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Mixed feelings reign in newest oil frontier

Anaka is a small, little-known l town in the recently created Nwoya district.

Though small, for the last one year it has been bustling with activity.

“We are receiving many visitors here these days,” says Stephen Oyat, a boda boda cyclist. Anaka, in spite of its size and population, is a town council, and it hosts Nwoya district local government.

Following the discovery of oil in the area, Oyat notes Anaka has been attracting people of all walks of life.

“We are even hosting Bazungu (whites),” he says.

Patrick Okello Oryem, Nwoya district chairman, concurs with Oyat that oil discovery in the district has triggered an influx of people, something that is boosting business in the area. Tangi camp that used to be a deserted area in Purungo sub-county is now an upcoming town of its own. Tangi is where Total E&P Uganda Limited has established a camp that houses their staff and contractors.

“Oil has helped our young people to get jobs, especially casual jobs in oil companies,” Oryem notes.

For an area that bore the brunt of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war, discovery of oil is expected to turn around its fortunes.

For instance, Oyat hopes that once production begins, fuel prices will drop.

“In time we are all going to benefit – there will be jobs, even for the unemployed,” he says with a beaming smile.

Oil discovery, Oryem says, has caused a lot of excitement but anxiety too.

“Communities believe oil will solve all their problems, which is a wild expectation,” he says.

According to Ahlem Friga-Noy, Total’s Corporate Affairs manager, more than 196 unskilled people have been recruited by the contractors here. In offering casual jobs, Total operates a ballot system to make sure that the selection process is fair and transparent. While applying this system, contractors recruit preferably in the areas directly impacted by the activities.

To apply, people have to fill a form which must be signed by three local leaders (LC-1 chairperson, woman and youth representatives).

“This is to ensure that people who participate in the ballot process are from those specific areas,” Ahlem explains.

Besides jobs, Total has also offered scholarships to four students to study A-level in top Kampala schools. Every year, the company will sponsor four students from the district, something which will, in the long run, benefit bright but needy students.

Launching the local sponsorship programme in March, Loic Laurendel, Total E&P Uganda general manager, said the company would continue supporting education.

Worried souls

Purungo sub-county hosts Murchison Falls national park, a neighbourhood people have lived with for generations without attacks from wild animals. However, the situation has changed in the last one year.

Francis Lakony Okumu, the sub-county chairman, notes that communities around the park now live under constant fear of attack from wild animals, especially elephants.

“They stray into people’s gardens and completely destroy crops, something that was rare,” Okumu says, pointing out that people are being displaced by animals.

Destruction of crops denies affected people their main source of livelihood. Residents, Okumu says, have resigned to their fate since killing elephants constitutes an offence, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority Act.

According to this law, once elephants stray into gardens, UWA should be informed so as to take the elephants back into the park. The most affected parishes include Padit, Papira and Latoro, all in Purungo sub-county.

The biggest puzzle for people here is why incidents of wildlife straying into people’s gardens have become common. Okumu suspects that elephants might be fleeing from oil exploration activities in the park, such as noise from the heavy vehicles and machinery, as well as associated vibrations.

“We don’t know what to do, my worry is the situation might get worse,” he notes.

Ghad Mugiri, Total’s environmental field officer, disagrees with Okumu’s assertion.

“When people left their areas during the LRA war for IDPs, the park extended to people’s land, so it is people who are encroaching on animals’ habitats,” Ghad explains.

Environmental concerns

Besides attacks from wild animals, Oryem says, oil waste management is another problem the community is facing.

“Oil waste is being thrown everywhere in the district, which is putting the lives of our people at risk,” he says.

Total, the main player here, contracts other small companies. Given that there is already a policy of no dumping in the park, some of these firms are instead dumping oil waste wherever they can find space.

For instance,  Okumu recalls how on June 2, 2013, Peal Engineering Company, one of such companies, dumped oil waste on someone’s land without consent in Padit East LC-I, Padit parish, Purungo sub-county.

“After we complained, they came and removed the waste and graded the area but children used to play in the waste before it was removed,” he narrates.

James Lutukwang, a resident of Padit East LC-I, says when people complain, the companies claim the waste is not toxic. Lutukwang believes dumping oil waste on people’s land is carelessness and a sign of impunity on the part of affected companies.

In another incident on June 20, 2013, liquid oil waste was also poured at Wiamono trading centre by Epsilon, another Total-contracted company. Irritated locals impounded one of the company’s vehicles in retaliation. The company later met with the locals and agreed to clear the waste.

Not toxic

Ahlem told The Observer that the Total contractor Pearl Engineering dumped an equivalent of five wheelborrows of murram and not oil waste on someone’s land without consent.

“The material that was dumped was not a waste but recycled murram used for construction of our pads, and is, therefore, not toxic,” Ahlem said in an e-mail response.

Total, she stressed, has taken corrective measures and the contractor’s driver responsible for the incident was dismissed.

“Although there is no suspicion of the murram being hazardous, Pearl Engineering committed, at the request of the community, to send eight children and three mothers to hospital for a medical checkup in Kampala. Pearl also committed to examine the sample of the soil in order to reassure the community of the absence of toxicity of the material,” said Ahlem. However, Okumu says results from the tests are yet to be released.

Ahlem explains that in the Epsilon incident, a small quantity of drilling waste was accidentally poured onto the tarmac road while in the process of transportation to the waste consolidation site at Tangi.

She stresses that Total has warned all its contractors on the need to ensure that standards are adhered to by its staff, contractors and sub-contractors. The company can’t compromise on environmental standards, Ahlem says.

Dumping history

Nwoya has suffered from waste dumping before. In 2009, Heritage Oil dumped waste in Purongo. The Observer has also learnt the ministry of Energy and Mineral Development has commissioned a study on this waste and the surrounding area where it was buried, to assess any evidence of contamination.

Despite these challenges, people here look forward to sharing in the benefits brought by oil exploration and production.

“The LRA war destroyed everything; so, we are banking our recovery hopes on oil,” Lutukwang notes.

Unfortunately, there is no clear sense of how they are going to benefit from a resource they call ‘theirs’, apart from doing casual jobs for oil companies.

Unlike Bunyoro, where local initiatives have been established to advance the locals’ interests, such as helping farmers to improve on the quantity and quality of their produce so as to sell to oil companies, such initiatives are missing in the Acholi sub-region.

Bunyoro has also remained steadfast in its demand for a share of the spoils but Acholi seems to lack clear leadership in this regard.


This Observer feature is published in partnership with Panos Eastern Africa, with funding from the European Union’s Media for Democratic Governance and Accountability Project.

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