By Harald Eraker
"We were born here, have had children here and worked the land here. We don't want to leave our homes," says one of the women in the village of Lukongo.
She and some 50 other villagers have met at the assembly hall to discuss the news that plans say about 70 families have to leave to make way for the Equator Line Centre tourist centre. As the name suggests, the project will be placed where the main road from Kampala crosses the equator on its way south towards Tanzania.
The mastermind behind the project is company adviser Rino Solberg, who, together with investors such as consul general Alf R. Bjerke and shipowner Ove Høegh owns 50% of the company. The rest is owned by Ugandan interests.
Solberg says some 250,000 tourists pass by every year. A few years ago he told the business paper Dagens Næringsliv that "if I can sell something to each and every one of them, it would be a lucrative business." The plan is to build a hotel, a golf course, a restaurant, a conference centre, a crocodile park and tennis courts, the latter with the net placed along the equator so that the ball can go back and forth between the northern and southern hemisphere.
The first construction phase was to have started in the summer two years ago, but so far, only a several hundred metres' long wall has been put up along the main road.
"Many people want to enrich themselves at our expense. We built the wall to prevent one of the high-and-mighties from Kampala from starting activities in the area. Like many others, he tried to get personal gain out of our project, by building a restaurant and then demand compensation because it would have to be torn down to make way for the project. But we went to court, and stopped him. The wall will eventually be replaced by a nicer-looking fence that we will build around the area, which totals 230 acres, says Solberg.
Little has happened to the development plans since then. But Solberg tells NorWatch that the feasibility study for the project is now completed, and that the Norwegian consultants Norplan are in the middle of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process.
"We expect to start construction after New Years'," he says.
Construction will start on a 30-acre plot close to the main road, the first one the company bought. Fifteen families from the village of Kikutuzi-Kalagata had to move out as early as 1997-98. According to the chairman of the village council, Kasule Mathias, the families were paid compensation, have moved, and are content.
NorWatch was not able to meet with any of these fifteen families. Villagers in Lukongo, a village situated deeper into the company's area, had an entirely different version.
"My sister was one of those who had to move. She bought a place to stay in town. But she has a hard life now, because she no longer has any land to work", says 65-year-old Clement William Waswa.
It was news to Waswa that he is among those who have to move to make way for the tourist project. Waswa has only heard rumours about the project, and hardly knows what it's all about. He denies ever having received any direct information from the company.
"We have a good life here. We grow food and coffee and can keep alive. I am worried about having to move," says Waswa, who has 13 children and has lived in Lukongo since 1962.
Kasule Mathias and others took NorWatch around the area to show where the borders of the tourist project are. They told us that 70 families will lose their homes and lots of land.
- Move the project
During the meeting at the Lukongo assembly hall, it emerged that no-one had heard more than rumours about the tourist project, and that no-one thought they would have to move. The exception is one of the men, who shows NorWatch a business card he was given by Rino Solberg. He says he has known since 1997 that 70 families have to move.
This causes anger and a heated discussion among the others attending.
"We don't like Solberg's project, we don't want to move. Eight to ten kilometres from here there is a swampland owned by the government. Solberg can build his project there," several villagers suggest.
They say that they've always been renting their lots from a land-owner, who has sold the lands to Equator Line Centre.
During the discussion, it eventually emerged that several villagers some years ago took part in a village meeting attended by the district's representative in the national assembly. What people recall from this meeting is promises that they would not have to move because of the tourist project.
"But the authorities are on Solberg's side," one of them says in resignation.
Already got a job
The chairman of the Kikutuzi-Kalagata village council was not as negative to the Equator Line Centre.
"The project may give us opportunities to sell products such as fruit to the tourists, and create jobs both during construction and after operations have begun," says Kasule Mathias, who has already got a roadside souvenir shop and will not have to move because of the project himself.
There is a different mood among the people who have met at the Lukongo assembly hall.
"Why would we want jobs in the tourist project? We already have jobs, we are farmers," says one of the men.
Several people have heard rumours that construction will start next year.
"Nobody wants to move. But if we are forced to do so, we have no choice, even if we don't have alternative lands to go to, says 65-year-old Waswa.
Lies and tricks
Rino Solberg pulls no punches in his comments on the testimony NorWatch got from the locals.
"People will do anything and say anything the get more money from us. Uganda is incredible, there are no limits to the lies that are told, and people are looking for money all the time. I have worked in 20 different countries, but never experienced so many lies and tricks. They are not as honest as they look. Many of those you've talked to probably don't even live within our lands," he says.
Because of this, Solberg says, the company always has to double-check any information.
"When we were supposed to pay compensation for the loss of plants and fruit trees, for example, it turned out that people planted over again after they had been paid once, to get even more compensation," he explains.
According to Solberg, it is not 70 but 30-40 families that have to move, in addition to the 15 families that have already moved. It is a surprise to him that any of the latter are alleged to have problems in their new situation.
"It's a pity if they have not been able to get new lands to farm. But I can't understand that this is hard to find. Just look at the areas around our projects, it should not be difficult to get a new property there," Solberg says.
Even though Solberg has harsh words for the Ugandans, he claims that the company has a good reputation and treats the local people better than most. He says that Equator Line Centre will not only set aside money for building a school, they are also funding a children's organisation, and that he has personally trained people in the country's tourist trade, free of charge.
"The mayor of the Mpigi district, where our project is located, is also very positive to us," he says.
According to Solberg, the reason why the local people have not been informed about the project before is simply that the time was not yet ripe.
"We give information when it is relevant, and it is only now that things are starting to fall into place with construction starting at the beginning of next year. In connection with Norplan's work on the environmental impact assessment, for instance, we recently had a meeting with the local people," he says.
At the moment, there's a stop in Norplan's work. The reason is that the Equator Line Centre is trying to get another 20 acres of land, in which case the company's tourist project will occupy a total of 250 acres.
Equator Line Centre in Uganda
The company Equator Line Centre is a company registered in Uganda, 50% owned by Norwegian investors, including consul general Alf R. Bjercke, shipowner Ove Høegh and company adviser Rino Solberg. The rest is owned by Ugandan interests. The board is made up exclusively of Norwegians. The company plans to build a tourist center on the equator with a hotel, a golf course, a restaurant, a conference center, a crocodile park, and tennis courts.
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