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Buliisa women look to save money—and their environment

Image: Greenwatch Community Training Manual

Greenwatch produced this community environmental monitoring guide with support from the Open Society Institute

WANSEKO VILLAGE, BULIISA DISTRICT: Surrounded by a dozen women and men seated on the bare ground, Mary Nabanja goes through the financial records of her group in a large book, counting each penny of their group savings.

Nabanja is the chairwoman of the Buliisa Women’s Environmental Protection and Savings Group, based in Wanseko village, some 450 kilometres from Kampala.

Those who had not yet paid up bring their balances forward, and the meeting turns to the day’s main agenda—environmental protection.

Richard Kajura, who facilitates the meeting, begins by going through the fauna and flora that their region is proud of—including parks, lakes and rivers and the climate itself.

“We are already experiencing very hot temperatures that were never common here, drying wells, springs and dwindling fish in our lake caused by overfishing,” Kajura tells members. They seem to agree, nodding and pointing towards the nearby Lake Albert.

Kajura adds that wild animals are migrating from the reserves to safer zones, and that this could damage Uganda’s economically important tourism sector.  Despite this, he laments that little attention has been paid to environmental protection in the region.

But with Uganda’s oil discovery, civil society organizations, teaming up with local people, have become more determined to protect the area’s natural endowments. Why is this?

Kajura, the Programme Coordinator for Lake Albert Children and Women’s Advocacy and Development Organization (LACWADO), explains that when oil was discovered they feared the environment might suffer severely.

“We visited regions and countries that had oil before us. What we saw in the destruction of the environment was so bad that when we came back, we could not sit back but had to empower people,” he says.

In Nigeria’s notorious Niger Delta, for example, they found that oil had polluted water bodies, the soil and air, and they felt they could not allow this to happen to Uganda.

Getting local leaders on board

With funding fromGreenwatch, a Kampala-based environmental advocacy organization, LACWADO started training local leaders about the environmental impacts of oil.

“We came up with a guide book that is being used as a tool to monitor the environment,” says Lydia Amanya, the Deputy Speaker of the Buliisa District government and a member of LACWADO.

The manual, A Community Based Guide for Monitoring Impacts of Oil and Gas Activities on the Environment, discusses the history and likely impacts of oil and gas exploration, including the impacts of construction of access roads and infrastructure, waste disposal and decommissioning.

Community leaders have used this tool to initiate environmental monitoring groups, many of which double up as savings and income generation clubs.

According to LACWADO, 22 such groups, with an average of 25 members each, are now operating across Buliisa District.

Flaring

Betty Katusabe belongs to Buliisa Women’s Environmental Protection and Savings Group. “We meet every Sunday,” she says. “Whenever we meet, we ask members to tell us whether they have observed any unusual activity happening on the environment. We discuss and get solutions.”

One such activity was gas flaring from a nearby well. According to Katusabe, the fire and smoke affected the members living near the well, with most suffering from sore and inflamed eyes.

“We reported this to our local leaders as well as to Heritage Oil and Gas that was doing the flaring. The oil company responded by paying for treatment of the affected members,” Katusabe recalls.

Members have also been vocal in demanding access to environmental impact assessments (EIAs) carried out in their region and calling for members be included in monitoring activities.

However they have not succeeded in pressing the oil companies to give them copies of the EIAs.  “We feel implementation of the EIA recommendations will not be transparent,” Katusabe concludes.

Weak environmental governance

Local government officers share many of the community’s concerns, pointing to shortage of resources and qualified staff.

“We do not have an Environmental Officer to check on the state of the environment. The District Service Commission has never sat to recruit this position,” according to John Bazaire, the mayor of Buliisa Town Council.

Nor, he adds, does the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) have any presence in Buliisa District.

“This area has most of the oil, more than seven wells, but NEMA has not assisted us. The oil companies do environmental impact assessments but we have never seen the outcomes,” he complains.

Bazaire calls on NEMA to carry out a strategic environmental assessment of the whole region and to come up with a proper plan of how the environment, including wildlife, will be protected.

“For the moment, I feel if things are left like this, we shall have an environmental disaster,” he warns.

Report by FW