sacred lands
Uganda: A battle for sacred lands as nature wins new rights

In Uganda’s Albertine Rift, an immense network of grasslands and mountains that supports great biodiversity, two energy giants are preparing to extract the largest onshore oil deposit in sub-Saharan Africa.

Guardians of the land

Alon Kiiza, an elder of the area’s Indigenous Bagungu community, lives in the rural Buliisa district at the epicenter of this ongoing, foreign-led scramble for the continent’s natural resources. The 88-year-old is among many there watching the industrial hubbub with concern. “Drilling for oil will disturb the ecosystem,” he said. “The spirit of the land does not connect well with these machines.”

Uganda Ölförderung Umwelt Indigene TotalWildlife under siege

A serious cause for concern is the wildlife inhabiting the area. Some drilling will take place within Murchison Falls National Park which is home to elephants, leopards, lions and giraffes, as well as more than 450 bird species, from blue-headed coucals to red-throated bee-eaters. Environmentalists worry about the possible impact of oil drilling on animals here, especially in the event of a spill.

Uganda Ölförderung Umwelt Indigene TotalRocky outlook

But the megaproject is already underway. In April, Uganda and Tanzania signed final agreements with the French oil multinational, TotalEnergies, and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation to extract about 1.7 billion barrels from a 425-square-mile drilling zone. Given its remote location, a Chinese construction firm has been brought in to build a 70-mile (112-kilometer) road to reach the oil.

Uganda Ölförderung Umwelt Indigene TotalAn international endeavor

Following its planned, first extraction in 2025, the oil will be pumped 900 miles through the East African Crude Oil Pipeline — the world’s longest heated conduit — to Tanzania’s port city of Tanga, surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs on the Indian Ocean. Not only will the crude oil cross critical wildlife habitats, campaigners say the pipeline will displace thousands of farmers.

Uganda Ölförderung Umwelt Indigene TotalDying light or new dawn?

Even as the Ugandan government pushed ahead with this oil project on the shores of Lake Albert, it has also adopted a groundbreaking environmental law that could protect fragile habitats. The law formally recognizes the rights of nature in the same ways that human rights are recognized, treating ecosystems as living beings and allowing them to sue in court cases through guardianship bodies.

Uganda Ölförderung Umwelt Indigene TotalAncient roots

Kiiza sits next to Dennis Tabaro, a Ugandan environmentalist who is helping revive Indigenous environmental practices here that were eroded by the colonial era. The rights-of-nature law is rooted in ancient, Indigenous thought like of the Bagungu. The world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples account for 5% of the global population, yet live on lands that shelter 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.

A hand pointing to an illustrated fabric mapA reawakening

As part of their renaissance, Bagungu elders have drawn maps of their ancestral land, complete with precolonial calendars showing changing seasons, breeding cycles, harvest time and rituals. One map visualizes old customs, another shows present-day disorder and third offers an optimistic, biodiverse vision for the future. The map-making process has rekindled memories of their heritage.

A hand pointing to an illustrated fabric mapA reawakening

As part of their renaissance, Bagungu elders have drawn maps of their ancestral land, complete with precolonial calendars showing changing seasons, breeding cycles, harvest time and rituals. One map visualizes old customs, another shows present-day disorder and third offers an optimistic, biodiverse vision for the future. The map-making process has rekindled memories of their heritage.

A boy in a corn fieldBlack gold?

Despite environmental fears, the government is promoting the oil reserves as a way to boost living standards for Ugandans, more than half of whom live in poverty. This child had missed school to help his family collect crops. TotalEnergies says its project will create 6,000 jobs, mostly for locals, and that social and environmental risks had been mitigated in line with international standards.

A boy in a corn fieldBlack gold?

Despite environmental fears, the government is promoting the oil reserves as a way to boost living standards for Ugandans, more than half of whom live in poverty. This child had missed school to help his family collect crops. TotalEnergies says its project will create 6,000 jobs, mostly for locals, and that social and environmental risks had been mitigated in line with international standards.

A truck drives past a road signDriving ahead

There is no guarantee that Uganda’s rights-of-nature law will put a brake on the oil project. For one, it contains a clause stating that the government may choose which natural places are to be protected by the law and which are not — a worrisome loophole. Likewise, nature’s rights are not guaranteed forever. Such rulings in both India and the US have later been overturned by judges.

A truck drives past a road signDriving ahead

There is no guarantee that Uganda’s rights-of-nature law will put a brake on the oil project. For one, it contains a clause stating that the government may choose which natural places are to be protected by the law and which are not — a worrisome loophole. Likewise, nature’s rights are not guaranteed forever. Such rulings in both India and the US have later been overturned by judges.

A group of people on a rocky outcrop

An uncertain future

Chinese and Ugandan workers rest during a hot day of construction. Lawyers believe the rights-of-nature law may offer a chance to limit the impact of the oil project, but not stop it. “[It] is a fait accompli — we should focus on the mitigation plan,” said Frank Tumusiime, whose environmental nonprofit lobbied for the law and is now helping write regulations to give it teeth in the courts.

A man walking through tall grassNatural temples

Bagungu elder Julius Byenkya walks toward a hallowed grove of trees in the savannah outside Buliisa. This is one of many sacred natural sites which take the form of lakes, rivers or woods — providing important wildlife habitats that are also revered by the community. “This is our spiritual center,” said Mr. Byenkya. “Our prayer is that this place remains undisturbed.”

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