Game not over: resistance against East African Crude Oil Pipeline
Flying in the face of the Paris Agreement on climate change, Tanzania and Uganda have embarked on a major extractive project involving two new oil fields and a near-1,500 km pipeline across the two countries. Powerful state and corporate interests behind the project are trying to silence local voices warning about its potentially disastrous consequences, but the global #StopEACOP campaign is mobilising support and putting pressure on investors to stop the flow of money towards construction. At least 15 banks and six of the world’s leading insurers have so far publicly pledged not to support it. The struggle continues.
When Nyombi Morris, a young climate activist from Uganda, organised a protest against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), he caught someone’s attention. But not quite in the way he hoped.
Nyombi started campaigning to raise awareness about the potentially disastrous environmental and social impacts of EACOP, an internationally funded megaproject to extract and transport crude oil from Uganda to a Tanzanian port. Campaigners are warning that the initiative would displace local communities, poison their water and disrupt food production, destroy wetland ecosystems and endanger animal species, while further fuelling the climate crisis, pushing many millions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
After he held a protest in March, Nyombi started receiving threats. These escalated to the point that he had to retreat from social media and go into hiding. He fears for his life and those of his loved ones, but the backlash has also confirmed what he knew: despite the impacts of the pipeline, powerful state and non-state forces are determined to push it through because it will make them rich. And they don’t want anyone to get in their way.
Voices from the frontline: Nyombi Morris
Nyombi Morris is the founder of Earth Volunteers, a Ugandan civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together young people to plant trees, protect forests and stand up for climate justice.
I have organised strikes to challenge the project, but since my last protest this March, I have received threats from unknown people who say they are police officers and tell me they are going to come and arrest me. Since last week I haven’t even been allowed to tweet for fear of my life and the lives of my family. We are in danger and nobody is helping us with security and support. I am hiding at my sisters’ place but very soon we are going to run out of resources such as food.
Every organisation I reach out to, they redirect me to CSOs that are not really independent but actually serve the government that is targeting me. I feel like there is no one I can trust in my country. This is terrible and traumatising, and many others are going through the same. We cannot imagine help coming from anywhere but international civil society.
Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have put pressure on them and urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, as they only benefit the wealthy and do nothing to improve people’s lives. But the response we always get in return is threats.
We need funds to continue door-to-door mobilisation. We need to speak up with a strong voice, so it is our role to wake up the public and get people to start demanding justice.
And we need the media to cover our movement and amplify our voice. We need the world to join us in challenging these perpetrators of environmental destruction. Except for Standard Bank, which is from South Africa, pipeline funders are from the global north, and we need people in their countries to know what is happening so they can join us in exposing these capitalist fundamentalists who only care about money – not about people, and not about nature.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Nyombi. Read the full interview here.
Winners and losers
The EACOP project involves the construction of a 1,445 km long, 24-inch diameter underground oil pipeline joining two oilfields in Uganda’s Hoima province with a port in Tanzania’s Tanga region. As well as the pipeline, it involves the construction of oil wells and a crude oil processing plant at Lake Albert in western Uganda, along with infrastructure for domestic oil consumption in Uganda’s Buliisa and Nwoya districts.
Described as one of the most ambitious fossil fuel projects undertaken in Africa, it was triggered by the discovery of oil in the Lake Albert basin, on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the British company Tullow Oil back in 2006. In 2020 Tullow Oil sold its stake in the project to fossil fuel giant TotalEnergies, which is now the biggest shareholder, with 62 per cent. The Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC) and Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC) each have a 15 per cent stake, and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has eight per cent.
Both UNOC and TPDC are state-owned corporations, so the governments of the two countries involved have major incentives to see the project through despite its negative social and environmental impacts. In April 2021, the presidents of the two countries gave it their go-ahead as agreements were signed between both governments and EACOP’s shareholders. Construction was scheduled to begin later that year.
The Tilenga oilfield, which will partly operate within the Murchison Falls National Park, will be operated by TotalEnergies, which owns more than half its shares, while CNOOC, with 28.33 per cent of the shares, is the main shareholder in the Kingfisher oilfield. If things go according to plan, extraction will start at both oilfields in 2025 with their joint production peaking at 230,000 barrels a day.
This is all too tempting for the governments of Tanzania and Uganda, characterised not by their openness to dissent and responsiveness to people’s demands but by their unchecked powers and pervasive corruption. It’s equally hard to resist for TotalEnergies and CNOOC, which will pocket the lion’s share of the profits, enhanced by generous tax benefits granted by both host countries.
Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, but the response we always get in return is threats.
