- Uganda’s parliament has passed a bill approving the construction of a controversial pipeline that will cut through high-biodiversity areas and displace thousands of people.
- Critics say the bill was rushed through parliament to pave the way for a secretive agreement between the government and French oil giant TotalEnergies, the pipeline’s operator.
- The $3.5 billion heated oil pipeline will run 1,445 kilometers (898 miles) from Uganda’s Lake Mwitanzige, in the Albertine Rift, to the Indian Ocean port of Tanga in Tanzania.
- The new bill that undergirds it holds “supremacy” over all existing legislation other than Uganda’s Constitution, making it “very difficult” for laws that offer environmental and social protections to be upheld in the event of a conflict.
On Dec. 9, the Ugandan parliament passed a bill allowing the controversial East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) to proceed. Construction can now begin according to the agreement signed between French oil giant TotalEnergies and the Ugandan government. The pipeline’s opponents say the legislation hands powers to this secretive “Host Government Agreement” that may threaten the environment and human rights.
A Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development spokesperson rejected claims that the newly passed EACOP Bill was rushed through parliament, saying that “in accordance with the Rules of Procedure of Parliament, the Committee was given 45 days to report back to Parliament. The Committee considered the Bill and engaged several relevant stakeholders and published public announcements calling for memoranda.”
But Diana Nabiruma, senior communications officer of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) in Kampala, said the public was only given five days to comment. “It was difficult for affected communities to input,” Nabiruma said, adding they live far from Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
Some legislators also said the bill’s passage was rushed, with important sections shared only at the last minute. “We did not get enough time to scrutinize all of the components of this bill,” said Kaaya Christine Nakimwero, member of parliament for Kiboga district, through which part of the pipeline will pass. Details of how revenues from the extracted oil will be shared weren’t made available until the second reading of the bill. “This deprived the Committee [on Environment and Natural Resources] of adequate information,” Nakimwero said. The project construction and decommissioning plans were also unclear, she said.
In April, lawyer Male Mabirizi requested that the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development make the Host Government Agreement public under the Access to Information Act, but this was refused on the grounds that it contained confidential commercial information.
“Without access to those agreements, small-scale farmers, tourism operators, foresters, fisherfolk and others in the green economy and the general public cannot be sure that their interests will be served by the EACOP Bill or make appropriate comments to ensure a good EACOP law,” the Inclusive Green Economy Network–East Africa wrote in a statement to parliament.
“There should be full disclosure,” Nabiruma said. “We are commenting blindly.”
The $3.5 billion heated oil pipeline will stretch across Uganda and Tanzania, transporting crude oil from hundreds of wells drilled into Lake Mwitanzige in the Albertine Rift, one of the most biodiverse regions in Africa, to the Indian Ocean port of Tanga. “Local communities that for centuries have depended on these ecosystems could now be sharing polluted water with industrialists,” said Rajab Bwengye of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, a Ugandan NGO.
In 2017, a WWF report cautioned that the pipeline “is likely to lead to significant disturbance, fragmentation and increased poaching within important biodiversity and natural habitats.” EACOP will cross through Taala Forest Reserve on Uganda’s southern border, as well as passing through the drainage basin of Lake Victoria (‘Nnalubaale in the Luganda language), Africa’s largest lake.
There are already worrying signs of damage to the environment, said Dickens Kamugisha, CEO of AFIEGO. “A huge road has been constructed through Murchison Falls National Park for carrying equipment for oil exploitation,” he told Mongabay. Road construction machinery and heavy trucks have led to animals fleeing the park, he said, creating human-animal conflicts in surrounding villages.
Near the oil fields, Bugoma Forest and Budongo Forest, home to at least 1,000 chimpanzees, have already suffered encroachment in recent years. Roads and in-migration linked to the oil project are opening up these biodiversity hotspots to destruction, Kamugisha said.
A spokesperson for TotalEnergies (known as Total before a branding makeover in 2021) said the pipeline and the oil exploration and production facilities do not directly encroach on these forests.
