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Negotiate with mineral-rich land owners

This is my rejoinder to an article that appeared in The Daily Monitor newspaper last week entitled, “Owners will lose rights over mineral-rich land-Museveni” written by Nelson Wesonga.

According to the article, President Museveni told a Mineral Wealth Conference in Kampala that government was planning to change the law so that investors can access privately held land that contains minerals without negotiating with the owners.

So I ask the President: Can you willfully surrender or accept compulsory acquisition of your land in Rwakitura to the state or mining companies if commercially viable mineral resources were found on it?  Or would you rather engage the government and investors so that exploitation of those mineral resources can result in employment to your family and kinsmen, while ensuring that some of the monetary wealth generated from such mineral wealth trickles down to the neighbouring villages?

I have stressed before and still maintain that the mining sector has immense potential to transform the social welfare and lives of our communities at the micro-economic level.

But to harness this potential, Uganda should focus on a policy and legal framework that places local communities at the center of development as opposed to glorifying Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

The Natural Resources Charter is one such guiding tool that the government’s policy machinery should strive to emulate in developing Uganda’s emerging mining sector.

Precept 1 of the Charter stipulates that resource governance should secure the greatest benefit for citizens through an inclusive and comprehensive national strategy, clear legal framework and competent institutions.

Precept 3 charges government with the responsibility of encouraging efficient exploration, production operations and allocation of property rights, while Precept 5 encourages governments, as custodians of state natural resources, to pursue opportunities for local benefits, and account for, mitigate and offset the environmental and social costs of resource extraction projects. Inter alia, it charges the government with the sole duty of ensuring that it involves the local community

Sustainable development can only be achieved if it is driven by Ugandans working closely with foreign investors, not by placing mineral resources in the hands of profit-oriented international investors and shareholders.

There is a wealth of precedence, both local and international, that traces the importance and value communities attach to their land for social, cultural, economic and other reasons.

Land is a source of power amongst African communities and depriving one’s land in certain communities is compared to rendering them impotent. As such, many lives have been lost in land disputes across Africa.

Many mining projects in Uganda, as well as regionally and internationally have failed to take off simply because mining investors thought they could ignore the host communities and resort to corporate cons or only appease elitist policy makers at the center of power.

But depriving host communities from active participation in mineral development can only increase the incidence of violence. The practicality of the President’s suggestion is also questionable considering that minerals are spread across all regions of Uganda, meaning that compulsory land acquisition would necessitate displacement of large communities.

Industry majors such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton have demonstrated in Australia and West Africa that mining and host communities can negotiate and economically co-exist. By involving the host communities in their decision-making, these mining companies have in return secured a social license to operate as well as security for their investments.

To achieve the objectives of Uganda’s Vision 2040 and other development strategies currently in place, both government and international investors must promote an upward harmonization of standards that support sustainable development.

One way of achieving this is to ensure that extractive projects comply with internationally recognized human rights standards as well as environmental and social standards and that they support the exchange and extension of local content through provision of opportunities and development of skills across the entire value chain.

But also, the government must make a deliberate effort to channel funding and other support to the mining sector. The reason why mining contributes only about US$ 10 million to our GDP is not only because potential investors have limited access to land.

For instance, the Department of Geological Surveys and Mines (DGSM) in Entebbe has not received as much attention as the Petroleum Exploration, Production and Development (PEPD). The latter has been an enviable recipient of government support in the form of human capacity and institutional development from as far back as 1986.

It was not until the 2013/2014 financial year that the government started allocating budgetary support to the mining sub-sector, increasing it to two billion shillings ($770,000) in the current financial year.

My generous estimations indicate that Uganda’s net mineral wealth could be over US$ 150 billion, triple what is projected from the more popular oil and gas industry and placing the country amongst the top 50 mining investment destinations in the world. It therefore makes business sense to invest in the sector.

The pursuit of a middle-income status by 2040, will only be achieved through sound policy, planning and implementation of well thought through people-centered public policies.

The first come, first serve policy must be modified to allow a transparent open bidding and award of potential mineral green fields to companies with demonstrated field development expertise, project development knowledge and monetary capacity to undertake such investments.

Articulation and harmonization of competing land rights between host mineral rich communities and the mining industry must be addressed at the policy level with full consultation and engagement of communities and indigenous landowners.

In Australia, the Native Land Title legal framework compels landowners and mining companies to mutually negotiate for their compensation for loss of land and participation in the actual value chain development of mineral projects. This framework only allows government intervention where the right to develop mineral projects is unreasonably withheld by indigenous landowners.

The imaginary standoff between mineral development and communities’ right to development and ownership of property must be resolved mutually without recourse to forceful legal maneuvers currently demanded by the Chamber of Mines and Mineral Development in Uganda.

Otherwise, unfortunate statements such as the aforementioned attributed to the Head of State only inflame conflict and hostilities against mineral investments and development in Uganda.

Don ByanyinaBwesigye Don Binyina, Executive Director, Africa Centre for Energy and Mineral Policy (ACEMP)