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An Ugandan activists holds a sign urging a stop to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. (Photo: Fridays for Future Uganda/Twitter)

An Ugandan activists holds a sign urging a stop to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. (Photo: Fridays for Future Uganda/Twitter) 

Despite Risks, Climate Activists Lead Fight Against Oil Giant's Drilling Projects in Uganda

"We cannot drink oil. This is why we cannot accept the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline."

Brett Wilkins

Climate campaigners in Africa and around the world on Friday continued demonstrations against Total, with activists accusing the French oil giant of ecocide, human rights violations, and greenwashing in connection with fossil fuel projects in Uganda. 

On the 145th week of Fridays for Future climate strike protests, members of the movement in Uganda global allies drew attention to the harmful effects of fossil fuel development on the environment, ecosystems, communities, and livelihoods. 

Friday's actions followed protests at Total petrol stations in Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, and Uganda on Tuesday—celebrated each year as Africa Day—against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), now under construction, and the Mozambique Liquefied Natural Gas project. 

"Total's fossil fuel developments pose grave risks to protected environments, water sources, and wetlands in the Great Lakes and East Africa regions," said Andre Moliro, an activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during Tuesday's pan-African protests.

"Communities have been raising concerns on the impact of oil extraction on Lake Albert fisheries and the disastrous consequences of an oil spill in Lake Victoria, that would affect millions of people that rely on the two lakes for their livelihoods, watersheds for drinking water, and food production," he added. 

In Uganda, opposing oil development—an expected multi-billion-dollar boon to the landlocked nation's economy—can be risky business. On Monday, police in Buliisa arrested Ugandan human rights defender Maxwell Atuhura and Italian journalist Federica Marsi. 

According to Energy Voice, Atuhura—who works with the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), one of half a dozen NGOs that have pursued legal action against Total—and Marsi were about to meet with local community members when they were apprehended.

Marsi was released Monday and reportedly told to leave the oil region "before bad things happen." She was briefly rearrested later in the day. Atuhura remains in police custody. The World Organization Against Torture has issued an urgent appeal for intervention in his case. 

United Nations special rapporteurs and international human rights groups have previously expressed serious concern over abuses perpetrated against land defenders and journalists in Uganda. Despite the risks, actions against EACOP and the related Tilenga Development Project continue. 

"We cannot drink oil. This is why we cannot accept the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline," Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate, founder of the Rise Up Movement, said during the Africa Day action. "It is going to cause massive displacement of people [and the] destruction of ecosystems and wildlife habitats."

"We have no future in extraction of oil because it only means destroying the livelihoods of the people and the planet," Nakate added. "It is time to choose people above pipelines. It is time to rise up for the people and the planet."

If completed, the $3.5 billion, nearly 900-mile EACOP will transport up to 230,000 barrels of crude oil per day from fields in the Lake Albert region of western Uganda through the world's longest electrically heated pipeline to the Tanzanian port city of Tanga on the Indian Ocean.

In partnership with China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC), Total is also leading the Tilenga Development Project, which involves the drilling of 400 wells in dozens of locations, including iniside the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park.

Total says the project will "generate a positive net impact on biodiversity," a claim vehemently rejected by environmentalists. 

"Imagine a tropical version of the Alaskan oil pipeline," environmental author Fred Pearce wrote of EACOP last year. "Only longer. And passing through critical elephant, lion, and chimpanzee habitats and 12 forest reserves, skirting Africa's largest lake, and crossing more than 200 rivers and thousands of farms before reaching the Indian Ocean—where its version of the Exxon Valdez disaster would pour crude oil into some of Africa's most biodiverse mangroves and coral reefs."

Although Total claims it chose the EACOP route to "minimize the number of residents relocated," local residents and international NGOs say the pipeline's impact will be anything but minimal.

According to Mongabay, more than 12,000 families will be displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for the pipeline, two-thirds of which will pass through agricultural zones. Farmers in the pipeline's path and the Lake Albert oil region have joined civil society groups and international organizations in voicing their opposition to the EACOP and Tilenga projects. 

The #StopEACOP coalition, which is made up of local and international activists and organizations, is attempting to block funding of the project by appealing to banks, investors, and insurance companies. A March open letter signed by more than 250 groups urged 25 commercial banks to not finance the pipeline. 

In 2017, WWF Uganda published a report warning that the pipeline "is likely to lead to significant disturbance, fragmentation, and increased poaching within important biodiversity and natural habitats" that are home to species including chimpanzees, elephants, and lions. 

Wildlife forced from natural habitats by oil development has in turn caused severe disruptions to farming families. 

"We have always had a problem of human-wildlife conflict in this village, but with drilling and road construction across the park, the invasions are more frequent," Elly Munguryeki, a farmer living just outside Murchison Falls National Park, told South Africa's Mail & Guardian earlier this month.

"We keep reporting the losses to park authorities but nothing happens," said Munguryeki. "Each night a herd of buffalo, baboons, and hippos from the park would invade my farm and neighbouring plots and eat our crops until dawn. Whatever they left would be eaten by baboons and wild pigs during the day, forcing us to harvest premature crops." 

A 2020 Oxfam report (pdf) noted the EACOP "will cross poor, rural communities in both Uganda and Tanzania that lack the political and financial capital of the project stakeholders."

"The lopsided complications of this power dynamic are well-documented in similar extractive industry projects," the report stated. "Powerful companies are often able to hide their operations behind local contractors and permissive government authorities. Often the only hope that local communities have for remediation or justice is through local government bodies that are often weak, fragile, or captured by corporate and national interests."

Mary, an Ugandan farmer in Rakai near the Tanzanian border who was interviewed for the report, said that "when this pipeline project came, they promised us too many things. Up to now they have done nothing." 

"What makes me worried is that they took my land but I have not yet been compensated," she claimed. 

A community member from Rujunju village, Kikuube District in Uganda told the report's authors that "the government and oil companies have not informed us about the negative impact that the EACOP will have on our well-being. All they tell us are good things that the EACOP will bring like roads and jobs. We also want to know the negative impact of the pipeline so that we can make informed decisions."


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