- This summer, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a warning about a not-so-distant dystopia: the rich will pay to dodge the worst impacts of climate change, and the poor will be left to deal with overheating, resource scarcity, and rising rights violations.
- In the east of Africa, the continent most susceptible to a changing climate, an oil boom offers an uncomfortable glimpse into this future shaped by a class-based climate apartheid. Hundreds of families — mainly subsistence farmers — have been forced, sometimes violently, from their land to make room for the access roads and feeder pipelines that now zig-zag around the Albertine basin.
- Companies, governments, and investors should reconsider their approach, especially if new oil projects come online.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
This summer, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a warning about a not-so-distant dystopia: the rich will pay to dodge the worst impacts of climate change, and the poor will be left to deal with overheating, resource scarcity, and rising rights violations.
Sound like science fiction? Not really, because it is already a reality for many living in poverty from hurricane-prone Florida to record-hot France.
In the east of Africa, the continent most susceptible to a changing climate, an oil boom offers an uncomfortable glimpse into this future shaped by a class-based climate apartheid. Commercially-viable crude was discovered under Uganda’s Lake Albert over a decade ago, turning the area into one of the world’s top exploration hotspots. But while oil fever may have brought welcome investment, it also brought disruption. Hundreds of families — mainly subsistence farmers — have been forced from their land, sometimes violently, to make room for the access roads and feeder pipelines that now zig-zag around the Albertine basin.
Companies, governments, and investors should reconsider their approach, especially if new oil projects come online.
A handful of these families now live in the Kyakaboga resettlement camp outside of Hoima, the capital of Uganda’s oil frontier. Legal headaches and building delays have left many without housing for years. To make matters worse, residents claim their new plots of land are too cramped and removed from markets to be viable for crops or livestock.
For families that rely on their ability to produce their own food, this comes with serious ramifications. Like other farmers across Uganda, residents of Kyakaboga are also wrestling with rising temperatures and prolonged droughts, but with less resources than before and on land that the farmers claim is less productive. The majority may simply not be able to cope.
Activists who ask too many questions about Kyakaboga face threats and harassment, amid broader patterns of civic repression across East Africa. Civil society groups in Uganda claim they are not freely able to visit villages affected by oil projects and consultations about oil development are often perfunctory rather than participatory. Those living in poverty on the environmental precipice are simultaneously stuck in democratic fractures.
The scramble for crude in East Africa threatens human rights and risks leaving communities segregated, silenced, and less able to mitigate climate emergencies, including a serious, ongoing drought.
Although families across the region are already navigating more severe weather patterns, this cannot be blamed on the Albertine crude itself — at least not yet. The fossil fuel industry accounts for roughly 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but Uganda’s oil remains landlocked, pending construction of the proposed East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). Inland exploration has been disruptive but not yet profitable.
It is unclear when the oil will start to flow to international markets. Work on the pipeline, which would extend from Lake Albert, around Lake Victoria, to Tanga port in Tanzania, was recently suspended. If completed, the project would become the world’s longest heated pipeline in one of the most ecologically diverse regions in Africa. The pipeline would threaten a variety of species, including elephants, and would likely undermine the region’s tourism sector. Moreover, construction would require even more families to vacate their houses and farms.
Despite the risks, officials are looking to salvage the project, especially given its political importance to government leaders. Following the suspension this September, President Museveni promised oil production within two years. This work hiatus can provide time and space to take a different path.
At a minimum, a different path means pushing for democratic participation and recognizing the value of decisions informed by local knowledge and demands. It also means recognizing the real threats to economic justice, rights, and health. Compensation and resettlement processes can be hijacked by those with access and money looking to profit from speculative land buying. At the very worst, an oil spill near Lake Victoria would prove disastrous for the millions that rely on its watershed.
If governments, companies, and investors proceed with business as usual, families along the EACOP route will likely face rights violations, food scarcity, and a fate similar to those now living in Kyakaboga. Instead, corporate and political power brokers in East Africa — and further afield — must try to open all political avenues for people to shape their environmental trajectory, or, at the very least, escape climate catastrophe. Expedited, top-down decision-making on pipelines and development projects without concern for local realities will prove costly for all of us.
What is bad for democracy is also bad, if not worse, for the climate. Human rights advocates everywhere need to start linking their work to climate activism and companies need to get serious about the human cost of their environmental legacies. If Kyakaboga offers any lesson, sidestepping participation and silencing civic voices, particularly in poor communities, will only push us further down the path to climate apartheid.
Andrew Bogrand is a Senior Communications Advisor at Oxfam America.
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