In December 2011 The Future in Our Hands visited Uganda and one of the tree-planting projects of the Norwegian company Green Resources. Inside the plantation we met the indigenous population, who told us that the tree planting led to food shortage. They said that they live in fear of being removed from their homes.
Green Resources’ plantation is located in a national forest reserve. The local population therefore has no legal rights to the land and few possibilities for demanding to have their living conditions improved. Consequently, they are described as “squatters” and “occupants” by both the authorities and the company. Such situations can also be found in forest and nature reserves other places in Uganda, Esther Obaikol in the organisation Uganda Land Alliance told The Future in Our Hands:
"A liberalisation of the Ugandan forest sector has taken place, and the authorities have opened for private investments in protected areas,” Obaikol explained. The problem is that there are people living in most of reserves, and the authorities often neglect them when they see a possibility to make money on the reserves by leasing them to private companies.
“The authorities claim that, according to the present legal system, the people are intruders and must be removed, even though they have lived in the reserve for many years. This often happens without the people being offered compensation or new areas to move to,” Obaikol stated.
Unfortunately, it seems that many of the investors themselves assume little responsibility. They hide behind the weak national legal system and blame the authorities. That is unacceptable, Esther Obaikol claimed:
“The companies have obligations independent of weaknesses in the national legal system. There are international standards that the companies should comply with,” she told The Future in Our Hands.
Protection for Whom?
Uganda has experienced a considerable population increase during the past 50 years. In 1960 approximately 9.5 million people lived in the country; today the number is 34.4 million. The pressure on the land, water and forests has increased dramatically. The authorities’ response to the challenge has been to protect constantly increasing areas. Altogether 500 forest reserves have been established, which are all administered by the national forest authorities (NFA). Few of the reserves are deserted. More than 130 000 Ugandans have their homes within what is legally considered protected areas. This is a source of many conflicts, and often the conflicts come to a head when private actors enter the picture. There are several examples of this.
In the nineties the Ugandan authorities rented out 20 000 hectares of land in Mount Elgon national park to the Dutch organisation Forest Absorbing Carbon Dioxide Emissions (FACE).
The park, which is located on the border to Kenya, had been badly damaged by deforestation, and FACE presented an attractive offer to pay for forest planting in return for the right to sell environmental quotas from the carbon in the new forest. Tens of thousands of people living in the area were ordered to move. Armed guards and soldiers from the Ugandan army were brought in, in order to remove with force those who refused to leave. Thousands of people lost their homes. Many were exposed to violence and abuse.
A similar eviction occurred last year in two different forest reserves in Uganda. According to the international organisation Oxfam, more than 20 000 people were expelled when the British firm New Forests Company (NFC) established eucalyptus plantations in the reserves. According to Oxfam, the indigenous population was not consulted; they received no compensation and were not offered new land.
By the Company’s Grace
The population of Bukaleba has not been evicted, but they have no rights to the land on which they live. Consequently, they are designated as “illegal intruders” by both the authorities and the company.
“Bukaleba Central Forest Reserve is a protected area that is reserved for forest and in which it is prohibited to cultivate the soil,” Green Resources director Mads Asprem wrote in an email to the Future in our hands.
Forest Stewardship (FSC), a global certification agreement for ensuring socially and environmentally responsible forestry, also denies that the indigenous population of Bukaleba has any rights. In the certification report for the Bukaleba project FSC wrote as follows in the item “The indigenous population’s rights”: “None of the indigenous people had any legal or customary right before the lease agreement was established, and occupants found on the land all knew they were there illegally”.
The conclusion worries Esther Obaikol of Uganda Land Alliance:
“The people who live in these areas are always described as illegal intruders because the area is a forest reserve. But whether one calls them intruders or not, they live in the area and have been there since the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the children were born there,” she said and added,
“We believe the burden of proof lies with the authorities, not with the people who live there. If the indigenous population claims that they have lived there since 1960, it is up to the authorities to prove that they are illegal.”
Uganda Land Alliance now hopes that the voluntary guidelines for land ownership, which the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is in the process of drawing up, will also provide regulations for the Ugandan authorities. The guidelines contain a series of principles that the authorities and investors must take into account and should, among other things, ensure that investments take people’s rights into consideration.
“We hope that investments will be more just in the future. We shall do what we can to put more pressure on the authorities and companies to make investments in a responsible manner.”