Companies must take action to respect the rights of communities at risk in East Africa’s oil frontier
In research released today alongside FIDH and partner organizations, Oxfam highlighted the major risks of oil projects led by French energy giant Total in Uganda and Tanzania, which would require over 12,000 families to lose land and endanger sensitive and vital ecosystems.
Despite plunging oil prices, a pandemic, and the climate crisis, oil projects are still moving forward around the world. Among the most ambitious is a proposal to exploit some of Africa’s biggest reserves under Lake Albert and ship the oil to international markets through the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). French energy giant Total is leading project development along with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the governments of Uganda and Tanzania.
Two new community-based human rights impact assessments highlight serious, ongoing challenges and future risks linked to these projects. While independent research pieces, both reports offer community-driven recommendations urging oil companies and governments, who are on the verge of making their final investment decision, to take urgent measures to avoid a human and environmental disaster.
New Oil, Same Business? At a Crossroads to Avert Catastrophe in Uganda, authored by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), reviews the past and present impacts of construction and exploration activities and future upstream oil extraction sites in Uganda. Empty Promises Down the Line? A Human Rights Impact Assessment of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, authored by Oxfam, Global Rights Alert (GRA), the Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), and the Northern Coalition on Extractives and Environment (NCEE), assesses the midstream impact of the EACOP. The assessments, summarized in Oil in East Africa: Communities at Risk, reflect the outcome of two years of independent research projects complementary in scope, but unique to their authoring organizations.
"Despite promises about jobs and a better future, communities are worried about lost land, a damaged environment, and the ‘empty promises’ of oil money,” said Caroline Brodeur, private sector advisor for Oxfam. “The risks posed by further oil exploitation in East Africa are immense. We urge companies and governments to review these newly-released findings, which reflect the fears, hopes, and recommendations of communities around the Lake Albert oil projects and ‘down the line,’ and commit to a different path forward.”
Commercial quantities of oil were discovered under Lake Albert in 2006 by the British exploration company Tullow Oil. Expectations were high that the discovery of oil would quickly translate into significant new sources of foreign investment and government revenue. However, oil production is yet to begin in Uganda and existing projects in the Albertine basin have been marred by allegations of human rights violations, slow payments, disruption of children’s education, loss of traditional sources of livelihood, and opaque resettlement processes. Communities are particularly worried about the future. In addition to lost land and livelihoods, they are concerned that oil development will further contaminate their water, contribute to noise and air pollution, and impact their health for the worse.
“After nearly two decades of oil exploration, many communities fear the worst is yet to come,” said Rashid Bunya, research and advocacy officer at FHRI. “Our research reveals that these projects have already heavily impacted human rights associated with the land, livelihoods, and environment of communities in Uganda. Despite the efforts of government and companies, the risks related to the upcoming phases are huge, especially in a context where people are facing mounting threats to civic participation.”
Following years of delays, project operators and authorities announced that a final investment decision would be made in 2020, with pipeline construction starting in March 2021. But tensions remain high in the region’s oil frontier, especially for communities directly impacted by oil development and the human rights defenders working on their behalf. Local groups claim they are unable to freely visit villages affected by oil projects and note that consultations about oil development are often perfunctory rather than participatory.
“Companies are wreaking major social disruption – particularly affecting women – as they seize land to make way for oil, often without adequate consultation,” said Maria-Isabel Cubides, researcher at the FIDH Globalisation and Human Rights Desk. “Individuals and communities whose property has been expropriated for the project want more information and fair compensation for lost land and property. Families worry that oil projects are shattering their community structures and undermining their traditional lifestyles and cultures.”
“If new oil projects move forward, companies and government must reconsider their approach and put communities at the center of their decision-making,” said Devotha Mbenna, researcher with NCEE. “The future of Uganda and Tanzania is based on the land, environment, and aspirations of local people.”
Both of the reports urge project developers and the governments of Uganda and Tanzania to:
1. Listen, inform, and respond to communities: commit to a free, open, informed, and fair conversation about oil development, which includes the risks. Publish contracts, internal human rights impact assessments, and future reviews. Take action on the findings and avoid making empty promises.
2. Defend the defenders: ensure human rights advocates, journalists, and civil society groups are free to carry out their work in communities at risk.
3. Take responsibility: stop any misconduct by project subcontractors, especially attempts to restrict, obfuscate, or limit the rights of communities or civil society. Resolve disputes fairly and support transparent, citizen-driven oversight.
4. Ensure the fair value of land: ensure valuation and compensation processes that are just, transparent, and aligned with international best practices.
5. Protect the environment: end extractive activities in protected and sensitive ecosystems, including the shores of Lake Albert, and commit to using the best available technology to preserve the culture, health, and future of impacted communities.
6. Invest in the future: support the education, livelihoods, and legal defense of relocated families and people at risk, especially women and girls. Ensure resettlement does not leave people any worse off. Prepare for a future beyond oil and assess the contribution of these projects to the climate crises.
For more on the assessments and recommendations see:
Oil in East Africa: Communities at Risk
Empty Promises Down the Line? A Human Rights Impact Assessment of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline
New Oil, Same Business? At a Crossroads to Avert Catastrophe in Uganda