An Oil Boom Comes to Town and a Community Arms itself with Knowledge

By John Mwebe

John Mwebe, International Accountability Project, speaks with participants at a training in Hoima, Uganda

Entering the town of Hoima in western Uganda, it is difficult to ignore the immense transformations that have taken place in the past five years. A booming business sector has dramatically re-drawn the landscape of this once remote and agrarian town. New apartment buildings, hotels, and offices have sprung up to meet the needs of a growing population of workers and visitors. The source of Hoima’s newfound prominence is no secret. After the discovery of crude reserves of close to 6.5 billion barrels in nearby Lake Albert, Hoima has quickly become the center of oil exploration activities in Uganda.

As I drive through town, I see billboard after billboard advertising various companies and corporations engaged in the oil industry. However, I notice one unexpected theme emerging. Many of the services advertised exclusively relate to advocacy, dispute resolution and litigation — a sign that the oil-fueled boom may be negatively impacting communities.

This is perhaps inevitable. In my experience, communities and companies in the extractive sector have widely divergent interests that are bound to lead to disagreements. But it is also true that members of the public have limited access to knowledge on how to effectively hold companies to account for harmful actions. We urgently need processes to address disputes when the occur so conflicting interests may be reconciled, mediation between parties may occur or a court process may be initiated. For now, civil society organizations in Hoima are stepping up to support communities to claim their rights in the face of harm caused by companies or even the government.

Who Really Funds Projects?

Local communities are not always aware which institutions and companies are financing the projects that affect them. Even if they know the identity of financiers, very little information is publicly available for communities seeking remedy or dispute resolution when project activities cause harm. To address this information gap, International Accountability Project partnered with BIRUDO, a civil society organization working in the Albertine Region, to organize a workshop on how development projects are financed. Mr. Payolel Onencan, Executive Director of BIRUDO spoke about the urgent need to organize such a training, “We have no knowledge about how to reach out to financiers of projects, especially to prevail upon companies and governments whenever harm is caused or rights are violated. This training will be the first of its kind to enhance the capacity of BIRUDO and partners in this region to understand how financing for development projects happens.”

The two day training included 22 participants from civil society organizations in the region, including those from grassroots networks like the Albertine Land Platform and Buliisa District Environment and Natural Resource Coalition. The training was supported by the Global Greengrants Fund and the Coalition on Human Rights in Development. The objective of the training was to strengthen civil society organizations in their monitoring and management of environmental and biodiversity impacts stemming from oil and gas development activities in the in Albertine region, particularly in Buliisa, Hoima, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kagadi and Kibaale districts in Uganda.

I hosted a session on the policies and practices of international financial institutions and how communities can engage them through community-led research. Communities can also gain leverage when they engage more with companies and financiers to attain comprehensive and accessible information about projects. I spoke about initiatives like the Early Warning System, through which organizations like BIRUDO can have access to timely information about proposed projects in the Albertine Region. In order to address community concerns early on and reduce incidence of harm, the Early Warning System could also provide information on grievance mechanisms for companies and development institutions financing the project.

To complement this section, Joseph Kibugu from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre gave an introduction to business and human rights and corporate accountability. During the course of the training, I realized that many organizations were focused on getting oil companies to respond to the demands of communities and /or advocating for government action in cases where these companies were violating people’s rights. This training provided them with alternative tools, skills and tactics to achieve their objectives.

After the training, two organizations, BIRUDO and Avocats Sans Frontieres (ASF) resolved to to engage with CNOOC Limited (a major Chinese oil company), to learn about its project level grievance mechanism and work with them to popularize it in the communities where the company operates. BIRUDO also resolved to train individual organization’s staff in using the tools provided by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre such as the human rights impact assessment, investment tracker, documentation checklist and investment mapping tool to monitor infrastructure developments such as road and waste management facilities that are impacting on affected communities.

As we build a movement around advocacy in development finance, this was my opportunity to work with local organizations to re-orient ourselves and build partnerships with national and regional organizations for greater impact. This forms the first step in strengthening existing coalitions on oil and gas in the region and realizing informed interactions with companies and government. This interaction relies on reliable access to project information to guide interventions, so communities can be supported in their efforts to protect their homes and environment.

John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.

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