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Disturbing graves is latest violation attributed to East African oil pipeline

An anonymous pipeline-affected person in Tanzania, January 2022.

An anonymous pipeline-affected person in Tanzania, January 2022. Image ©️ Thomas Bart.

  • Faith-based climate justice organization GreenFaith says the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), will disturb at least 2,000 graves along its 1,441-kilometer (895-mile) route from Uganda’s Lake Albert to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.
  • Surveys in affected communities found numerous cases where residents said TotalEnergies, the French oil giant leading the project, had disturbed and disrespected the graves of their families and ancestors, despite their best efforts to alert the company to their presence.
  • TotalEnergies says the process of identifying and relocating burial sites, and paying compensation to affected people, has been carried out in line with international standards.
  • Since its inception in 2017, the EACOP project has been dogged by criticism over its environmental, social and climate change impacts.

A new report by GreenFaith, an international, multifaith climate justice organization, alleges that the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) will disturb at least 2,000 graves along its route from Lake Albert in Uganda to the Tanzanian port of Tanga. French oil giant TotalEnergies says its identification and handling of graves and other significant sites is in line with international standards, but people living along the route told GreenFaith that pipeline project officials ignored their pleas and concerns.

From January through September of this year, GreenFaith surveyed six districts in Uganda and three in Tanzania along the pipeline’s 1,441-kilometer (895-mile) route, conducting a range of interviews. Its 37-page report, released Nov. 9, alleges that those behind the project have been aware that the pipeline will impact thousands of tombs and sacred sites and have offered unsatisfactory responses or inadequate compensation to those affected.

“Local communities told us that TotalEnergies has, on numerous occasions, disturbed and disrespected the graves of their families and ancestors. This has taken place despite countless efforts of local people to alert TotalEnergies to the presence of the graves and about their concerns,” the report reads.

Map: GreenFaith surveyed six districts in Uganda and three in Tanzania along the pipeline’s 1,441-kilometer (895-mile) route, conducting a range of interviews.
EACOP acknowledges over 2,000 graves will be affected by construction of the pipeline. Locals say many more may not be counted. “Because these graves had lasted for over sixty years and the soil buried had disappeared, the only thing which could have helped was tracing using their machine which they did not do […]. It took us one week digging holes looking for the remains,” said a respondent in Uganda’s Buliisa District. Another person, in Tanzania’s Hanang District, where more than 200 graves are recorded, said, “I have lost hope now, I think the Project shall remove the graves and take them to unknown places.”

According to guidelines developed by International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank, elements of cultural heritage such as graves and tombs are recognized for their importance to current and future generations and should be protected from adverse impacts, or families and communities should be fairly compensated when impacts occur, the report says. The IFC is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in developing countries, and the EACOP project developers have said they will commit to the IFC’s social performance standards.

One man in Tanzania told GreenFaith: “I am not satisfied. It seems the process of evaluating graves is based on discrimination. I don’t know how I have offended the project representatives and the village government leaders. I wish they could reserve their time to listen and work on my claims. I’m concerned that, in the end, they will remove the remains of my relative by themselves and dump them.”

Another person said: “When it came to moving the corpses, the coffins they [TotalEnergies] bought were not the right size. My father’s body was broken into pieces to fit into the coffin they had contracted.”

Because of allegations of threats and intimidation by pipeline officials against people affected by the project, GreenFaith noted that it was protecting the identities of those quoted in the report.

“It is traumatizing enough that TotalEnergies, supported by the Uganda and Tanzania governments, has already displaced thousands of families along the proposed pipeline’s route,” Meryne Warah, global organizing director for GreenFaith, said in a press release. “But the finding that even the dead cannot rest in peace is disrespecting something deeply sacred to Africans.”

Robert Lule, with grave, Greater Massaka Area, Uganda.
Robert Lule sits on a grave in Greater Massaka Area, Uganda. Local communities told GreenFaith that TotalEnergies has disturbed and disrespected the graves of their families and ancestors at numerous sites. Image © Thomas Bart.

