On the 23 of January 2019, a group of lawyers led by Ngetha Media Association for Peace and Environmental Defenders Law Center EDLC alongside Ngetha Media Association for Peace team of researchers and activists conversant with the area as well as its key people set off for Ngwedu- Buliisa District in the Albertine region.
The delegations spent a night in Buliisa and started work the following day holding three meetings and passing by the area LCV Mr. Kinene Simon Agaba to brief him.
The meetings in Buliisa involved our communication preceded by self-introduction, the area chairperson’s speech, the Buliisa based coordinator of Ngetha Media Association for Peace Stephen Mungu Jakisa, and Agenonga Robert respectively. Our presentations were followed by question and answer sessions.
The people we saw, met and interacted with are very frustrated by the seeming collusion between Oil company Total E&P, central and local government officials who take turns in deceiving them, intimidating them and grabbing their property including their houses mainly grass thatched. The area is hard to reach, dusty, and roads are under construction. It is a truly remote area where education, literacy, and development are very limited. Poverty, disease, and ignorance are undisguised. Little wonder outsiders like Total, brokers, fraudsters, speculators and compromised politicians and professionals are praying on them.
Accessing them must be done stealthily or very wisely. The orthodox style of elite NGO/non-profit staff cruising there is a fleet of 4WD land cruisers or pick-ups won’t do. We learned that such is the harbinger for having meetings stopped or cars barred by the district security. We beat them by packing ourselves in one car.
The primary culprit is Total E&P which is accused of using both deception and force and playing on their ignorance, illiteracy, and poverty to prey on their land for their developments.
It is difficult to point to a single person who is not violated by Total E&P. But the most violated persons relating to the area we directly visited exceed 1000 victims of capricious land grab, displacement, non-compensation and forced elicitation of signatures by Total E&P. The people were so aggrieved by Total E&P that some were seeking our approval to be violent while most seemed to think that Total E&P is too big to fight and anyone, they approach appears afraid of it.
People are wondering where we have been all this long yet their problems with Total E&P have been there. People are also frustrated that there are a number of non-profits with lawyers but not helping them. They pressed for a permanent office in their area which we could not guarantee but promised to act on their grievance by taking legal action against Total E&P.
Their houses, gardens, and trees have been razed down with impunity.
One person’s story is symptomatic of their peril.
Lazarus: I have two issues:
The first one: What is going to take place with this village of Avogera concerns me personally. The coming of Total [the Oil company], I was the first person they approached in this village. I didn’t know what they had discovered on my land.
They came with around five (5) big vehicles and parked in my compound. They asked me who owned the land…I told them the land is mine, my family’s land.
They asked me whether it’s possible to allow them to see what they wanted to see – with their vehicles. I asked them whether what they’re looking for is atop the land or underground. They told me it’s underground, that it required them to go with their machines.
They said they were going to compensate me for any destruction they would cause while entering my land. They then said that if they go with their machines, if they finish their work, they would give me answers to all my questions. They said that if it requires them to take my land, they would tell me. I then allowed them to ‘check’ the land. As soon as they started drilling my land, they chased all local people away so they don’t see what they were doing. Including me who had given them permission to check the land.
After chasing them, they [Total’s people] started moving in every direction on my land, driving on the land with their Double Cabin trucks, destroying crops among many other destructive actions. When they finished, they started measuring the land to see how much of the crops they had destroyed.
But before they came to measure the extent of destruction they had caused on my land, they first came with a “big paper”. A big one showing that the land was mine. They pestered me to sign acknowledging that the land was mine. They came with the former Chairman of Avogera LCI Village. Since they had come with the then LCI, I being an illiterate person, signed the “big paper” because I trusted that the LCI understood the contents of the documents. After signing, they offered me a copy of the paper and asked me to keep it. I did. Then they went ahead and measured the crops they had destroyed in my garden.
When they finally came to pay me for the destruction, they paid me UGX 150/= only per square meter of mature cassava, ready for harvest, that they had destroyed in my garden. This happened in December 2018. Up to now, they have paid some people but still at that rate – UGX 150/= per square meter. Other people are still demanding that payment (USD 0.0407872).
Total intends to destroy the Local Council 1 court and administrative offices.
The whole problem revolves around oil in the land. Total must pass through people’s land to access oil. But people are not treated with respect to their dignity, their property rights are infringed upon. It is either little or no compensation. Compensation rates are low. There is an under-valuation of the property and crops encroached upon. No meaningful consultation is done before decisions that adversely affect the community regarding their land and property.
It is the unanimous conclusion of our legal team; Kiiza & Mugisha Advocates, that the requests of the people we met for urgent legal intervention to fight their displacement and expropriation of land without fair, adequate prior compensation; and violations of associated human rights are valid. We guaranteed our legal support going forward.