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Refinery site residents remain in limbo, and some go hungry

Image: Geoffrey Kiwedde, LC II for Kabaale Parish

Geoffrey Kiwedde, LC II for Kabaale Parish (Photo: F. Womakuyu)

KABAALE PARISH, HOIMA DISTRICT: Kyapaloni village is deserted. The crowds in the once bustling marketplace are no more. Some homes are shut up, bushes have besieged others, and the gardens are empty of the crops they once boasted.

“The government has told us to begin packing our property and not to grow crops that take more than three months to mature. They said we shall be re-located from this place anytime soon to pave way for the refinery,” says Geoffrey Kiwedde, a Local Councillor II for Kabaale Parish in Buseruka sub-county of Hoima District.

Kiwedde still doesn’t know when he will have to move or when he will receive compensation for the 18 acres of land that he will give up.

He is among the 8,000 people who, according to a recent survey commissioned by the government, are eligible for compensation.

Earlier reports on the refinery site had suggested it was home to as many as 27,000 people.  Many of those not deemed due for compensation appear already to have packed their bags and left.

Those who have stayed, waiting for a compensation deal, are in the main satisfied with the report, which was compiled by Strategic Friends International, a Ugandan consultancy firm. The residents say the report accurately reflects the information they gave on their landholdings and crops.

Yet many of their questions remain unanswered. When will they be compensated? How much will they get? And how will they survive meanwhile?

State officials, including Energy and Mineral Development Minister, Irene Muloni, cannot provide definite answers.  “But they should be prepared anytime,” Minister Muloni told Oil in Uganda.

Hunger sets in

This leaves the residents in limbo, with many facing financial difficulties and even hunger.

Twenty two-year-old Christine Aloro, a resident of Kabaale village and a mother to five children, depended on a 22 acre plot to cultivate cassava for home consumption and income generation.  But she has neglected the land since being told to stop planting, and is now paying a heavy price.

“Life has become very hard. We live by doing manual work, but it is not easy to find,” she says.

Aloro cannot remember the number of times her family has had to sleep hungry. Her three year old boy is suffering from malnutrition, as diagnosed, she says, by doctors at Hoima hospital.

The youngster’s hair has turned brown, his arms thin like a pipe, and the ribs protruding. His four siblings are also growing weak as food shortage persists.

Aloro’s husband, Martin Katsigazi, weakened by hunger, is battling malaria and has been admitted to Hoima hospital. “Life is almost impossible here,” he says angrily. “I blame the Government for rushing to stop us from growing our crops. Our lives have turned upside down and we cannot plan anymore.”

School drop outs

Children are also dropping out of school. Kabaale Parish hosts four primary schools accommodating somewhere between 3,000 to 4,500 pupils. However, as the hunger bites, less than 20 percent of the children are in school, Moses Iremare, the parish Secretary for Education told Oil in Uganda.

This was confirmed by a visit to Kyapaloni Primary School.  Of the 500 registered pupils, only 112 were present. Only two of the school’s seven teachers had arrived for work.

Amos Twikirize, a Primary Five Teacher summed up their frustration.

“We are confused. There is shortage of food, no motivation and we do not know what to do. Our colleagues are out trying to survive, they cannot stay here all the time without food.”

Debts pile up

Uncertainty over the future, combined with the departure of many immigrant traders, has also hit local entrepreneurs hard.

In the past, enterprising locals borrowed from banks to finance buildings that they rented out as shops, restaurants and accommodation for business people coming into the area.

Now, “Most businessmen and women have fled Kabaale in fear of losing all their money,” according to Samson Bagonza, who owned a number of rentals at Kyapaloni.  “We have no more cash to pay fees or buy food and many of us are indebted to banks,” he adds.

Bagonza’s two children have dropped out of the secondary school in Hoima town. He also has outstanding bank loans he cannot repay. He has had to ask the bank to be patient until he receives government compensation.

“This oil project maybe good to the country but it is making us poorer and heavily indebted,” he says.

Fifty two-year-old Alice, who declined to give her second name, borrowed three million shillings (US$ 1,200) from a micro-finance institution and invested heavily in crop farming. But she was forced to abandon it when she heard the refinery will not spare her land.

“I am in now in hiding, waiting for the Government to compensate us. The loan owners are looking for me and I have had to switch off my telephone until I get the money to pay,” Alice admitted.

‘How much will we get?’

Those who are due compensation do not yet know how much they will get.

“We are like chicken whose heads have been cut off waiting to be slaughtered. We do not know when they will compensate us, how much and where we shall move,” 42-year-old Albert Edema angrily complains.

He worries that they will be paid less than the real value of the land, and that they will find it hard to acquire expensive land elsewhere.  He adds that while some residents want to be paid cash, others asked to be compensated with plots of land elsewhere.

Many villagers are expecting multimillion shilling settlements. However, sources in the government lands valuation departing revealed to Oil in Uganda that cash compensation is likely to be set in the region of 100,000 shillings per acre—substantially below local expectations.

Government response

Energy and Mineral Development Minister, Irene Muloni, told Oil in Uganda that the government will respect the choice of Kabaale parishioners as to whether they receive cash or land compensation.

She added that the government will help them to find alternative settlement areas, and give them two to three months to re-locate from the refinery area.

“These are our people. We are working for them, they cannot be thrown out without help,” she said.

Hon. Muloni also stated that compensation rates will reflect the best prevailing prices of the land in the areas affected. This, she said, would be determined by government valuers.

But as the local people wait for compensation, they are requesting relief food.

However, the Energy Minister called upon people to continue growing their crops until they are relocated. “There is nobody stopping them from growing food until the final relocation,” she clarified.

Bashir Hangi, a Communications Officer with the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department, also denied reports that government told local residents not to plant crops on the proposed site. “Instead, we told them that those who plant crops after the evaluation process will not be compensated.”

But this gave local farmers an incentive, if not an instruction, to down tools.

Hangi explained that the consultancy company is currently receiving comments and feedback on on their resettlement study.

“By the end of this month, we should have received the final report. We shall then implement,” he said.

He was unable to say, however, to give a firm date when the implantation will begin.

Report by FW