In a typical case of he said she said, Bidco has been thrown right at the centre of a fight between farmers with different perspectives of the company's business in Kalangala. And there appears to be no end to this fight, writes ALON MWESIGWA.
Two farmer groups in Kalangala district are fighting each other after one petitioned the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to cut ties with edible oil firm Bidco Africa.
Bugala Farmers Association (BFA), which claims to represent 100 farmers, petitioned UNDP to cut ties with Bidco after it accused the oil palm company of “grabbing their land, violating human rights and degrading the environment.”
The UNDP deals with Bidco through the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad), where the agency says it supports small-scale farmers to grow palms and sell to the firm.
In September, Bidco entered the Business Call to Action (BCtA), an alliance of several donors and other institutions that challenges companies to use their core business to engage poor populations. UNDP hosts the BCtA secretariat. Farmers say by associating with Bidco at that level, the UNDP is betraying the farmers being “oppressed.”
Now, another group calling itself the Kalangala Oil Palm Growers Association (KOPGA) has written a counter petition to the UNDP discrediting an earlier one by the BFA, saying the allegations made against Bidco were “false.” KOPGA says it represents 1,800 farmers.
Some observers, however, have seen this as a battle between NGOs on one side and the government of Uganda and Bidco on the other. The NGOs support BFA while Bidco is supporting the farmers that say they have benefited from the oil palm project.
KOPGA group chairman Martin Lugambwa says there is no official record of BFA anywhere and “the individuals associated with the organisation are not part of the project in any way at all.”
“We are proud to be a part of the project and the development it has brought to Bugala,” Lugambwa says in a statement. “Our farmers earn an average of Shs 600m a month from the sale of oil palm and this has the potential to reach Shs 1.5 billion per month when the plantations reach full maturity,” he adds.
The Bugala association has also hit back. In a statement issued on Thursday, the group dismissed KOPGA’s attempt to portray Bidco’s oil palm business as “clean.”
Last year, the Bugala farmers took Bidco to court in Masaka to reclaim 600 hectares of smallholder farms they say “the company seized to make way for its giant oil palm plantation”.
The farmers obtained an injunction against any further expansion of the plantation. However, they say Bidco refused to comply with court orders and shunned the hearings. Bidco Uganda’s office could not respond to our request for a comment.
But in a letter to banks, lawyers and international organisations last week, Bidco’s chief executive Vimal Shah said the land on which its plantation stands was properly acquired by the Ugandan government.
“The government of Uganda is responsible for all land transactions,” said the company as quoted in Kenya’s Business Daily.
“Bidco is not a party to any land transaction. All stakeholders were involved in the land acquisition process and the transactions were on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis. There was no compulsory acquisition of land.”
Shah described the dispute as “a small group of residents that is exaggerated and misrepresented.” He said the case was in court and “we will abide by the court decision.”
Shah added that there was a lot of obsession with the oil plam project in Uganda.
“It’s a massive investment that is improving livelihoods and bringing development to the society. We have 1,800 registered farmers earning from the project.”
“We are also generating power and building roads. You cannot make up things like this; anyone is welcome to go visit the project.”
In Uganda, Bidco has about 7,500 hectares of oil palm, planted since 2002. The firm says its investment in the oil project in Uganda has crossed the $150m mark.
According to Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, in 2010 and 2011 an internal evaluation of the first phase of the project recommended its continuation which would involve acquiring more land.
On its website, Bidco Uganda says it seeks more land for palm trees but the Uganda government is yet to fulfil its pledge of offering a total of 10,000 hectares of land to expand in Ssese island.
The firm produces 700,000 tonnes of edible oil from its plants in the four East African countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, according to media reports. In a statement on Thursday, UNDP confirmed it had received a petition from the BFA related to its association with Bidco Africa Ltd.
“This request is currently being reviewed for eligibility for either or both channels,” UNDP said.