French oil company responds

The charges are largely leveled at French oil giant TotalEnergies, which is building the pipeline as a joint venture with China National Offshore Oil Corporation, the Uganda National Oil Company, and the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation.

In a written response to questions from Mongabay, TotalEnergies defended its handling of issues related to graves and burial grounds. Contrary to GreenFaith’s allegations, it said it conducts its pipeline activities by applying the highest standards set by the IFC.

TotalEnergies wrote: “It is in accordance with this standard that the projects have developed a management plan for cultural and archaeological heritage, that interviews were conducted with key stakeholders, including communities, and an inventory of sites of archaeological, historical, cultural, artistic and religious importance has been carried out.

“As much as possible, the project layout has sought to avoid these sites. In cases where a cultural site could not be avoided, precautions were taken to minimize the disruptions, inform and engage with stakeholders and ensure that standards cultural are strictly respected … Concerning the specific case of tombs, these are identified by the families or the owners, and the locations indicated in the projects.”

The French oil company added that it is fairly compensating families who must relocate graves or burial grounds and allows them the time they request for sacred rituals involving reburials.

TotalEnergies’ response is consistent with years of denying or deflecting a wide range of attacks against the project, including a European Parliament resolution in 2022 opposing the pipeline on human rights grounds.

A Catholic male in Uganda’s Buliisa district told GreenFaith investigators: “My initial budget for relocating my graves, which we had done with my family, was refused by Total, and they did their own budget without consultation from us. In our culture, when we are relocating graves, we first sit and plan and draft the expenses to be incurred. But for them, they did everything alone.”

Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith’s executive director, based in New York City, told Mongabay that TotalEnergies’ response comes as no surprise.

“GreenFaith stands firmly behind the contents of our report, which contradicts all elements of Total’s statement,” Harper said. “We deplore the company’s disrespect for local communities, denounce the spiritual violence inflicted, and renew our call for an end to EACOP.”

The GreenFaith report also called on TotalEnergies to fully reimburse families’ financial losses incurred by grave disturbances, and where religious or cultural issues remain unresolved, project officials must follow international best practices.

An ashy red colobus monkey
The endangered ashy red colobus monkey is one of several threatened wildlife species found along EACOP’s route. The pipeline project has drawn criticism for the risk it poses to land, water and biodiversity. Image by Valerie Hukalo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

An environmental and human toll

Opposition to the EACOP project since it was initiated in 2017 has rested on the rights of communities along its route; local threats to land, water and biodiversity; and on the effects of producing hundreds of millions of barrels of oil for export at a time when the escalating climate emergency requires an immediate phasing-out of fossil fuel burning around the world.

As Mongabay reported in 2021: “If completed, the pipeline will transport heavy crude from more than 130 wells inside Uganda’s largest national park, which is home to threatened African elephants and lions, a formidable population of Nile crocodiles, and more than 400 bird species. Conservationists say it won’t just threaten wildlife but that it flies in the face of efforts to curb global warming by locking in investment in a dirty fuel.”

EACOP’s total estimated cost has risen from $3.5 billion to $5 billion. Planning is going forward as if the pipeline will be built. But the project consortium remains billions short in bank financing as large financial institutions, especially in Japan and the United States, have backed away amid growing criticism of the project.

Martin Kopp, GreenFaith’s coordinator in France, has been organizing faith-based opposition to the pipeline project there. He told Mongabay there are skeptics of climate action among the French who believe that people will depend on fossil fuels for energy and transportation for years to come.

“On the other hand,” Kopp added, “all people who understand the climate urgency see the EACOP and its oil-drilling projects for what they are: a climate bomb, countless violations of human rights and attacks on biodiversity. That is why there is a strong mobilization and pressure against Total, on all fronts, with constant public actions, reports, and posting on social media by many organizations and movements.”

Banner image: An anonymous pipeline-affected person in Tanzania, January 2022. Image ©️ Thomas Bart.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in the United States.

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