To sell the project, those involved have resorted to the myth of trickledown economics, claiming the project will create tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs, open up opportunities for local businesses, bring in ample tax revenue and generate billions in oil exports. Promises of development and jobs have succeeded in dividing some communities, with some people tempted by the promised rewards. Needless to say, investors have also promised to carry out the project according to the highest international standards.
But there is no such thing as clean oil. Extractive companies operating in Africa have a particularly dreadful track record in dealing with the impacts of their projects on communities and the environment. Resource-rich countries in the region also offer notorious examples of the resource curse, failing to distribute the benefits of their natural resource wealth and showing worse development outcomes, including higher rates of conflict and authoritarian rule, than those with more limited natural resources.
Not surprisingly many people in Tanzania and Uganda have not been sold on the promises of plenty from their governments and foreign corporations.
What could go wrong?
Local communities started experiencing the pipeline’s adverse effects long before its construction was due to begin. As soon as the process started to acquire the thousands of hectares of land required for the project, those who owned land around the pipeline’s planned route expressed concern about lack of consultation and transparency and pressures to sell off their property cheaply and leave quickly. Restrictions on land use were imposed as early as March 2018, and many farmers still await the compensation promised them.
It is estimated that over 10,000 families will be displaced by construction alone, with up to 10 times that number directly affected by the pipeline’s operations. Those nearby who are not close enough to be forced to leave would be the first to experience first-hand environmental impacts, not least in the form of water pollution and health hazards.
If land and water are polluted by oil, hundreds of local communities that depend on farming, fishing and tourism will see their livelihoods affected. Oil extraction and transportation will affect valued ecosystems, and not only the Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s oldest nature reserve: it will also pose a threat to the Bugoma, Taala and Wambabya forests in Uganda and the Minziro forest reserve and Burigi-Biharamulo game reserve in Tanzania.
And this megaproject will put billions of dollars into undoing any efforts undertaken under the Paris Agreement, the treaty to cut carbon emissions and prevent the worst impacts of global warming that 193 states, among them Tanzania and Uganda, have committed to. Independent calculations suggest that the carbon emissions associated with peak oil production from the new oilfields will be over 30 times the current annual emissions of Tanzania and Uganda.
Voices from the frontline: Baraka Lenga
Baraka Lenga is a young climate scientist and sustainability consultant, currently volunteering with Fridays for Future to raise awareness of climate change and pressuring businesses and government leaders to act urgently to address the climate crisis.
We would like environmental activists and CSOs from across the globe to join us in raising awareness about EACOP and pressuring the governments involved to put an end to this project. We want people to understand that the companies leading the project, CNOOC and TotalEnergies, along with the governments of Tanzania and Uganda, are endangering wildlife, tipping the world closer to a climate crisis and affecting the livelihoods of our people.
We have seen various multinational cooperation funds pull out of the project in compliance with their obligation to protect the environment and we hope more will do the same. Hopefully, a lack of funding will ultimately force the governments of Tanzania and Uganda to stop EACOP.
The government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline. Some of us have raised our concerns since the very beginning of the project but our questions have not been addressed. We have continued campaigning because we cannot overlook the damage this project will have on local communities.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Baraka. Read the full interview here.
Act locally, go global
Local environmental and climate activists were the first to act, organising communities to resist pressure, holding protests and strikes to urge their governments to reconsider and reaching out to the international community for support.
But as they gained profile they faced growing repression, particularly in Uganda, where the project’s implementation is due to begin. Activists like Nyombi started receiving intimidating calls and threats. Community and civil society leaders have been arrested, detained and judicially harassed.
Among them is Maxwell Atuhura, whose organisation, the African Institute of Energy Governance (AFIEGO), is among those bringing a lawsuit against TotalEnergies – see below. He was arrested alongside five colleagues. Also detained and later released were Robert Birimuye, a representative of project-affected communities, and Kaheero Mugisa, chair of Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association, who spent almost two months in jail.
In August 2021, Uganda’s NGO Bureau ordered 54 CSOs to suspend their operations, including AFIEGO and several others working on accountability and transparency in the oil sector. AFIEGO was also among CSOs whose offices were raided by the police.
Threats have escalated. Activists vocal on social media are increasingly watching their backs; some have moved or relocated. Many have gone into hiding and are growing afraid of speaking out publicly. They fear threats will come to fruition and they will be turned into a cautionary tale meant to deter others from raising their voices.
The government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline. Some of us have raised our concerns since the very beginning of the project but our questions have not been addressed.
