Strength in Numbers: A Ugandan Community’s Struggle to Keep Their Land

Pascal Wana and his wife, Betty Kusemererwa seated outside their home in Rwamutonga, Uganda. The couple and their children were one of 250 families violently evicted from their land by Ugandan security forces in August 2014. Pascal’s vision was irreparably damaged during the eviction. Photo by Robert Mentov

December 14, 2018
By Carolyn Ziv, Fund Staff

Pascal Wana wasn’t always blind. Five years ago, his eyes worked perfectly fine. He could see his wife’s face, watch his children play, and gaze at the rows of crops he had planted on his land.

Five years ago, Pascal could see the world. Then, one morning in August 2014, that world was taken away.

“It was six a.m., when [Ugandan security forces] came with guns and started beating people and burning things [in our village],” recalled Pascal’s wife, Betty Kusemererwa. “I grabbed the children and ran, taking refuge on some nearby land. We waited for Pascal all day, but he never showed up.”

The next day, friends of the family found Pascal lying unconscious in the bush near their hut. “He was beaten beyond repair. His eyes were swollen and he couldn’t see.”

Betty and Pascal were one of 250 families chased from their homes in Rwamutonga, a village in oil-rich western Uganda. They later learned that the eviction was linked to a proposed lease of their land to a largely foreign-owned corporation looking to construct an oil-waste treatment plant in the area.

An impoverished community with no political connections, the villagers’ story could have ended there. But thanks to the activists at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)—an environmental justice organization supported by the Fund—it was just beginning.

Pascal Wana pictured outside his home in Rwamutonga, Uganda. Photo by Robert Mentov

 

Community Green Radio – Amplifying local voices in Hoima

Founded in 1997, NAPE promotes sustainable solutions to Uganda’s economic and environmental challenges. Since the discovery of oil in Hoima—the district where Rwamutonga is located—much of their work has focused on mitigating the negative impact of oil-exploitation on local communities. NAPE reaches many of these villages through their local radio station, Community Green Radio.

Launched in 2014, Community Green Radio broadcasts educational programs about land rights and sustainable farming techniques, news about mega-development projects, and stories from communities grappling with related issues. Their goal is to help Hoima residents improve their food security, protect their rights, and pressure authorities when their rights are violated.

“As a community radio, we need to fight injustice,” said Precious Naturinda, an assistant editor for the station. “We are there for the communities and bring the real stories from their voices.”

Precious Naturinda and her colleague, Dorcus Drijaru, on air in Community Green Radio’s studio in Hoima, Uganda. Precious and Dorcus work as journalists for the local radio station, which is owned and operated by environmental justice organization and Fund grantee, the National Association for Professional Environmentalists. Photo by Robert Mentov

 

This dedication led Precious and her colleague, Robert Katemburura, to a makeshift camp where the displaced Rwamutonga villagers had settled in mid-August 2014. It was just a few days after the families had been flushed out of their homes, and tensions were running high.

“The people were angry. We were told we should not go there, that they would not accept us,” said Precious. “At first, I was scared. I thought, ‘These people are going to kill us,’ because whenever they saw a new face they thought it was the government.”

After explaining who they were and where they came from, the community’s chairman agreed to talk to Precious and Robert. They then interviewed multiple villagers and broadcast the story, becoming the first news outlet to get their side of things.

“We went on air on the first of August 2014, so this was our first serious story. Other journalists asked how we got it, because they weren’t able to access the people. But we were.”

Precious from Community Green Radio interviews the chairman of the Rwamutonga community. She and her colleague were the first journalists to visit the community after they were violently evicted from their land in August 2014. Their ongoing coverage and support has helped the villagers return to their land, though the community’s situation remains precarious. Photo by Robert Mentov

 

An underhanded deal

Precious and her colleagues continued to visit the displaced families in the weeks and months that followed, reporting on the abysmal conditions in the camp, which was plagued by hunger and disease.

“Children were dying of cholera and other illnesses. Parents couldn’t put food on the table because they were displaced from their farms. It was heartbreaking,” said Precious.

During their interviews, the journalists learned that the wheels for the eviction had been set in motion in 2013. An energy company was looking to establish an oil-waste treatment plant in the area. Its owners struck a deal with two Ugandan businessmen, who agreed to enter into long-term leases with the company to facilitate the construction of the plant. The only problem was the deal included land already occupied by Pascal, Betty, and their neighbors, who were neither consulted during, nor consented to the arrangement.


Rwamutonga community members gather to greet Fund staff during a visit last April. With the help of Fund grantee NAPE, the community was able to return to their land after being violently evicted in 2014. Photo by Robert Mentov

 

To make matters worse, the businessmen had been granted titles to parcels of land that included territory on which the community resided. The businessmen presented the titles to a local court, which ordered an eviction notice. Then, a security team composed of the army and police forcibly expelled Pascal, Betty, and their neighbors.

Precious and her team diligently reported on this and the other violations that ensued, bringing national and global attention to the situation in Rwamutonga.


One major hurdle cleared, another to come

Community Green Radio’s reporting prompted several Ugandan civil society organizations to reach out to help the Rwamutonga villagers. One organization, Civic Response on Environment and Development (CFRED) Uganda, helped them file a case with the local high court, which in 2015 ruled that the villagers’ eviction from land claimed by one businessman was illegal. That businessman later signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the community, in which he relinquished his claim to their territory. Pascal, Betty, and the other families returned there in 2017.

The court ruling and MoU were enormous victories for the Rwamutonga villagers; but they were not the end of the saga. The legality of the community’s eviction from land held by the second businessman has yet to be decided in court—and unlike his counterpart, he is not relinquishing his claim.

Meanwhile, the community has filed a case to declare null and void both land titles awarded to the businessmen, on the basis that their customary land rights had been ignored. However, this case is still pending, which leaves the villagers’ legal claim in question.

Betty Kusemererwa proudly shows Fund staff the lush land her community was able to reclaim with NAPE’s help. Photo by Robert Mentov

 

“This land is ours, we will not give up on it.”

Despite the obstacles, Rwamutonga community members aren’t giving up the fight for their land—and NAPE and Community Green Radio aren’t giving up on them, either.

“Whatever happens, they call us,” said Precious. “When we put their stories on the air, the harassment dies down for a couple weeks. Then it ramps up again, and we publish more stories.”

This support has been critical to the community members’ ability to stand strong as powerful actors continue to try to grab their land.

“If Community Green Radio had not been there, we wouldn’t have been heard,” said Betty. “We want Community Green Radio to continue amplifying our voices so we can be heard.”

Pascal is also grateful for the role Community Green Radio has played, though he feels his own fate is grim. “The future is bleak now that I have lost my sight. I have nothing at all to defend the family with. I cannot even farm to get money.”

Despite his struggles, Pascal remains determined to keep his land. “This land is ours, we will not give up on it.”

It is this resilience that inspires Precious, who says the community’s strength lies in their solidarity. “What makes them strong is they are one.”

The Rwamutonga villagers’ story is a testament to the power of ordinary people, banded together and supported by allies like NAPE, to push back on abusive forces and drive change. It is a power the Fund has long sought to build in the regions where we operate, because we know the future of the human rights movement lies in local activists like Precious, Robert, and their colleagues at NAPE.

Pascal Wana and his three-year-old son, Kajura, outside Pascal’s home in Rwamutonga, Uganda. Despite losing his sight in a vicious beating by Ugandan security forces seeking to push him from his property, Pascal refuses to leave his land. Photo by Robert Mentov