By Witness Radio Team.
For the last 50 years, local farmers in Waaki North, Kapapi Central, Waaki South, Runga, and Kiryatete villages in both Kapapi and Kiganja sub-counties in the Hoima district have been surviving on subsistence farming and rearing animals on their land as a source of livelihood for their families.
Until 2022, when their land was surveyed for the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), this brought smiles to the faces of the local communities hoping that doors for opportunities associated with the project had emerged. Immediately, the registration of Project-Affected Persons (PAPs) started.
The East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline Project (EACOP) is a pipeline that will transport crude oil produced from Uganda’s Lake Albert oilfields to the port of Tanga in Tanzania to world markets. EACOP runs 1,443km from Kabaale, Hoima district in Uganda to the Chongoleani Peninsula near Tanga Port in Tanzania.
EACOP has been criticized from different sections all over the world and environmentalists expressed serious concerns as it endangers the fight against climate change and breaches the international Paris Agreement with an estimated production of 34 million tons of CO2, twice as much as Uganda and Tanzania’s emissions.
But the story slowly altered from smiling to grief. Along the way, those who had registered to be compensated for their land started getting threatened and intimidated. Others were arbitrarily arrested and detained on trumped-up charges by the area police. Later, this violence escalated after land grabbers brought in guards from Magnum, a private security company.
Future dreams got shuttered: On the 10th of February 2023, security forces including; Hoima district police, soldiers, and private guards, raided homes of close to 500 families sitting on 1294.99 Hectares in the wee hours, torched and destroyed houses, assaulted dozens of locals, looted animals and harvested grains from stores among others.
For the last three months, Witness Radio statistics show that close to 20 local farmers have been arbitrarily arrested and trumped up with charges of theft, threatening violence, and malicious damage among others.
Some victims that were produced before the court, charged, and currently in Hoima prison include; Mbombo Steven, Rubyogo David, Mulega Eria, Rangira Steven, Karongo Edward, Karongo Steven, and Kataza Sam, and others.
Criminalization of farming activities of local farmers and the work of community land and environmental defenders is common in Uganda. It is a tool used by economically powerful and politically connected individual investors/companies to put critical locals in jail and grab their land.
According to the 2022 report by Frontline Defenders, a global human rights group, criminalization is one of the biggest threats faced by defenders of land and the environment.
The report further revealed that the environmental, land, and indigenous peoples’ rights sector was widely affected at (11%) of the total cases tracked. Additionally, the arrests and detentions did put at risk the lives of the outspoken community members.
Mr. Mbombo Steven, one of those currently in jail, was arrested on 24th February 2023, a day after the Ugandan minister for lands, hon. Nabakooba Judith had visited the area and directed the community to return to their land.
His family members revealed that Mbombo had been arrested and persecuted many times for fighting for his land rights. By the time of his arrest at 8 am local time on the 24th of February 2023, he had returned to occupy and use his land.
“He had gone back to check on his land shortly after the minister’s orders but when the guards saw him, they arrested, and handcuffed him before being taken to Runga police. He was later transferred to Kitoba police,” a family member who preferred anonymity due to fear of retaliation revealed.
The escalating arrests have forced many family heads to abandon their families and go into hiding. The violence has left many mothers with responsibilities to care for their children. One of the women whose husband is in jail narrated. She added that ever since the husband was arrested, she’s been challenged with feeding children and looking for a house to sleep in.
“I have eight children to take care of. We have no food, and they don’t go to school because we have lost everything. Imagine being in this situation with no land, shelter, or no food among others. How can I feed and educate them?” She revealed. She added that they (her and 8 of her children) are currently living with their relatives.