Four Ugandan people in a court room during a legal case to protect ecosensitive areas from oil threats.

[IUCN Congress 2020 series] Indigenous communities fight oil and gas activities in Uganda and DRC

Header photo: A court case in Uganda © AFIEGO

Communities, activists and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Uganda and the DRC are resisting oil and gas activities in sensitive areas. These vital ecosystems provide a habitat for wildlife and livelihoods for local communities. Through building a strong movement, the CSOs hope to stop oil exploration and initiate a just energy transition.

Oil activities in Uganda are taking place or are planned in eco-sensitive regions like Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Edward. ‘Some of these critical biodiversity resources border with DRC’s Virunga National Park. Together, they are the most biodiversity-rich ecosystems in Africa,’ says Tina Lain, Senior Expert Environmental Justice at IUCN NL. ‘They provide a habitat for wildlife, function as migratory corridors and breeding grounds and sustain local communities.’

Human-wildlife conflicts

Millions of people depend on the ecosystems for their livelihoods. ‘The areas support agricultural activities, fisheries, tourism and climate mitigation,’ Lain explains. Because of oil activities however, the roles that these ecosystems play are being compromised. ‘Among the already visible impacts are the increased human-wildlife conflicts with communities in Northern Uganda. Their gardens are destroyed by animals more and more often since oil activities started in Murchison Falls National Park. These conflicts harm biodiversity conservation efforts,’ says Diana Nabiruma of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).

Seismic tests

In 2014, the government of DRC carried out seismic tests in Virunga. ‘The oil company that was planning activities in the park left because of external pressure, but the communities around Lake Edward are still very afraid that the government will use the outcomes of the tests to find other clients to extract the oil,’ says Bantu Lukambo, director of the Congolese NGO Innovation for the Development and Protection of the Environment (IDPE). ‘We want the government to reject the test results because they form an imminent threat to the protected biodiversity in the park, like the endangered Mountain Gorillas,’ Lukambo stresses.

Joining forces

‘Oil companies CNOOC and Total, together with the government of Uganda are in the final stages of building thousands of kilometers of oil pipelines, a refinery and central processing facilities,’ says Nabiruma. Although these activities take place in Uganda and Tanzania, their impact will likely affect the entire region. Nabiruma explains: ‘The lakes, rivers, forests, parks and reserves cut across borders. This is why Uganda, DRC and Tanzania need to join forces to protect the critical biodiversity against the impacts of oil.’

Threat to tourism

The oil activities also pose a risk to the tourism industry in Uganda. ‘Murchison Falls is one of the country’s most visited national parks, and the destruction of its biodiversity will negatively impact tourism and thus our country’s economy,’ Nabiruma stresses. Virunga National Park faces the same threats according to Lukambo,: ‘The park rangers and patrols cannot be paid if tourism stalls.’

Building a movement

Together with other local civil society organizations and communities, AFIEGO and IDPE are engaging presidents, local governments, companies and the international community to say no to oil activities in Uganda, DRC and Tanzania. In addition to CSOs, the movement against oil activities also involves affected communities, women, youth, environmentalists, fisherfolk and tourism operators. ’This is not only about conservation actors. It is important to join forces with all sectors, from health to education and tourism; this is about our shared future,’ stresses Nabiruma.

‘We want to build a local and international movement of diverse voices to increase the pressure on governments and oil companies to stop their activities, especially in eco-sensitive areas,’ Nabiruma explains. Lukambo adds: ‘Having a strong network across country borders reduces the vulnerability of the people involved, and helps us to put more pressure on governments and companies.’

Successful actions

‘With our civil society partners, we have taken a number of actions to stop or delay oil activities in the regions,’ says Nabiruma. ‘For example, we defended Queen Elizabeth National Park from oil exploration by implementing a number of interventions including engaging our presidents to stop licensing of oil blocks in the park.’

Communities supported by CSOs also delayed the oil refinery and Tilenga projects through court cases and compensation disputes among others. The government and oil companies are still failing to start two oil projects in the region after over seven years of trying. ‘This is because of the public pressure we have been building,’ Nabiruma states.

CSOs and communities from DRC and Uganda also joined forces to stop oil activities in the Albertine Rift. ‘Additionally, because of the pressure we put on them, the Ugandan government committed to limit its water abstraction activities on Lake Albert to safeguard the water security of communities,’ says Nabiruma. The coalition is also filing court cases against government agencies and oil companies: ‘We filed an international court case against Total for their Tilenga project, giving us more leverage and international media attention.’

