engage with project financiers. A team, with representatives from civil society networks, was constituted to visit those affected in the project area and record their concerns. At the conclusion of this process, 8 people formally requested support to take their claims forward.
Community members identified two key demands. First, they argued compensation should go beyond simple cash payments and should also include land grants of equal size. Second, they called for an end to intimidation and attempts to suppress information. Community members reported facing verbal threats from the Community Liaison Officers of Atacama Consulting and noted that he Resident District Commissioner, a high-ranking government official, had stopped civil society organizations from conducting a fact-finding mission in Ngwedo village. Micheal, who was one of the victims of this intimidation noted,
“My family was intimidated by the staff of Atacama Consulting. They kept saying that they are aware that there are some organizations supporting my family to resist the compensation awarded by the government. They reached out to my family members, convincing them to appoint someone else to negotiate if they want to access their compensation. They keep following me in their cars and I feel insecure.”
The complaints prompted TEPU, the company responsible for the project, to caution the staff of Atacama Consulting. Civil society organizations also negotiated with security agencies and accepted the requirement to notify them about future activities with affected communities. With regard to compensation, community members met with the Minister for Land who was receptive to the idea of providing land grants but insisted that there could be no further negotiations on the rate of compensation. Ultimately, TEPU identified land in alternative areas and facilitated visits for affected persons to decide if it met their needs. To Micheal, this was a welcome arrangement because he was able to identify 12.4 acres of land as an alternative. Negotiations are ongoing to ensure that an agreement is reached to resolve the impasse between the TEPU and affected persons before the project starts.
Looking back at this effort, it is evident that there may be opportunities for communities to attain their demands through collaborative, consistent and clear advocacy. Despite pressure from the government and TEPU to finalize the land acquisition process, the persistence of affected communities and civil society paid off in facilitating dialogue and negotiation with decision-makers. Even if it appears the course of a project has been pre-determined, this experience shows how communities can still prompt changes and claim their rights and voice in the development process.
John Mwebe is a Program Coordinator (Africa) at the International Accountability Project.