On Saturday March 4, 2023, Mr. Elison Karuhanga published an article in the Saturday Monitor titled, Setback for poverty conservationists.
In the article, Mr. Karuhanga reacted to a ruling made by a French civil court in relation to a case that six Ugandan and French civil society organisations (CSOs) filed against TotalEnergies. The article was full of misinformation that we, the six organisations that filed the court case, would like to react.
The CSOs that filed the case include Africa Institute for Energy Governance, Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), National Association for Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) and Navigators of Development Association (NAVODA) from Uganda. Others include Friends of the Earth France and Survie from France.
The 2019 case, which was the first ever to be brought under France’s Duty of Vigilance law, was aimed at compelling TotalEnergies’ to elaborate and effectively implement adequate prevention and mitigation measures for its Tilenga and East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) projects in Uganda and Tanzania.
The French Corporate Duty of Vigilance law places an onus on large companies based in France to identify and prevent risks to human rights and the environment that could occur as a result of their own activities and the activities of their subsidiaries and main subcontractors and providers. The activities include those abroad.
Because TotalEnergies is headquartered in France, its activities in Uganda and Tanzania have to be conducted in compliance with the above law. Any lawsuit brought against a French company in relation to the above law also has to be filed in France.
Because we, the CSOs that filed the court case against TotalEnergies, averred that Total’s social and environmental prevention measures for its Tilenga and EACOP project activities were inadequate, we filed a court case against the company in France.
Unfortunately, on February 28, 2023, the Paris civil court – following a fast-track process – considered our claims inadmissible over procedural issues. However, the court did not rule on the main issue of the case, which is the inadequacy of Total’s measures to prevent human right violations and environmental harm associated with its Tilenga and EACOP projects.
Despite this, Mr. Karuhanga celebrated the judgment noting that we, the six CSOs, filed “wild allegations” against Total in court. He argued that long before TotalEnergies came to Uganda, the country conducted a Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) and put in place other plans to protect the environment from oil threats. Mr. Karuhanga also discussed the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) studies that were conducted for Total’s projects.
What Mr. Karuhanga forgot to tell his audience was that after reviews or studies by various experts including those from the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA), E-tech and Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) among others, the mitigation measures contained in the Tilenga and EACOP ESIA reports were found to be either inadequate or the information therein misleading.
Information on the number of jobs to be created by the EACOP and the potential carbon emissions from the project was especially found to be misleading. Indeed, questioned on the occasion of its Annual General Meeting last year, Total confessed that only 900 direct jobs would be created after the construction phase under the EACOP project. This is far from the 80,000 the company communicates publicly about. The adequacy of the company’s mitigation plans to manage social impacts and protect chimpanzees was also questioned.
Little wonder then that even when Mr. Karuhanga and his peers chest-thump about the ESIAs and other impact management documents, communities in the districts of Buliisa, Hoima, Kikuube, Nwoya, Lwengo, Kyotera, Rakai and elsewhere that have been affected by Tilenga or EACOP continue to suffer the negative impacts of the projects.
In his aforementioned article, Mr. Karuhanga also noted that Uganda has a right to develop its natural resources to address poverty. No one can argue against this. Nations must use their resources after weighing the pros and cons of doing so. For the case of Uganda, it is laughable that anyone can label environmentalists as well as social and climate justice activists as poverty conservationists. Uganda’s president, who has consistently sent messages on the need for environmental conservation, would be the first to be called a poverty conservationist if this were the measure that was to be adopted.
But, the president is not a poverty conservationist. Neither are environmentalists. Indeed, communities, women, youth and CSOs that are calling on Uganda and TotalEnergies, as well as the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), to prioritise environmental conservation over oil exploitation are considered as champions. Why?
Uganda has been listed as the 13th most vulnerable country to climate change. Major economic sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism and even business have been listed as some of the most vulnerable under Uganda’s Updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on climate change of 2022. Anyone that is campaigning against climate-wrecking projects such as the Tilenga, Kingfisher and EACOP is a friend of Uganda, and not a poverty conservationist.
The idea that the oil and gas sector is also going to enrich Ugandans is a fallacy. A look at oil-producing countries such as Nigeria and Angola will disabuse anyone of this notion.
It has also become fashionable for pro-EACOP groups to call non-Ugandans who campaign against the EACOP and Tilenga project racist neo-colonialists. In his article, Mr. Karuhanga observed that the court “has rejected an invitation to exercise colonial authority over sovereign states.” This is totally false as the court did not examine the merits of Total’s projects, and more importantly the case is against Total, a French company, not against the Ugandan state. The Duty of Vigilance law solely imposes obligations on France-based companies, not on sovereign states.
But, after muzzling civic space at home, some people in the pro-EACOP camp want to silence non-Ugandan critics through guilt-tripping, name-calling and others. This is unacceptable.
We would like to reiterate the following:
1. Our court case was only dismissed on procedural grounds; the judges did not rule on the facts. The ruling therefore isn’t a win for Total and in no way did the court say that Total is complying with the law and that their social and environmental prevention measures are adequate or sufficient.
2. The dismissal of our case is questionable as our claims have not changed since the beginning. We simply added new evidence to substantiate them.
3. While human rights violations keep going on, and the first oil drilling is imminent, the dismissal also adds new delays but the matter is not closed. We are reflecting on next steps.