Films and exchange visits

‘These actions were possible and successful because we sensitized communities on the impacts of oil on nature, health and livelihoods, for example through film screenings and exchange learning visits,’ Nabiruma explains. ‘After the communities learned more about the importance of resisting oil activities in eco-sensitive areas, we helped them strengthen their lobby and advocacy skills and supported the CSOs and communities to engage with the government and other key players.’

Community awareness was also an important step in preventing oil exploration in Virunga: ‘We focused on educating local communities about the dangers of oil exploration, especially in protected areas. This awareness resulted in a mobilization of the community against the oil activities. We are now engaging communities in Salonga National Park to mobilize against the imminent threat of oil, just like we did in in Virunga,’ Lukambo explains.

Sustainable development

‘In addition to resisting oil and gas activities, we also want to offer alternatives in the form of sustainable development, with a focus on renewable energy and tourism,’ Nabiruma adds. ‘For example, women in the communities are coming together to develop alternatives like micro-renewable energy and agroecology.’ ‘We aim to share and develop more knowledge on the worldwide just energy transition to inspire the communities, women and youth in the movement.’

Lukambo adds: ‘Multinational companies benefit from the communities’ lack of awareness about the dangers of oil. Therefore, it is essential to sensitize local communities on the importance of conserving biodiversity as well as the advantage of using green energy for the well-being of current and future generations.’

International action

Despite the promising results achieved by the CSOs, further action, especially on the international level, is needed: ‘We need to continue engaging and pressuring regional and international financial institutions which provide funding to oil companies and for oil infrastructure. The governments in the countries where the oil companies are situated also need to be held accountable. To pressure them, we need support from international CSOs,’ Nabiruma explains.

International fora like the IUCN World Conservation Congress are important places to collect this international support. Lain: ‘A motion about protected areas and industrial activities that was approved at the 2016 Congress has helped our partners’ activities and advocacy efforts. We have a collective responsibility to protect our most precious and scared natural heritage. This should not only be the work of rangers, environmental defenders and local communities but of governments, investors and companies.’

Coverage of the issue by international media also plays an important role in this. ‘If more international NGOs join our movement, we can gain the attention we need to pressure companies and governments,’ Nabiruma concludes. 

IUCN Congress motions

Leading up to and during the Member’s Assembly at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020, IUCN Members can vote to approve motions. They are the mechanism by which IUCN Members influence third parties and guide the policy and Programme of IUCN. A number of the accepted motions are linked to the work of our partners in Uganda and DRC. A part of the motions will be sent for vote by electronic ballot from 7-21 October 2020.

More information and the full list of motions can be found on the official Congress website.

Lukambo: ‘Important aquatic ecosystems like Lake Edward are generally characterized by imaginary borders, without clearly delimited spaces. This has harmful ecological and socioeconomic consequences, and prevents us from promoting sustainable development in these areas, as is evident from the situation in DRC and Uganda.’

‘This motion touches the issue of transboundary cooperation and conservation, and we believe that we cannot fight and or mitigate oil threats against our critical biodiversity in the Albertine Graben without transboundary efforts,’ says Nabiruma.

‘Instead of exploiting oil, we want our countries to focus on renewable energy,’ says Lukambo.

‘In DRC, civil society actors were threatened when they opposed the oil exploration project by SOCO, and have to live in hiding. They should be able to oppose the threats of oil without risking their lives,’ says Lukambo.

Lukambo says: ‘Funding for biodiversity should be strengthened to help reduce poverty in local communities through socioeconomic projects that work in their favor and protect their ecosystems at the same time. This would make them less vulnerable to oil companies who take advantage of the lack of awareness and the poverty in local communities.’ Nabiruma adds: ‘We need more resources in the form of funding and experts to explain the dangers of oil to the Ugandans and the Congolese.’

‘Motions 038, 039 and 060 are all about good governance of natural resources and human rights which are critical to conservation and livelihoods,’ says Nabiruma.

IUCN Congress 2020 series

The IUCN Congress 2020 will bring together the global nature conservation community and allow civil society organisations to share their work and knowledge. In a series of articles, IUCN NL’s partner organisations from around the world tell us about their work for nature and people.