Uganda Today: The Curse Of Palm Tree Plantation In Uganda, Not All That Glitters Is Gold
By Oweyegha Afunaduula
6th December 2023
In 2012, while officer in charge of Research at National Association of Professional Environment (NAPE), I was directed by the Executive Director of the environmental organisation, Mr. Frank Muramuzi, to lead a team to carry out research on the proposed oil palm growing project throughout Uganda.
I embarked on the exercise. I started by reading about the enterprise. What struck me was that the NRM government, the International Foundation for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank were working together by 2002 to see that the whole of Northern Uganda and three quarters of Eastern Uganda are turned into extensive plantations of the false tree, oil palm. Indeed, that year IFAD produced a report in which there was a map of Uganda showing that all the islands of Lake Victoria, the whole of Northern Uganda three quarters of Eastern Uganda would be converted into Oil Palm territory.
Clearly Western Uganda would be spared from the enterprise. I thought that the reason was that the cattle grazing corridor lies in that region. However, by 2012, the region was already known to be oil rich and government was already talking of beginning to exploit it. Cattle grazing and oil mining are diametrically toppled to oil palm growing. They all require very extensive expanses of land. Besides they are all allergic to other land resource uses, including human settlements. For example, where you have oil mining you have to forego human settlements, food growing, forestry and fisheries in lakes and rivers due to land uptake and pollution.
Meanwhile the life-threatening activities of oil mining and oil palm growing are being pursued, our politicians that should be asking questions are either immersed in personal pursuits of power, wealth and glory or are totally ignorant of what is going on. Even our intellectuals at our numerous university campuses who would be articulating and clarifying issues for society in the wake of these activities have coiled themselves in a conspiracy of silence.
I would not be writing this article if I did not see a picture of the Ambassador of Sweden to Uganda, a representative of IFAD in Uganda and the Executive Director of NAPE visiting Kalangala in connection with oil palm growing. The article accompanying the picture emphasised that the enterprise will be spread to other districts of Uganda. By other districts we should understand it to mean districts of the whole of Northern Uganda and three quarters of Eastern Uganda.
Because I relocated to Busoga I did not know or was not aware that 17 years later government, IFAD and World Bank were determined to turn Northern Uganda and Eastern Uganda into oil palm territory. But as soon as I saw NAPE Executive Director, IFAD and the Swedish envoy together, I started to research and get to understand what was going on.
I read New Vision of July 24th 2017 and found NAPE was expressing concern that extending oil palm growing to the other islands of Kalangala would destroy the fragile ecosystems and biodiversity of the district. NAPE could have added that it would also destroy the integrity and productivity of Lake Victoria, and undermine environmental, climate and food sustainability in the district and beyond. Besides people would be force to move and become internal refugees, with serious sociopolitical consequences.
Then I read The Observer of March 24, 2018. Although not surprising, I read that government was in advanced discussions with IFAD to extend oil palm project to other districts. Of course, I understood this to mean Northern Uganda and Eastern Uganda.
What perturbs my mind is that despite the potential of the project to disrupt our environmental, Climate and food sustainability over a large part of Uganda, and produce millions of internal refugees, let alone generate long-term human exploitation, poverty, suffering of people with no more foothold on land, silence reigns as more and more politicking goes on about who should or should not rule Uganda. Who will rule a country full of internal refugees and social chaos and succeed?
Busoga seems to have been prepared well for embracing oil palm growing. Most of the sub-region’s land has been converted to sugarcane growing. People have cut most of their trees to establish sugarcane plantations. They no longer want to grow coffee. There is every likelihood that prices of sugarcane will fall meteorically, leading to further poverty. The sub-region is now the second poorest in Uganda, although in the 1960s it was rich enough to compete with Buganda.
When the sugarcane growing collapses and leaves only the historical sugarcane farmer, Madhivan, in business government is likely to swing in and convince former sugarcane farmers to turn to oil palm farming. BiIDCO, the oil firm with nearly 10,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Kalangala, already has its headquarters in Busoga. Like it has done in Kalangala, impoverishing many who were lured to establish oil palm plantations on their land, it will extend loans to them. But like those in Kalangala who fell on the bait, many of them will fail to pay the loans back and will lose their land to BIDCO. Another problem they are likely to face is lack of human labour. Oil palm growing is heavily labour intensive. Many elderly men in Kalangala, who thought when they established oil palm plantations, their grown-up children would provide the necessary labour, were shocked when their children decided to leave the island of Bugala for other activities. Some decided to stay on the island but engage in fishing, among other things. Failure to harvest and pay loans back has meant they are vulnerable to BIDCO. They are or are likely to lose their land to BIDCO.
In summary the government of Uganda and IFAD, most likely with the backing of World Bank, want to establish oil palm growing over the whole of Northern Uganda and most of Eastern Uganda. Virtually all Ugandans are unaware of this creeping thief that will take all the land, destroy all the trees, interfere with the water cycle, displace them from their land and turn them into internal refugees and a cheap labour force that can be easily hired and fired. The leaders in the two regions must wake up. They too will be victims of the gigantic land grabbing.