A year after six environmental organizations from France and Uganda sued oil and gas giant Total for human rights abuses and environmental damage in connection with massive projects in Uganda and Tanzania, the results of the first hearing on the case are expected tomorrow. Meanwhile, a new report says the situation on the ground, especially in Uganda, has deteriorated further.
Headquartered in Paris, Total is one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies with assets worth more than $200 billion. The top fuel retailer in Uganda, it backs the Tilenga Project, a proposed extraction operation running though pristine lands in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park. Under the Tilenga Project, Total plans to drill more than 400 oil wells and produce some 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The company is also an investor in the $3.5 billion electrically heated, East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline which stretches some 900 miles from western Uganda and across neighboring Tanzania, bringing oil to the Indian Ocean for export.
Green campaigners say Total’s megaprojects in Uganda and Tanzania have resulted in human rights abuses and could cause irreparable environmental damage. Last year, activists took the company to court under the French Duty of Vigilance law, which seeks to regulate the actions of domestic corporations abroad. Campaigners specifically accuse the energy giant of failing to create a proper vigilance plan for its activities in Uganda, as required by law, leading to a slew of abuses there.
But the case has been stalled after the first hearing, which took place in December 2019 in a packed Paris courtroom. In January this year, judges redirected the case to a commercial tribunal, saying they did not have the jurisdiction to rule on it. Fearing the commercial court would quickly tilt in favor of Total, activists appealed the decision. A hearing scheduled for June was pushed back to late October amidst coronavirus concerns.
The allegations against Total are staggering. According to a new report released in October by Friends of Earth France and Survie, two of the French plaintiffs in the case, at least 31,000 people stand to be displaced by the Tilenga project. Ten of thousands more people will be impacted by the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, known as EACOP, which too will traverse the famed national park on its way to Tanzania.
Many villagers in the areas cordoned off for these projects have been waiting for more than a year to be paid for their land or moved to new homes, and little progress has been made since Earth Island Journal last reported on the case in January. Meanwhile, idle farmers, barred from freely accessing their own property based on regulations set by Total, cannot grow the cash crops that once provided them with a meager income, or even mend the cracks in their homes.
Families say they now struggle pay school fees and children may have to leave class as a result. Others are simply unsure of how to put food on the table.
With tensions over oil development running high, Ugandans interviewed via telephone by Earth Island Journal asked to remain anonymous, citing safety concerns. One man, who helped conduct research for the Friends of the Earth and Survie report, likens current woes to what his community experienced when they lost their homes to make way for an oil refinery in the western district of Hoima in 2012.
“We kept waiting, and while waiting we had already lost income,” he says. “I am seeing the same with these people now.”
The one thing that has not slowed during this intervening time, however, is oil development, itself. As farmers awaited compensation and activists awaited their day in court, Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné traveled to Uganda in September to sign a host country agreement with President Yoweri Museveni for the EACOP. A few days later, Museveni traveled to meet his Tanzanian counterpart, John Magufuli, officially signing their own deal to build the same pipeline. A final investment decision, financing the project, is expected in the coming months and construction is set to begin in 2021.
In addition to human rights concerns, drilling from the Tilenga project could damage the biodiverse environment of Murchison Falls National Park, a habitat for elephants, hippos, lions and hundreds of bird species. The EACOP will wind through protected wetlands, lesser known nature reserves, and encroach on Bugoma forest, home to numerous chimpanzees.
Despite these concerns, just last week Uganda’s state run National Environmental Management Authority said in a statement that it has issued a certificate of approval for an environmental and social impact assessment submitted by Total for the EACOP. Tanzania has already given the project its stamp of approval.
Activists attempting to raise awareness about the human and climate-related costs of oil projects say they are being intimidated and threatened in Uganda. Jealousy Mugisha, one the witnesses who testified against Total in France last year, was detained for hours upon his return to Uganda’s Entebbe airport. Another witness, Fred Mwesigwa, reported that unidentified men attempted to break into his home. And this summer 10 people were arrested at a meeting about the EACOP, hosted by the NGO Global Rights Alert.
“My security in most cases is not safe” said one human rights defender, describing frightening telephone conversations during which anonymous callers threatened him saying his advocacy work would land will him trouble.
It’s unclear exactly who is behind these threats. According to an internal investigation by Total, neither its direct employees nor its subcontractors, helping to implement the project in Uganda, were responsible for intimidating witnesses last year. But according to the International Federation for Human Rights, which has also probed abuses related to oil development in Uganda and Tanzania, all of the details of Total’s investigation remain private and cannot be verified.
Total did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
All eyes in Uganda are currently on the country’s upcoming national elections early next year, where 38-year-old popstar-turned-opposition-leader Bobi Wine, born Robert Kyagulanyi, will vie to unseat 76-year-old Museveni, who has ruled the country for 34 years.
The impending election has led to increasingly brutal clampdown on dissent by a government already accused of silencing critics and censoring journalists. At least 54 opposition supporters were killed during clashes with police over the course of just a few days last month, following Wine’s arrest at a campaign rally. Focus on the election will likely divert attention from the oil-region and the needs of its residents.
Which is why the lawsuit in France provides a glimmer of hope for people suffering as a result of oil development, despite the fact that the courtroom itself is hundreds of miles away. By bringing the grievances of communities to the court in France and challenging Total on the international stage, environmental organizations are “targeting the parent company of the transnational corporation i.e., the entity that is taking the decisions that affect [people’s] fate [in the project areas],” said Juliette Renaud, a senior campaigner with Friends of the Earth France.
Judges in France will rule first on the issue of jurisdiction, deciding whether or not a commercial court should handle the case. Given the urgency of the situation in Uganda, environmental groups have also asked the appeals court to consider the merits of the case itself. For now, any outcome will result in another hearing, before a final verdict is delivered. Campaigners ultimately hope French courts will put a stop to ongoing violations, and force Total to take clear steps to prevent future human rights abuses, and environmental destruction.
The results of the appeal are expected on December 10.
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