The EACOP project began acquiring land for the pipeline several years ago, amid allegations of intimidation, inadequate compensation, and late payment. According to EACOP’s resettlement action plan, some 4,000 people will be affected by the pipeline. Aid NGO Oxfam estimates the toll will be much higher, with some 12,000 families losing their land.
“The land acquisition process is carried out by EACOP in compliance with the Laws of Uganda and the exacting standards defined by the International Finance Corporation,” said a spokesperson for TotalEnergies. “The households continue to live on and cultivate their land until they receive their compensation.”
The experience of Elizabeth Ayebare, 25, and her family in Kakumira district, where the first stretches of the pipeline will soon be constructed, contradicts this. In 2018, project subcontractors came to purchase a strip of land that cuts through the middle of their farm. “They promised us they would compensate us, so we were happy about it,” Ayebare said. “But these people left us in the dark.”
Under the Ugandan constitution, “projected-affected persons” like Ayebare must be paid fairly and promptly. But for more than two years the family were not told how much, or when, they would be paid. Meanwhile, the family was banned from growing the coffee on which their income depended, because coffee plants are perennial rather than seasonal crops. “We failed to get school fees,” Ayebare said.
Since the project subcontractors first arrived, Ayebare’s father has died. “They told us that this land belongs to them. We had to bury him very far away. It hurts us,” she said. More than three years on, the family has not received payment because the documents for the compensation agreement are written in English. “I don’t want my mother to sign something she doesn’t understand,” Ayebare said.
Kamugisha said he fears stories like Ayebare’s will be repeated all along the 1,445-kilometer (898-mile) length of the project. “I have been in over 50 villages where the pipeline is passing and they are all having the same problems,” he said. “Things are going to get worse.”
Kiboga MP Nakimwero said the land rights of some people affected by the pipeline have been infringed upon. “We have the Land Act. If someone is aggrieved, they should use the existing laws.”
But in the case of a conflict, the EACOP Act holds “supremacy” over all existing legislation other than the Constitution. Kamugisha said it will now be “very difficult” for laws that offer environmental and social protections — such as the 2019 National Environmental Act and 1998 Land Act — to be upheld, and that in the event of a conflict decisions could favor the pipeline.
The oil project has already contravened Uganda’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations, Kamugisha said, by rushing through public hearings on the project with a presiding officer who was the former minister of energy and mineral development.
“The EACOP project will be regulated by all the laws of Uganda including those on the environment and social issues,” said an energy ministry spokesperson. They added that public hearings and the appointment of the presiding officer for the EIA were carried out in accordance with the National Environment Regulations.
Those challenging the government’s development of oil infrastructure say they have been targeted. Kamugisha was arrested in October without charge. “Some of us who have been struggling to mobilize communities to fight for their rights, they try to scare us, to instill fear in us,” he said.
EACOP has promoted the project’s economic benefits, saying that during the construction phase it will create thousands of jobs along the pipeline route. Nabiruma said the EACOP Act in conjunction with the Host Government Agreement may “water down” the National Content laws, which ensure the training of Ugandans and the use of Ugandan goods and services in foreign projects.
“It could make it difficult for Ugandans to participate,” Nabiruma said; but without eyes on the agreement made between TotalEnergies and the Ugandan government, it’s impossible to know what the full implications will be for Ugandans and their environment.
An energy ministry spokesperson said the new National Content regulations in the Host Government Agreement are an improvement on existing laws.
“In the past when agreements are signed secretly, we’ve found they are not in the interests of Ugandans,” Nabiruma said, noting the unexpectedly high cost of electricity from Uganda’s billion-dollar Bujagali hydropower project. “A secret agreement was signed that facilitated corruption.”
The EACOP Act now awaits the signature of President Yoweri Museveni, who frequently refers to the oil fields in Lake Mwitanzige as “my oil.”
Banner image: Protest against fossil fuel projects in Africa, including the EACOP pipeline. Image courtesy 350.org.
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