With 86.7% of Ugandans living in rural areas and primarily relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, the increasing frequency of large-scale acquisitions of land is threatening the lives of many. Residents are often evicted from the ground on which they rely for food and revenue without sufficient compensation, and their complaints typically fall on deaf ears.
For many, the effects are also not just economic but an issue of identity as, for example, customary systems promote the ownership of land at a communal level and create community cohesion.
Land in Uganda is constitutionally protected, which should ensure the defence of peoples' land and adequate compensation for any land lost. This is bolstered by the 1965 Land Acquisition Act and the 1998 Land Act. But despite these provisions, many people still suffer from forced displacement, inadequate compensation and uncertainty around land acquisition procedures.
Although these so-called ‘land grabs’ violate national laws and international investment standards, the practice seems to have been increasing in Uganda and worldwide over the last decade, with at least 203 million hectares globally changing hands in around 2,000 mainly secretive land deals.
Why do such land disputes arise in the first place? External actors often need large swathes of land for development projects such as dams, plantations and infrastructure. It is also sometimes claimed that foreign governments aiming to secure their own food supplies and companies aiming to profit from growing biofuels are driving this trend, each aiming to gain a share of increasingly scarce land resources.
Some project stakeholders are brazenly unapologetic towards local populations and feel that laws protecting them have gone too far. Responding to criticisms of the Bujagali Interconnection Project of constructing high-voltage transmission lines, Projects Implementation Manager Makuba Dennis claimed: “The 1998 land law seems to have given land owners a lot of rights on their land and as a result they are coming out with all kinds of complications to make a fortune overnight.”
Indeed, it is not uncommon for corporations to downplay or dismiss the difficulties faced by displaced populations though they are very real.
The Bujagali Interconnection Project, completed in 2012 and costing $230 million came under threat over issues of compensation with those displaced. In one incident, workers were chased away by angry villagers claiming that work was being started before adequate compensation had been provided. The relocation plans were deemed inadequate, and former inhabitants complained of being treated like refugees and being moved to poor quality housing in remote rural areas, without running water or electricity.
Another common concern among communities is a lack of consultation over proposed projects. Such grievances have been levelled at the Kalangala oil palm project, a programme initiated by the Ugandan government. In this instance, there were claims of human rights violations and violations of the land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Yet the comparative bargaining power of uprooted locals against governments and corporations is weak. Displaced communities are often helpless against the will of the government or large organisations, including the World Bank, and reports have emerged of protestors being subject to beatings. All too often, it is the most vulnerable of populations that are exploited in the process of large-scale land acquisitions.
This was shown in Uganda’s largest and most modern coffee farm – the Kaweri Coffee Plantation in Mubende district. In this case, the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe (NKG) was accused of unlawfully evicting farmers from their land. Over 2,000 people were said to have been forcibly evicted and denied adequate compensation.
Similarly, an upcoming hydropower project in Kiryadongo district will affect 414 families. In this instance, the controversial project was threatened when 300 locals refused to vacate their land, claiming that compensation was only covering the loss of crops rather than the loss of land.
The contentious nature of land acquisition is brought into sharp focus by the large proportion of the Ugandan population living in rural areas, and the dependence on agriculture for the maintenance of livelihoods. Ultimately, human rights at stake in favour of economic growth – economic growth that comes at the immediate expense of the population.
Development and large-scale infrastructure projects have the potential to benefit both the economy and the people of Uganda, but it is clear that more transparency and consultation are needed in order to minimise the plight of local populations. The land rights of citizens are recognised in various mechanisms, but at present, a disparity remains between policy and practice. In May this year, the Ugandan government scolded Oxfam and a group of 60 NGOs for "inciting violence" over alleged land-grabbing, asking them to apologise or risk eviction.
Compromising the land rights of individuals and communities by forced displacement and inadequate compensation has the potential to undermine the real benefits that investment could bring to the country.
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