Nine years and still counting: Buvuma residents still await compensation for land grabbed by the oil palm project

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Witness Radio  | 31 January 2024

Nine years and still counting: Buvuma residents still await compensation for land grabbed by the oil palm project
 
When the oil palm growing project was introduced in the Nairambi sub-county, Buvuma district, in 2015, it was greeted with an abundance of praise, leading many community members to wholeheartedly embrace it.
 
“We were promised numerous benefits with the project. Our leaders were preached with success stories of how oil palm projects had transformed communities where it had been grown before. In a short period, they urged us not to let the spirits of poverty linger with us, insisting that we must embrace the project in our district to attain wealth.” Residents from Kakyanga shared their sentiments with Witness Radio about the project.
 
The pattern observed in many other countries where oil palm tree growers used tricks to grab people’s land is replicated in the Buvuma district. Private companies and government officials promised communities new schools, good roads, functional health centers, and helping needy families, etc. as a persuasion tool to win their hearts on top of fair and adequate compensation pledges.
 
9 years later, individual families realized that they were deceived into signing documents to surrender their land to grow oil palm trees. Agreements were written in English (not translated to their dialect), and signed copies were hidden from residents.
 
“We consented to the government’s proposal to utilize our land for the project, lured by the promises of substantial benefits. The survey of the project land promptly commenced, leading to the expropriation of our property. Despite the passage of several years, the pledged benefits from the project remain unfulfilled,” residents interviewed by Witness Radio narrated their concerns.
 
But, the on-the-ground realities are diverse and the project has been labeled as a curse by the Project Affected Persons (PAPs). Unfortunately, it has resulted in tragic consequences, including loss of life, homelessness, increased poverty, and heightened hunger among communities that thrived well before the project commenced.
 
According to the residents, their land measuring over 388 hectares in Kakyanga, Kiziiru, Bukiindi, and Bukalabati villages, is occupied by oil palm trees owned by the National Oil Palm Project since 2019.
 
Nakato Khadija, a 45-year-old, now finds herself harvesting spear grass to make a living. “Whenever I reflect on the impact this project has had on me and my family, a sense of despair sets in. It’s disheartening that someone who once owned 19 acres of land now possesses nothing in life.” She revealed this to the Witness Radio research team.
 
By 5 pm evening, on Friday,19th 2024 when Witness Radio interviewed her, the sole caretaker of a family of 15 was still harvesting spear grass with an old sickle in a garden that is 12 kilometers away from where she rents in Tojjo village.
 
“This is the only job I can do now, it is where I get what to feed the family. Every bunch of spear grass [locally called enjole] costs 500 Ugx shillings (about 0.13 United States Dollars). So, you have to cut as many as you can to get some good money. Imagine if all the bushes are done, how shall we survive.” Nakato questioned?
 
Nakato is not alone, she is one of the more than 600 people whose land was taken for Oil palm growing from 4 villages in Buwanga parish, Nairambi Sub-county in Buvuma district without compensation or resettlement.
 
According to residents who shared their experiences with Witness Radio, they were deceived into initially handing over their land to the investor, with the promise of receiving compensation later. However, to their dismay, years have passed, and they are still waiting in vain for the promised compensation
 
“We haven’t received compensation for our land that was taken 9 years ago, and a significant number of people are enduring immense suffering. They relinquished their land for the oil palm project and are now thrust into overwhelming poverty,” another resident emphasized.
 
“We were instructed to surrender our land to the investor with the promise that the project would lead to the development of our community and create employment opportunities. Our leaders, along with Epayi Gerald, who facilitated the land acquisition on behalf of the investor, convinced us to part with our land before receiving compensation.” Residents further highlighted.
 
In 2017, representatives from the government and the National Oil Palm Project (NOPP) conducted a land survey to assess and value their properties for compensation. Around 2019, they (government and NOPP) returned with disclosure forms that indicated amounts below the community’s expectations. Despite the inaccurate valuation of their land and property, the promised compensation, according to the affected residents, remains unpaid.
 
Mr. Kyeswa Alex, another resident grappling with the impact of the project, disclosed that the community was barred from utilizing their land in 2018, intensifying hunger in their area since many of them were farmers, who used their land for agricultural production.
 
Community members report that eight individuals have lost their lives due to lack of food, compelling many residents to turn to illegal fishing as a desperate means of survival.
 
Mrs. Nakato revealed to Witness Radio that two of her family members including her husband and son were arrested, by the army, all accused of illegal fishing. She attributed all this chaos to the arrival of the Buvuma oil palm project, which disrupted their lives. Currently, she is renting in Tojjo village, grappling with the challenges of her daily life.
 
“To secure a living for our family, my husband had turned to fishing. However, he was apprehended by the army three years ago, and accused of illegal fishing. Subsequently, our son, who stepped in to shoulder the responsibilities, was also arrested six months ago on the same charge of illegal fishing,” a teary Nakato revealed.
 
One of the Buvuma Counsellors, affirms that residents have been waiting for the government’s compensation for over 9 years but in vain.
 
“People are facing dire circumstances, with some even losing their lives. The lack of available land for cultivation has left many without enough food to eat. The dreams of young girls and boys are being shattered as their parents struggle to afford school fees. Meanwhile, the prices of land are on the rise, and we fear that the government may compensate based on outdated valuations from four years ago. It is essential that they receive fair compensation because the project was intended to benefit them, not push them into poverty,” the leader emphasized.
 
He added, “We have pleaded with the government on numerous occasions to compensate our people, but they keep assuring us that payment will happen soon. However, this promised time never arrives, and people continue to suffer in anguish.”
 
The Buvuma oil palm project is part of the five oil palm hubs set up by the National oil palm project. The others are, Kalangala; Mayuge (Mayuge, Bugiri, and Namayingo); Greater Masaka (Kyotera, Kalungu, and Masaka); and Greater Mukono (Mukono and Buikwe.
 
In 2018, the Government of Uganda (GoU) received a loan from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to finance a ten-year National Oil Palm Project (NOPP). The project with a total financing of US$ 216.2 million is being implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) as the Lead Project Agency, in partnership with other agencies, the private sector, and farmer Organizations.
 
Oil palm Buvuma Limited is mandated to develop seedlings and ensure production, while BIDCO takes center in refining, farmer associations are key partners in the Farmer organization, and MAAIF is key in monitoring and scaling the project as well as ensuring there is land acquisition.
 
But Mr. Sserunjoji William, the district’s Senior Assistant Chief Administrative Officer (Deputy CAO), who also acts as the National oil palm project focal person, told Witness Radio that the government is in the process of finalizing the valuation assessments to kickstart the compensation.
 
“Indeed, we have not compensated the community members, and I acknowledge the concerns raised. However, the government requires time to assess land ownership meticulously to ensure accurate compensation for the rightful individuals. We are currently in the process of conducting these assessments, and soon, this year the community members will receive their compensation.” Mr. Sserunjoji added.
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