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February 20, 2019

Locals Should Benefit From Mineral Deals

Have you followed this? It’s a new report on the extractive industries development in the north of the country looking at the actions of three exploration companies and how they interact with the locals. Land is held on a customary basis and the residents have found it difficult to obtain land titles. As a consequence, discussions about compensation for exploration are difficult – and it is not entirely clear whether the exploration firms have actually pursued those, or if they do eventually, whether they do so in good faith. The locals say that the exploration firms simply turn up in their back yard and get to work, literally. They are accompanied by armed government officers, which people found intimidating.

Of course there had been promises that the development of the extractive industries sector would benefit the locals, that they would be given jobs and helped with the development of their area, but so far, not much of this has developed, and it is also not clear whether the locals were actually included in determining what those development plans should look like. Many of them still lead a nomadic life, so that probably makes such processes more difficult. The whole area has been marginalised for many years, suffering from food insecurity, malnutrition, and also severe insecurity. The report says that about 82 per cent of the people in the area live on less than $1 a day and that 45 per cent of children face chronic malnutrition. Government has done little about this – I remember that famine conditions have to get really bad before anyone kicks into action.

Sounds familiar? I am sure it does – but it is actually not about oil and Turkana. It is about gold and other minerals next door, in Uganda’s Karamoja. Human Rights Watch have just published a new report, ‘How can we survive here: The impact of mining on human rights in Uganda.’ When I scanned through it, I was struck by the similarities. Change the names, replace ‘oil’ with ‘gold’, and you are looking at pretty much the same complaints.

If a community can not prove land rights, then it will find it difficult to obtain royalties, or just generally protect their land – and unsurprisingly, the Ugandan government has not been very helpful in document land rights. These are fragile ecosystems in which competition for scarce resources among the population is already an issue, so it is not difficult to drive a wedge between people. HRW write:

‘Jan Mangal, a company with roots in India’s jewelry industry, arrived in Rupa, Moroto, complete with excavators and other mining equipment in mid-2012, with the support of high-level government officials, but without the knowledge of indigenous land owners or an exploration license. While the company has negotiated agreements with several individual members of the community for use of the land, many elders and most community members are confused about what has been agreed, and whether there is an agreement at all. This has prompted inter-communal animosity and accusations that certain elders have sold the community’s land.’

Of course these things are complicated. Oil or gold can earn a country millions. So it is natural that a government will want to develop this resource as quickly as possible. If revenue for an entire country is at stake, maybe it will not be possible to preserve a traditional lifestyle of a minority population – how do you balance a minority’s rights against those of an entire population? This is also a challenge that you find in the development of the dams in Ethiopia and the impact on Lake Turkana: Several thousand megawatt powering an entire country – might that worth putting the traditional income sources of a minority population at risk?

Exploration firms naturally also face challenges: often, local populations are not very knowledgeable about what are ultimately very technical and complex matters. Karamoja and Turkana have no ready workforce of oil engineers and the like, which limits employment opportunities, especially in the better paid professions.

HRW also point out that the mining firms currently exploring in Uganda’s Karamoja are none of the big players, so it is more difficult to exert public pressure on them. Tullow, in contrast, are a listed firm and for them, negative publicity can have a direct impact on their share price. Even when exploration firms follow the rules, they are still vulnerable in a corrupt environment: media reports recently quoted residents who admitted that they had been paid and bussed to the Tullow site to protest – not because Tullow did anything wrong, but because local politicians were on the take. In this case, the Government of Kenya took its eyes off the ICC cases for just long enough to shoo everyone back, but beyond the official PR, I am not very optimistic about either government handling these new challenges sensibly.

It will always be difficult to reconcile the many opposing interest. Still – that is not an excuse for a government not to do the best it can. Unfortunately, what both the Kenyan and the Ugandan government currently deliver is not anywhere near the best. It is not really even a reasonable effort. Because they never did try to deliver: after all, both Turkana and Karamoja have simply been neglected for ages, as evidenced in persistent insecurity, food insecurity, and the lack of infrastructure.

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