Locals struggle as CNOOC expands Kingfisher operations

Samuel Okulony, Chief Executive Officer, Environment Governance Institute (EGI), Uganda

Vanishing livelihoods

Lake Albert provides water to hundreds of thousands of people. Its fish feed numerous families. It and its basin are rich in aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

Beneath it lies oil. So, at Kingfisher Development Area in Kikuube District, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is drilling oil and gas. They hope to extract and export by next year.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development holds companies responsible for communities, the environment, and transparency. It looks like in Kingfisher Development Area, CNOOC holds itself responsible for profits alone.

Their project threatens the basic human rights – livelihood, shelter, and clean environment – of those living nearby. It has already displaced 800 people, without adequate compensation. Contractors razed their homes and fields.

For instance, a farmer (who chose to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals.) told EGI how he lost 600+ orange trees: “The authorities did not assess my property properly. I was awaiting revaluation. But one day a contractor turned up to clear my trees. I begged him to wait. He told me to complain to the company and destroyed my crop. I complained but nothing happened. My oranges supported my family. Now, I have nothing.” His case is typical.

Fishers fared no better. Three years ago, they were restricted to ‘gazetted’ areas, far from CNOOC’s site. But gazetting stopped before they could adapt. Why? Nobody explained clearly.

Now, soldiers stop them from fishing. They claim fishers must move because Lake Albert’s water level is raising. Curiously, CNOOC’s camps in the area remain. (Lake Albert yielded 335,475 tons of fish in 2020, valued at UGX 761.5 billion [US$205.8 million]. More than half the yield was cheap, small fish.)

A fisher moaned, “I’m 48. I’ve fished all my life. I inherited this trade from my father. It’s the only thing I know. Where does CNOOC expect me to go? What do they expect me to do?” There are many like him. They have to fish in order to survive and this is considered “illegal,” but they have to go in deep waters, late at night, amid fierce winds. To avoid detection, they do not use lights. If their boats overturn, they have to swim ashore. Some do not make it. We met a woman whose husband did not and died in late 2023.

Frequently, fishers run risks for nothing because soldiers seize their catch, usually from female fishmongers.

GTNA Business Report 2023 confirms Uganda can produce enough agricultural and animal products to feed her growing population and be a food basket for East Africa. Yet people go hungry at Kingfisher.

Ironically, under the livelihood restoration programme CNOOC started in 2021, they gave some people livestock and encouraged them to grow vegetables. Groups of 15-20 got boran bulls, pigs, goats, and chicken. But they got no knowhow or support to care for these animals. Naturally, the animals died.

A woman recalls, “They gave one-day-old chickens to women. You need charcoal fire and a pot to keep them warm all night. And you must buy proper chickenfeed. All their chicks died within two weeks. In our village, we use firewood to cook. We don’t have charcoal. And our local chickens find food and warmth on their own.” She continued, “We were keen to crossbreed their bulls with our cows. But the bulls are costly to keep. They are not resistant to some diseases and need treatment. Besides, we didn’t know enough about how to care for them. So, the bulls died too.”

Anyway, CNOOC abruptly suspended their livelihood restoration programme in 2022.

With their traditional livelihoods gone, locals pay bribes to do unskilled, casual labour at oil-related facilities. Extreme poverty is forcing girls as young as thirteen into sex work. Boys have taken to drugs and alcohol. SGBV (sexual & gender-based violence) is growing.

Abused rights

According to #17 of UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies should identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for adverse human rights impacts of their work. #18 directs companies to find and assess actual or potential adverse human rights impacts.

We wonder if CNOOC cares about either principle. Their project has militarized the area, leading to forcible evictions, beatings, torture, arrests, illegal detentions, and other abuses (Also, see our joint article published earlier with ). Locals complain soldiers regularly lock them up in barracks, though they have no right to do so. To get them back, their families pay ‘unreceipted cash’.    

Leaders must get involved

The RAP (Resettlement Action Plan) for PAPs (Project Affected Persons) should be public. It is not. We requested for it several times, using the Access to Information Act. Nobody responded. The government insists all is well though (also see here).

CNOOC too makes claims. Sadly, everything we lately (April 2024) saw and heard at Kingfisher cancel their claims.

We were informed the Chinese president recently approved support for the EACOP (East African Crude Oil Pipeline), which will export crude from Kingfisher. It’s time for China to show leadership and shun projects that expose communities to extreme suffering. Otherwise, they’ll have ‘blood oil’ on their hands.

A completed oil rig on well pad III, recently launched to start production
A UPDF soldier (in black t-shirt and army trousers) looks out over Lake Albert during his daily patrol.

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