Friday, 14 December 2012

Oilwatch solidarity visit to Uganda - Fighting to keep the Oil in the Soil!

Siziwe Khanyile
                 Kaiso Tonya drama group
Six hours after leaving Entebbe and heading North West towards the Western Region of Uganda, we reach the lush, mountainous, green Rift Valley. We head to Kaiso Tonya in Hoima district where we are meeting with community people living a stone’s throw from Lake Albert.

We are welcomed by the Kaiso Tonya drama group who sing and dance as we arrive. The hall, a corrugated iron donation from the oil companies is hot but lively, already packed and abuzz with people from the very young to the elderly coming from Kaiso Tonya Village and some surrounding villages.

We are welcomed, and a discussion about the purpose of our solidarity visit is explained by our hosts the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)/Oilwatch Uganda. We get to hear about the great work they are doing with their sustainability schools in the villages, and that the drama group is a result of this initiative. Without too much discussion, the drama group, clad in their NAPE/Oilwatch t-shirts and traditional fabric skirts and trousers make their way into the hall.

This group is clear that they are not just entertainers; they are community advocates, fighting for the protection of their communities against the oil companies. This is very clear as they present strong messages through their performances.  They communicate in a way that is both entertaining and educational.

For the next one hour, the drama group sings, dances, recites poetry in the native language and the audience responds with roars of laughter, clapping or murmuring as each scene is played out. After every scene, a discussion is held to allow the audience to participate – “what issues did the scene address and what are your thoughts on the issue?” was the question posed.  The responses demonstrated an understanding of the problems introduced by oil. The drama group did a sterling job of capturing these issues.

In the Buseruka sub-county of Hoima district, an area is earmarked for an oil refinery that is expected to soon begin construction. The area is 29 kmof virgin grazing land for cattle and goats, involves about 13 villages and proposes to displace about 8 000 people with what the community view as unfair compensation determined through an unfair consultation process. It is expected that the refinery will come with added infrastructures like a modern airport, petrochemical industries, waste management plants and houses for the refinery workers. The ministry of environment has made it impossible for the feasibility study of the refinery – charged at an amount of US$30 000 – to be viewed.

In the same Buseruka sub-county area a 9.0 MW mini hydroelectric power station has been built and transmission lines are now part of the landscape. The power station is located across the Wambabya River to supply the oil companies and labour camps with electricity while community remains in darkness. However, NAPE is promoting locally assembled low-cost solar lamps constructed from bamboo shells and wood in this community.

Currently, oil companies, including Irish multinational Tullow, Total and the Chinese National Oil Company have drilled 75 exploration oil wells. Three of these are off shore. 71 wells found oil and four are dry wells. Recently, one of the wells was drilled on a geological fault line and has been abandoned. Article 24 of Uganda’s Wildlife Act prohibits mining in protected areas; yet 90% of drilling is taking place in nature reserves and communities needing access to firewood from the game reserve where the oil wells are located are being denied access by patrolling soldiers.

With exploratory drilling taking place some 20km offshore, fisherfolk in Lake Albert complain that their catch of fish has reduced and that when there is active testing, they are prevented from fishing which directly affects their survival as real fears of future oil spills in the lake are a threat.

Through various scenes, the drama group communicated oil impacts, demonstrating a very good understanding of the issues and the problems with the system that facilitates oil development.
They expressed concerns about land grab and demolishing of houses for the construction of access road oil wells without adequate compensation.

Social issues such as the influx of men into the area leading to prostitutes coming from different parts of the country and beyond, fears of HIV infections, alcohol abuse, increased crime and concern about girls being enticed by money from oil workers have already begun to affect the once almost secluded community living peacefully fishing and stock farming along Lake Albert.

This was our second visit to the Rift Valley in two years. The experience this time around, however, was made far richer by the depth of the conversations with the communities and getting to hear their perspectives and actual experiences.

It will be sad to return in two years time. The pristine environment will be overtaken by the obvious signs of “development” and “growth” – displacement, poverty, lack of access to food and water, and state violence and oppression! Yet these communities must stand strong in resistance as they echo a worldwide call to Keep the Oil in the Soil

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