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Grabbing Karamoja’s gold

By Ronald Musoke

American, Indian, Arab companies invade mineral-rich region

Acerer village in Nakapiripirit District shows how mineral-rich this north eastern region of Uganda is.  It is your classic Karamoja hamlet with traditional manyatta thorn-stick and mud settlements in lush green acacia thickets located just half a kilometer from the crater-like pothole-filled Mbale-Nakapiripirit-Moroto Road. The men here still wear their brightly coloured wrappers, and the women still adorn their hair with mud, beads, and homemade copper necklaces.

Acerer is rich in graphite and marble. The 10km narrow section of this road that cuts through the village shimmers, thanks to the graphite-rich stones used to pave it. In the mid-morning sun, the twinkle in the greyish stones dazzles the eye for the entire stretch.

But graphite is just one of over a dozen different minerals to be found in Karamoja, according to the Department of Geological Survey and Mines in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development.

A 2011 survey by the Department of Geological Survey and Mines at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development found that Karamoja is endowed with many minerals including gold, limestone, uranium, marble, graphite, gypsum, iron, wolfram, nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium and tin.

Acerer is in fact more famous for another less visible mineral; gold.

If you venture a little more into the thickets of Acerer, you are most likely to find hundreds of artisanal miners covered in dirt working on raised platforms as they sift through the mud in search of gold. In a land known for lack of water, it is a surprise to see gallons and gallons of water being poured over mounds of mud and stone in search of just a few ounces of gold.

For decades, owing to insecurity in the sub-region, mining of some of these valuable minerals has been a preserve of these local artisanal miners. But that is changing.

Investment in modern, albeit small scale, mining is booming following the recent restoration of peace by the Uganda army which successfully disarmed the Karimojong youths and ended the armed violence associated with the cattle raiding culture in the sub-region.

But, as the government moves to attract mining companies into the sub-region, a recent Human Rights Watch report, has warned that more harm than good could be visited upon the Karimojong.

The 140-page report entitled, ‘How Can We Survive Here? The Impact of Mining on Human Rights in Karamoja, Uganda,” released on Feb.3 in Kampala is based on research conducted between May and November 2013.

It examines the activities of companies operating in Karamoja.

According to the report, between 2003 and 2011, there was a more than 700% increase of extractives companies registered to do mining-related activities in Karamoja.

No respect

But, the report says, the nomadic cattle-keeping Karimojong are already being chased off their land by mining companies and security agencies.

The report which was conducted between May and November, 2013, says although the government is promoting private investment in mining in Karamoja to bring economic development, there is urgent need to implement reforms to respect the rights of indigenous people to determine how their land—a huge chunk of which is under the communal land tenure system is to be used.

In the report, Human Rights Watch examines the conduct of three companies in different stages of the mining process: East African Mining, Jan Mangal, and DAO Uganda.

The report found that these companies have unlawfully explored for minerals and actively mined on land owned and occupied by the Karimojong.

HRW notes that the government, in partnership with these private companies and others, has excluded customary land owners from making decisions about the development of their own lands and has proceeded without their consent.

“Mining development could be a real boon to the people of Karamoja, bringing jobs and better security, services, and basic infrastructure,” said Daniel Bekele, the Africa director at Human Rights Watch, “However it is still unclear how the people of Karamoja will benefit, if at all, from mining, or how the government intends to protect their rights during this process.”

HRW also anticipates clashes between the traditional artisanal gold miners and the new larger-scale mining entities. They are concerned that clashes could erupt as the bigger companies seek to increase their encroachment on Karamoja land yet, over recent generations and worsening extreme weather patterns, families have turned to artisanal gold mining for survival.

No doubt, private sector investment could transform the region, providing jobs and improving residents’ security, access to water, roads, and other infrastructure but the extent to which Karamoja’s communities will benefit, if at all, remains to be seen.

As companies have begun to explore and mine in the region, communities are also voicing serious fears of environmental damage, and a lack of information as to how and when they will see improved access to basic services or other positive impact.

Confusing lawlessness

The Mining Act, 2013 requires negotiation of a surface rights agreement with landowners before mining begins and payments of royalties once revenues flow. However, the law does not require any communication or consent during exploration work.

The report says the mining companies have utilized this loophole in the law and disregarded the region’s indigenous people’s land rights—sometimes fencing off swaths of land without their consent.

Companies arriving to do exploration have promised communities benefits to mitigate the loss of land use and livelihood and other impact, including schools, hospitals, boreholes, jobs, scholarships, and money in exchange for their cooperation.

