The deadly cost of oil
What do you think oil should be worth? In Uganda, TotalEnergies think that tens of thousands ruined lives and a destroyed ecosystem is a fair price. We disagree.
What would you do if a company started telling you how to use your own land?
In Uganda, Lake Albert sits in the Buliisa and Nwoya districts. Local communities live off the crops they grow on the land around it. The region contains unique flora and fauna, rich biodiversity, elephants, chimpanzees, hippos – and oil.
In 2006, oil reserves were discovered on the shores of the lake. French energy company TotalEnergies saw a chance for profit so it bought shares and became operator of the Tilenga project in partnership with Chinese and Ugandan oil companies CNOOC and UNOC to develop six oil fields through the drilling of more than 400 wells, a third of which are in a protected national park.
Even before the first drop of oil is extracted, the Tilenga project has been wreaking havoc on the region for many years now. To develop the project, TotalEnergies needed the land of over a quarter of the communities living in Buliisa, but offered scant compensation to the affected families – compensation that took years to be paid, and that for some, never even arrived. Families are left without a way to make a living and many are going hungry, because they are being prevented from using their land freely.
The fragile and crucial ecosystem is also heavily threatened by the oil project.
The project will unleash a devastating impact on the climate: the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the extraction and end-use of the oil are set to be greater than the annual emissions of Uganda and Tanzania combined.
Up until recently, efforts to hold TotalEnergies accountable have faced serious obstacles. Complaints to the company fall on deaf ears. Activists are harassed and arrested. Locals are intimidated and afraid to speak to NGOs.
In short, it is impossible to obtain justice in such a rigged game.
So what’s the solution?
So what’s the solution?
Human rights and environmental due diligence requirements for businesses would have meant this project would never have got off the ground. If communities had been properly consulted and given adequate information, countless families would still have their homes. Real environment and climate due diligence would have shown the project to be hugely risky.
Recently, six French and Ugandan NGOs have decided to use France’s new ‘duty of vigilance’ law to file a court case against Total. If successful, this will force Total to stop violating human rights and provide fair and upfront compensation to the affected communities in Uganda.
However, this is not the end of the story. The French law contains many loopholes that make it very hard for NGOs and communities like those in Uganda to succeed in obtaining justice.
The plaintiffs have to prove that Total did not do enough to avoid these violations – but many company documents showing this are in the hands of the company. In authoritarian countries like Uganda, collecting evidence and testimonies is difficult and dangerous. Social and environmental studies cost thousands of euros
This story shows why a new EU law must empower communities to get justice in EU courts when their human rights are disregarded, and make sure companies like TotalEnergies are obliged to prevent harm to the environment and the climate.