Tens of thousands of Ugandan farmers have lost access to their fields to make way for a major oil project launched by French oil giant Total, which has paid no compensation for the fallout from its new pipeline plan, two environmental watchdogs said Tuesday.
Amis de la Terre France (Friends of the Earth) and Survie (Survival) were among six Ugandan and French NGOs that filed a lawsuit against Total in October 2019.
They accused the company of failing to respect "its legal obligations to prevent human rights violations and environmental damage in connection with its mega-project in Uganda and Tanzania".
This legal action is the first based on French law establishing a "duty of vigilance" for multinationals.
With its Tilenga project, Total intends to sink more than 400 wells linked by a network of pipelines, with an anticipated output of 200,000 barrels per day.
Of the total, 132 boreholes will be drilled in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park.
"There are now several tens of thousands who have been affected and who have begun to lose their means of subsistence: one of the main violations... arises from restrictions imposed on the communities regarding the use of their farming land, on which they depend to survive, and this comes well before they receive their compensation," the NGOs said.
"Total is also the main developer in the EACOP (East African Crude Oil Pipeline) project... a giant pipeline 1,445 kilometres (900 miles) long, which would be heated to 50°C (122°F) and carry oil extracted from the shores of Lake Albert in Uganda" to the northeast coast of Tanzania, Tuesday's report said.
"These two projects entail massive population displacements," according to the document called "A Nightmare Named Total", which is based on "a field study carried out between June and September".
Fears of famine
Residents voiced fears of famine.
"This pipeline project has done nothing but bring famine to our homes," a village mayor in Nabigasa county was quoted as saying. "Before we had enough food, but now we fight to feed our families because our land has been taken, and it has been nearly two years now that we have not been paid."
Many signed forms turning over their land after pressure and intimidation by Total and its subcontractors, Survie said in a statement.
"In 2019, we warned of a need for urgent measures to stop these violations being repeated on a large scale. What we feared has become a reality, affecting some 100,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania," said Juliette Renaud, campaign director for Amis de la Terre France.
The environmental lobbies are also worried about the ecological consequences of the oil projects, declaring that more than half the bird species and 39 percent of the mammalian animal population of the African continent are represented in the Lake Albert Basin.
"The past year has also been marked by the multiplication of threats, intimidation and persecution of community leaders, civil society organisations and journalists who mobilise and publicly denounce the negative impacts of oil development in Uganda," the report said.
Reacting to the report, Total told AFP that compensation payments had been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It said the project was suspended in September, causing delays, and that it was "currently discussing an interim payment system with the Ugandan authorities."
The project "was conceived with over-arching concern to minimise and attenuate the impacts on local communities," it said, adding that it had carried out awareness campaigns to inform communities of their rights.
"In no case was it prohibited to cultivate (lands) before their effective cession."
The delays in payments had "created uncertainty... but in no case famine," it said.