Groundbreaking Lawsuit Targets Total’s Plan to Drill in Uganda

Case brought under new French vigilance law seeks to hold domestic companies accountable for their actions abroad.

A group of six French and Ugandan NGOs has banded together to challenge France’s largest company, Total. The plaintiffs have accused the oil giant, which operates in 130 countries across 5 continents, of human rights abuses and environmental damage in connection with massive drilling and pipeline projects in Uganda.

photo of Murchison Falls in Uganda
French oil company Total plans to drill more than 400 oil wells as part of an extraction project running through Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park (pictured). Photo by Rod Waddington .

This is the inaugural case under the French Duty of Vigilance Law. The groundbreaking legislation, passed in 2017, in response to a Bangladesh factory fire at killed scores of workers for major international brands several years prior, seeks to hold domestic companies accountable for their actions abroad. France was the first country to enact this sort of legislation.

“Total, here in France, has the duty to prevent human rights abuses from their own activities and the activities of their subsidiaries, subcontractors, and providers to prevent human rights violations,” Juliette Renaud, a senior campaigner on corporate accountability at Friends of the Earth France, told Earth Island Journal. The environmental advocacy group fought for the Duty of Vigilance Law, and is one of the organizations leading the suit against Total.

Uganda expects to begin producing oil by 2023. Its reserves are the fourth largest in sub-Saharan Africa, and have drawn the interest of multiple foreign companies, all competing for a stake in the anticipated boom. Ugandan oil activities have often stalled, however, due to tax disputes and disagreements between the government and its investors.

Total, which is also the top fuel retailer in Uganda, 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 French company is also an investor in a $3.5 billion electrically heated pipeline, known as the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline. It stretches some 897 miles across neighboring Tanzania to the Indian Ocean.

The six green groups involved in the lawsuit have accused Total of failing to provide a proper “vigilance plan” as required by the vigilance law, and thus failing to address the social and environmental impacts of its activities in Uganda. Some 5,000 people have already been displaced by the Tilenga Project, and thousands more stand to lose their homes as a result of Total’s oil development operations in the country. According to the plaintiffs, displaced families have not received proper compensation.

“The right to property affects all other human rights, be those the right to food, the right to security, or the right to development,” said Renaud. “All the testimonies speak of a period of starvation for these families, of the children being taken out of school because they didn’t have any money for schools fees, [and of] people not able to go to the hospital or afford medicine when they are ill.”

The plaintiffs also assert that community members were coerced into giving up their land without fair reimbursement due to fear of retaliation Total. “The majority of people signed because they were afraid,” Thomas Bart, a researcher with Survie, a French organization involved in the case, said.

Community members say they face threats and intimidation from Total and its subcontractors in Uganda. “I attempted in vain to return and farm my land, but Total stopped me,” Fred Mwesigwa, a displaced Ugandan farmer, said in testimony shared by Friends of the Earth. “I simply tried to defend my rights and fight for the survival of my family.”

The plaintiffs assert that Total’s operations in Uganda will have serious environmental and climate change impacts. The suit alleges that the Tilenga Project specifically stands to harm the biodiverse environment of Murchison Falls National Park and the surrounding area. The park is home to elephants, lions, giraffes, hippos, and water buffalo, as well as more than 400 different species of birds. “The animals and birds which have these habitats may migrate or even go extinct,” said Joan Akiiza, a legal officer for the National Association of Professional Environmentalists in Uganda, another group involved in the case.

Total’s activities are currently in the exploration phase, with oil drilling yet to begin, but the plaintiffs say these animals have already begun to leave the protected area due to the increase in noise and activity. “When we discuss with people that live around the park, they say that the animals, and especially the elephants, try to go away,” said Bart.

Total has denied the plaintiffs allegations. “Total’s Vigilance Plan clearly identifies the risks reflected in the organizations’ concerns. The plan identifies risks regarding human rights and local communities, access to land, the right to health and an adequate living standard, as well as the risks to safety and the environment posed by oil and gas reservoirs,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email to Earth Island Journal.

The oil giant and its challengers met in a packed Paris courtroom in December. The proceedings lasted hours, drawing the attention of activists, as well as politicians. The case has garnered significant interest. A petition circulated by Friends of the Earth, entitled ‘See You in Court Total,’ has gained some 14,000 signatures online.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the case, green campaign groups say that the two Ugandans who traveled to France to testify against Total, Fred Mwesigwa and Jelousy Mugisha, are in danger at home. Mugisha was arrested upon returning to the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, detained for nine hours, and questioned about his involvement in the suit against Total, according to Friends of the Earth. Unknown assailants attempted to break in to Mwesigwa’s home shortly after his return from France. “We are quite worried,” said Renaud. “The pressures seem to be increasing.”

As the first case tried under the Duty of Vigilance Law, the suit against Total could set a precedent for disputes to come. It is currently unclear exactly what the outcome will be. “We hope that the judge will order Total to change its vigilance plan and then that will order Total to take urgent measures to prevent new human rights violations in Uganda,” said Renaud.

Judgement on this case is expected on January 30, 2020.

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