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Joining forces to protect eco-sensitive regions from oil companies

22 March 2020

Could a local civil society organisation confront one of the largest oil companies in the world? Alone? Unlikely. Through partnerships? Maybe. Our local partner in Uganda worked with other civil society organisations to organize dialogues with oil companies regarding the impacts and risks of oil activities on people and the environment.

Despite efforts by our local partner AFIEGO and other civil society organisations (CSOs) to discuss with oil companies the impacts of their activities on people and the environment, these companies continued their risky activities. AFIEGO therefore joined forces with allies at both local and international levels to file an international lawsuit against oil giant Total.

Total is the lead developer for both the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) and Tilenga oil projects, which threaten ecologically sensitive areas. Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park is such an area. With the adjoining Lake Albert, the Budongo forest reserve and Bugungu wildlife reserve, the park is home to unique wildlife and the livelihoods of many local communities depend on the broader Murchison landscape.

Pipelines and well pads in National Park

Whilst seemingly not the ideal location of a multi-billion dollar oil project, Total and Tullow Oil are developing their Tilenga project in Murchison Falls National Park. The Ugandan Government is keen to work with oil companies to make the Tilenga project happen. Seemingly unconcerned about the threat to biodiversity, oil pipelines and well pads are set to be erected legally within the reserve.

Impact not restricted to Uganda

“The Tilenga oil project will affect resources that are not only restricted to Uganda,” says Henk Simons, Senior Expert Nature Conservation at IUCN NL. “River Nile crosses the Albert Lake from which water will be drawn to support the Tilenga project. In case the water gets contaminated, it would not only affect Uganda but the entire region.”

Engagement with companies and governments

AFIEGO works to engage companies and governments at different levels to ensure that no oil activities are allowed in critical biodiversity areas such as national parks, game reserves, forest reserves, wetlands, lakes, rivers and others. AFIEGO believes that engaging with both government and oil companies is the best way to promote conservation of biodiversity amidst oil risks. When needed, however, the organisation does not shy away from pursuing legal action. But they can’t do it own their own.

Increasingly dangerous

 “The situation for CSOs working in Uganda is increasingly dangerous,” Henk Simons says. Last year, Global Witness sounded the alarm about the criminalization of environmental defenders and their communities, showing that governments and companies are using legal systems to silence activists who threaten their power and interests. “We see this worrisome situation also in Uganda: organisations are being accused of money laundering or funding terrorist activities, so that they have to suspend their activities. In addition, environmental and human rights defenders are also being targeted and harassed as individuals.”

Moreover, going to court in Uganda is extremely expensive, you never know how long a case will take and the court is unreliable. It is therefore difficult for any one single organisation, especially a local organisation, to manage litigation in terms of the costs, delays and other challenges.

Collaboration isn’t always easy

AFIEGO is a member of the Civil Society Coalition on Oil (CSCO). Since its establishment in 2008, the coalition members have worked together to promote environmental conservation amidst oil threats.

Without collaboration the court case in France would not have been filed, and companies and CSOs in Uganda wouldn’t be engaging regularly.

That hasn’t always been easy. “While our ultimate goal is the same, we had different approaches to our work and we felt that this distorted our message,” says one of the coalition members. “We all aim to ensure that oil activities do not damage biodiversity and livelihoods. But some CSOs believe that you can allow oil activities and still conserve, while others think that oil, conservation and livelihoods cannot co-exist. Indeed, nowhere in Africa has any country exploited oil while promoting conservation and community livelihoods.”

Speak with one voice

In 2016, the coalition shared the issues they faced as a group with IUCN NL. “They sent us two experts to advise us on how to come up with a common agenda. We talked with these experts about hard and soft approaches and which would work best in our particular case. We also discussed contradicting principles and how the group of CSOs could speak with one voice to succeed in our work.”

Because of the knowledge and skills shared by the experts, the CSOs were able to join forces in oil campaigns by questioning the process and content of environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) and file a case against the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU).

Solid basis for engagement

The strong national coalition is a solid basis for engagement with companies and governments. Today, oil companies including Total, CNOOC, Tullow and government agencies are regularly dialoguing with CSOs. Yet this doesn’t mean they halt their risky activities.

To court for compliance

A number of Ugandan CSOs, with the help of international allies Friends of the Earth France and Survie, therefore filed the international court case against Total. They hope that the court case against Total in France, where its head office is registered, can create a precedent. “We believe that legal actions create conditions for compliance through justice. Unlike Ugandan courts, the courts in countries such as France and other European countries are more independent to ensure that communities get justice. More so, through international lawsuits, the actions of the companies in poor countries like Uganda can be made public through media and other channels. This can make companies stop injustice against communities and environmental degradation due to public pressure.”

AFIEGO is convinced of the need for collaboration between and among national and international CSOs, national and international governments, and businesses. “Without collaboration the case in France would not have been filed, and companies and CSOs in Uganda wouldn’t be engaging regularly.”

Lessons learned

Because of their common agenda, the Ugandan CSOs got a lot more done on both a national and international level. Not only did they come up with a joint position on the Tilenga assessment and file national and international law suits, they also got media attention and wrote a letter to the presidents of DRC and Uganda requesting to stop oil activities in ecologically sensitive areas that are shared by both countries. This letter was signed by 21 Ugandan and Congolese CSOs and backed by 22 international organisations, including IUCN NL.

What can CSOs learn from AFIEGO’s story?

  • Collaboration between local CSOs and international CSOs is key to achieve much in terms of capacity to lobby and advocate. It enables local CSOs gain the necessary skills and resources to their work.
  • Working in a coalition enables CSOs to confront bigger tasks such as suing Total in France.
  • We need media attention at all levels of advocacy.
  • Sometimes international attention and action is the way to change things locally. And international collaboration benefits from a solid national coalition. Work together on all levels and across all levels: locally, nationally and internationally. Together you have more knowledge, more resources, more power, a larger network, and a larger audience too.
  • Legal action can be used to attract media attention and create pressure on governments and companies to stop activities that degrade the environment and livelihoods.
  • Working together means you’ll have to compromise and try approaches you’re not used to. But keep your shared objective in mind. It’s crucial for achieving success.
  • Negotiation, formulation and proposition are an art which most local CSOs still lack. Experts can be useful in building the capacity of CSOs to strengthen their lobby and advocacy efforts.

Lessons on business engagement for nature conservation

This article is part of the series Lessons on business engagement for nature conservation.

View all lessons on business engagement

We are also interested in hearing your experiences of how companies, civil society organisations and governments can work towards joint solutions.

Share your experience in the comments below

How’s your relationship with the CSOs in your country? Do you work together? How did you formulate a common agenda to engage with companies or governments? And how do collaborations with international partners work for you? Share your experiences!

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More articles by: Romie Goedicke