But even as exploration or mining goes on, the communities have not seen the promised benefits; nor have the activities been based on any consensual agreement between the communities and the companies over the use of their land.

The presence of the Ugandan army soldiers at exploration and mining operations has prompted significant confusion and fear, and is likely to impede constructive consultations with affected communities, the report says.

For instance, East African Mining, the Ugandan subsidiary of the Jersey-registered East African Gold, began exploring for gold in 2012 in Kaabong without consulting the indigenous land owners, says Human Rights Watch.

The first time people knew about the company’s interest in their land was when its employees and soldiers entered their land and began taking soil samples from their gardens and even within their homes, prompting fear and mass confusion.

While the company began holding community meetings months into its exploration, community members have continued to express confusion as to what the company is doing, how it may impact on them, and how they may benefit.

The concession area the company took over includes Lopedo, an area prized by local artisanal gold miners who have expressed fears that it will eventually seek to remove them from the land or destroy their own ability to mine, a key source of livelihood during the dry season.

Similarly, Jan Mangal, a company with roots in India’s jewellery 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 since 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.

The report says another company, DAO, the Ugandan subsidiary of a Saudi and Kuwaiti construction firm, failed to consult the community prior to cutting marble under its exploration license. While, after some time, it held several meetings to determine which families had households on the land it occupies and compensated individual families, tensions over land, employment, and water persist.

According to the people Human Rights Watch talked to, they are not opposed to development coming to Karamoja; but all they want is their indigenous rights to be recognised by both the government and the companies.

“There is nothing bad about companies coming, but what we hate is the way they come in, don’t show us respect, and don’t show us the impact and the benefit of their work for my people,” a Dodoth elder from Sidok, Kaabong is quoted as saying in the report.

“We want to see our natural resources exploited but our people should not be. Pastoralism lives here, we are pastoralists. The land looks vacant but it is not,” an artisanal mining organiser adds.

Community members told Human Rights Watch that they were confused about the private investors’ intentions and long-term plans, their unawareness of the communities’ rights or the government’s obligations and companies’ responsibilities under national and international law.

Govt has a duty

According to Human Rights Watch, governments around the world have a duty, and companies have a responsibility, to consult and cooperate with indigenous people to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.

This responsibility is based on indigenous people’s right to own, use, develop, and control their traditionally occupied lands and resources, which has been affirmed by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Land is held communally in Karamoja and used for grazing livestock and growing crops, as well as for traditional purposes such as burials and spiritual shrines. However, in the new mining concessions, the community’s right to respect their communal ownership of the land does not appear to have been clearly considered.

Uganda’s land laws recognise customary land ownership, but the government has not granted such certificates anywhere in the country and there are many concerns about the government’s willingness and commitment to protect the human rights of the Karimojong, the human rights agency says.

Simon Nangiro, the head of the Karamoja Miners’ Association says people are afraid their land will be sold under their gaze.

According to Maria Burnett, the Human Rights Watch researcher, the government needs to do more to protect the rights of Karamoja’s people, otherwise, she says, abuses are sure to follow.

She says royalties from mining could benefit the people of Karamoja if legal frameworks are put in place to protect their rights. But until then, she adds, the promising mining industry could do more harm than good for the rights of the community.

“The government urgently needs to create a land registration system that ensures security of tenure, particularly for communal land owners, and respects land rights of indigenous people,” she says.

Although Fred Kabagambe Kaliisa, the Permanent Secretary in the energy and mineral development ministry told The Independent he had not read the HRW report, he says most of the companies involved in the sub-region are doing so at the exploration stage and may not necessarily need permission from land owners to do their activities.

“You have got to differentiate what type of licence these companies have,” he said.

But even then, Human Rights Watch wants international donors; particularly the World Bank which has had a prominent role in supporting Uganda’s development of the mining sector, to set a positive precedent that would have supported the rights of the people of Karamoja.

“Donor-supported mining projects have yet to successfully address indigenous people’s rights in Uganda,” Bekele says.

“The key requirement that all ‘development’ projects, including minerals exploration, may only take place with the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous land owners needs to be at the core of all donor projects in Karamoja.”

The Human Rights Watch report came out the same day when the Africa Progress Panel, a Kofi Annan-led Geneva-based 10-member Panel that advocates equitable and sustainable development in Africa, urged policy makers and businessmen gathered in Cape Town for the 2014 Africa Mining Conference to ensure a fairer deal for African communities affected by their work.

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