Heard at last: Project suspended for a community in Uganda to negotiate with government and investors

by John Mwebe

Members of the Paten community in Pakwach District, Uganda, marched through the Wadelai Irrigation project area during one of the times when the government was taking over the land with the protection of the army.

For the past two years, the Paten community in Pakwach District in Uganda consistently voiced their concerns over the unlawful acquisition of their land for the implementation of the Wadelai Irrigation scheme. On several occasions, they sought the audience of the Ministry responsible for the project but were frustrated by its inaction. When different avenues for dialogue failed, the Paten community sought alternative means including filing a court case against the project implementers, Pakwach District Local Government and Coil Company and as well, and filed a Complaint with the Independent Recourse Mechanism of the African Development Bank to halt the land acquisition process.

The experience of the Paten community is one of resilience in the face of dispossession by those with a duty to protect them. This dates back to the initial interaction between community leaders and the project implementation team that perpetuated division within the community. There arose a group led by a community leader claiming to have powers of attorney to offer the community land to the project against the Jago Cak, the Clan leader of Paten Community, who has the actual power to allocate clan land. The other issue under contention was that the community had consented to giving away 365 acres of land but when a land survey was done, the project team had mapped out 365 hectares (902 acres) which they disputed for they would lose a lot of land. Attempts by the community to raise their concerns were met with acts such as shooting, harassment, and unlawful arrests by government security forces.

The Wadelai Irrigation Scheme is one of the four irrigation schemes under the African Development Banks’ Farm Income Enhancement and Forestry Conservation Project (FIEFOC-2). The project intends to improve household incomes, food security, and climate resilience through sustainable natural resources management and agricultural enterprise development. The project is estimated to cost approximately USD 91.7 million from the African Development Bank (USD 76.7 million), the Nordic Development Fund (USD 5.9 million) and the Government of Uganda (USD 9.1 million).

Community request for support against land acquisition

John Mwebe from IAP (left) and Dominic Adeeda from UCCA (right) met with Mr Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan (center), the Country Manager for the African Development Bank in Uganda.

The use of force by the government’s security forces to acquire project land left the Paten community powerless to act. Representatives from the community opted to seek support from civil society partners to guide them on how to reach the complaints mechanism of the African Development Bank, the financier of the project. As such, International Accountability Project (IAP) working with the Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability (UCCA) supported the Paten community to raise a complaint with the Independent Recourse Mechanism (IRM) of the African Development Bank. IAP also mobilized international partners notably the Coalition for Human Rights in Development to support with financial resources and in raising petitions to the African Development Bank and Nordic Development Fund.

In the complaint that we supported the community in filing, the community raised concerns including limited consultations by the project team, retaliation against community members who voiced their concerns, and restricted access to community lands affecting the livelihoods of community members. The community also maintained the court case they filed in Arua High Court against the Attorney General, Pakwach District Local Government, and the Coil Company for violation of their rights. In the IRM findings, three broad areas were investigated; 1) consent of the affected community to the use of community land for the project; 2) meaningful stakeholder’s engagements and retaliation against community members that raised concerns and; 3) impacts on livelihood and lack of compensation.

In its findings, the IRM cited the failure of the Bank to conduct due diligence for the change in project design to the Paten land which required a Resettlement Action Plan that was never done. The Bank didn’t ensure that the project had conducted proper socio-economic assessments of the anticipated impacts of the project on the livelihoods of the Paten clan community during the construction period which affected the compensation process as well. The Bank also failed to supervise community consultations and as such, were not open, accessible, sensitive, inclusive, and free from external interference. For all the findings, the IRM noted that the Bank failed to comply with Operational Safeguard 1 on Environmental and Social Assessment and Operational Safeguard 2 on Involuntary Resettlement, Land Acquisition, Population Displacement, and Compensation.

Working with UCCA and Buliisa Initiative for Rural Development Organization (BIRUDO), IAP supported the complainants in reviewing the draft compliance report from the IRM. The representatives of the Paten community emphasized that they never requested for the project to be implemented on their land as noted by the report. They reiterated the community’s fear arising from the military deployment and welcomed the IRMs proposal of research and action around the use of security forces in the Bank-financed projects. However, they disputed the allegation that the Bank hadn’t performed in-person supervision for several years due to COVID-19 citing other excuses provided by the Bank to include the alleged presence of rebels in the project area. However, community members still contest the size of land needed for infrastructure purposes on Paten land as quoted in the compliance report at 20% of the project land as opposed to 26 acres as communicated by the project implementers.

Alternatives to the IRM’s complaint process

Members of UCCA meeting the complainants to discuss the Draft Management Action Plan from the management of the African Development Bank

On 11th July 2023, the Ministry of Water and Environment conducted a stakeholder roundtable engagement in Gulu City to mediate between the Paten community and the project implementers. This followed a series of petitions and meetings with the African Development Bank where community representatives and civil society partners demanded the suspension of the project until the pending concerns were addressed.

In the meeting, a set of resolutions was reached including consent to the award of the 365 hectares of Paten land to the project; disclosure of the valuation and compensation reports to the affected persons; promotion unity and reconciliation in the community; support to survey and registration of Paten land for the award of Certificates of Customary ownership to community members; implementation of the project’s livelihood program; ensure the participation of interest groups including women and youths in the project; scale down on presence of security personnel in the project area and; explore alternative dispute resolution measures for ongoing court cases.

In the discussions leading to the resolution, we learnt that the bank management had proposed to suspend the project prompting the project implementers to call for the mediation. Subsequent engagements with the IRM indicate a crisis of legitimacy arising out of these two parallel processes between the Bank and the Paten community particularly the complaint and mediation processes for they leave the community not certain of which to treat as conclusive and all binding.

In particular, there is contention around the consent offered by Jago Cak Santonino Onen Daudi, the Clan Chief of the Paten clan, to sign any compensation agreement form either for his personal land or the community land. The representatives of the Paten Clan that signed as elders on the mediation resolutions are not members of the Council of Elders and the complainants in the IRM complaint were not represented yet they were asked to withdraw from the court case in Arua High Court.

When we followed up on the resolutions, the community noted that the timelines set for the resolutions, especially those that had to be addressed in one month had not been met and there was no communication from the government on the way forward. Such actions deepen the mistrust the community holds for the government and its commitment to addressing their concerns. This is made worse by the continued presence of the military in the community with community members noting that the deployment of security personnel has instead increased in the project area.

Way forward

There is hope within the community that the recommendations provided by the IRM in the compliance report will address the current project impasse. To realize this, the Bank Management ought to identify and engage independent experts in stakeholder engagement to ensure that there is meaningful consultation with members of the Paten community that is not limited to gaining their consent to the project but that will provide all information on the project impacts. This will facilitate the process of addressing the environmental and social risks and impacts identified through the mid-term reviews and incorporated into the borrowers' Environmental and Social Management Plan.

Going forward, when the compliance report is finalized and shared with the management, a plan will be developed to put into action the recommendations as stated. The community waits to see how this will tally with the resolutions from the mediation meeting especially considering that the complainants and those who filed a case against the project implementation team were not a part of the mediation meeting. On the bright side though, the different interventions largely shaped the discourse on the centrality of traditional leadership in the administration of Paten land and emphasized the power of the clan leader and Council of Elders in steering development in the Paten community.

Editor: Ryan Schlief.

This article is the follow-up to the update on After attacks, a community in Uganda unites to fight for their land which was published in 2022.

John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.