But local activists and organisations are not alone: over 260 CSOs from around the world have launched a global campaign, #StopEACOP, to fight on two fronts: to provide support to those putting themselves on the line, including by covering security needs and legal representation fees and amplifying local voices on a global scale; and to put pressure on investors to stop the money that will enable construction.
Voices from the frontline: Omar Elmawi
Omar Elmawi is coordinator of #StopEACOP, a global online campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the effects of the project and that calls for its cancellation.
#StopEACOP is led by an alliance of local groups and communities and African and global CSOs. Over 260 CSOs have endorsed it and are working towards realising the campaign’s objectives through public mobilisation, legal action, research, shareholder activism and media advocacy.
Since environmental licences have been awarded for the pipeline and associated oilfields, several cases have been filed against the pipeline, including at the East African Court of Justice and in French courts against TotalEnergies, under the duty of vigilance law.
We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.
We also haven’t stopped trying to engage the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, although some of our members, and especially community partners, have been arrested and detained, had their offices raided or been threatened with the deregistration of their organisations. The government has had a part to play in most if not all these challenges, but we have continued to engage and use all legal mechanisms and processes available to make sure our community partners are protected.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Omar. Read the full interview here.
Civil society is targeting a key vulnerability. Building the pipeline is expensive, requiring funding from investors, banks and insurance firms. The global campaign is working to raise awareness of the project’s risks and put pressure on companies and governments to withhold support.
#StopEACOP identified potential funders – including the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, South Africa’s Standard Bank and the UK’s Standard Chartered Bank – and targeted them to encourage withdrawal. It has also launched a wide call to banking institutions urging them to not engage with EACOP.
To support this, people are signing petitions and sending letters on a massive scale, and also taking part in protests such as the one staged by Earthlife Africa outside Standard Bank’s headquarters in Johannesburg in May 2021.
No advocacy opportunity is being missed. Ahead of the February 2022 European Union/African Union summit, just as EACOP gained momentum, civil society released a statement calling for participating leaders to prioritise people and development-centred climate and energy goals. In March, four leading young activists from Uganda pleaded with the French National Assembly to put pressure on the government to take a stand against the project.
Ugandan activists met Pope Francis to request his support and Hilda Nakabuye, founder of Uganda’s Fridays for Future, denounced European leaders for their backing of EACOP in a powerful speech at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue.
Climate activists are also taking EACOP to court: in November 2020, four CSOs – Uganda’s Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights, AFIEGO, Kenya’s Natural Justice and Tanzania’s Center for Strategic Litigation – requested the East African Court of Justice to block construction on the grounds that the environmental and social impact assessment required by both the East African Community Treaty and other international laws had not been conducted.
Additionally, six CSOs – AFIEGO, Amis de la Terre France, Civic Response on Environment and Development, Uganda’s National Association of Professional Environmentalists, Navigators of Development Association and Survie – took TotalEnergies to court in France, in the first legal action based on France’s 2017 law on the duty of vigilance of transnational corporations.
In December 2021 the Cour de Cassation, France’s Supreme Court, ended a two-year procedural battle with a ruling that rejected TotalEnergies’ attempt to put the case under the jurisdiction of the commercial courts. It recognised the ‘right to choose’ that CSOs enjoy as non-commercial claimants. The case will therefore be heard by a civil court.
The struggle continues
Campaign pressure has so far resulted in several banks deciding to stay away from the project. In February 2021, four out of the five biggest South African banks – all except Standard Bank – announced they would not support it. Under pressure, Standard Bank finally did the same in March. Soon after, three French banks committed to refraining from providing financial assistance to EACOP, which one source described as ‘too hard to defend’. Two months later, a similar commitment was made by the Italian Unicredit. By March 2022, 15 banks had renounced the project.
We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so that they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.
So far, construction is yet to begin. Tanzania’s parliament approved the project in August 2021 and Uganda’s did so in December, amid opposition criticism. Only in February 2022 did TotalEnergies, CNOOC and UNOC announce the final investment decision for the project. But by late March five of the world’s largest insurance companies had committed not to underwrite it, despite efforts by the Ugandan government to show it was taking serious steps to deal with potential oil spills.
The battle is not over. EACOP does not yet have all the money it needs to ensure its completion, and climate campaigners are prepared to do everything they can to keep it that way.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The governments of Tanzania and Uganda should pull out of the project and instead promote inclusive development powered by sustainable energies.
Financial institutions must commit to not finance EACOP or any other related oil projects.
The corporations involved in the project must provide adequate compensation to those already impacted on by the preparatory stages of its development.
Cover photo by Earth Volunteers