As Uganda’s general election looms this week, candidates have been courting the electorate with their plans to increase international investment and boost the country’s economic outlook. The country has fast become the destination of choice for land-hungry oil and agriculture industries, but in the latest election a new contender has emerged for Uganda’s sought after acreage: renewable energies.
In fact, in general elections across Africa this year, the use of clean energy to bring power to rural areas will be a major campaign issue. In Uganda, where more than three-quarters of the population is without reliable electricity, this could prove vital. President Yoweri Museveni has already promised he will expand access using hydropower and geothermal power. His two main rivals at this point, Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, have both laid out ambitious targets to increase access to electricity to eradicate poverty and boost socio-economic prospects. Renewables are the cornerstone of both candidates’ promises. But to truly benefit Ugandans, this investment needs to happen in the right way, and not merely eat up land that locals depend on.
Uganda’s experience with projects requiring large areas of land provides some lessons and warnings. Consultation and consent is key to avoid harming local communities and families. In paving the way for an oil refinery in Hoima, many families had to be relocated or compensated but 93 claim they have not yet been compensated or resettled, leaving them without adequate housing, access to health facilities and schools for their children.
In former conflict areas in northern Uganda, where the rise of agriculture industries provides hope and work, there are reports of land disputes between companies and local communities due to contestation of land ownership and lack of consultation. Some businesses have halted their operations pending the resolution of such disputes. About 100 residents of Kalangala island in Lake Victoria claim that they were evicted from their land to clear the way for a palm oil plantation, which has robbed them of their ability to grow food. They are seeking a court order to get their land back and compensation for the loss they say they have suffered.
The same risks plague clean energy projects; across the border in Kenya (pdf) there are similar reports of loss of land without adequate consultation for geothermal and wind projects. This has affected indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, education and traditions. Just because clean energy is the right thing to do environmentally doesn’t mean it is devoid of risks to local communities. Moreover, some renewable energy projects don’t provide electricity to local communities – the energy is exported or routed to another part of the country.
Any project that requires land brings human rights impacts for communities on it or nearby. These risks need to be identified and avoided through human rights impact assessments that look at past and potential abuses; where abuses do occur, effective remedies are essential. Locals should also be able to share in electricity and other benefits of these projects, including through decent work. Affected people and observers cannot assess energy projects’ impact without transparency.
Here Uganda’s record is troubling, as there have been no moves to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, despite widespread calls, and the willingness of key companies such as Tullow Oil.
The government’s role here is to protect human rights, to ensure that those affected by such projects are involved in inclusive consultations on resettlement and compensation processes. The next administration has an opportunity to put local communities at the centre of economic development – not only in established industries of oil and agriculture but also in the emerging renewables economy.
Renewables projects, if their benefits are shared with local communities, could be beneficial for Ugandans but not if their development is accompanied by negative human rights impacts. If Uganda can rise to this challenge, it would position it as a shining example for other African states.
Joseph Kibugu, eastern Africa researcher and representative, Business & Human Rights. Follow @joekibugu on Twitter.