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The great land grab

By Haggai Matsiko

UK and Germany firms use government officials to grab 20,000 peasants’ land

As people celebrate Christmas, it is a luxury that others can even hardly afford to think about and have spent their last 10 Christmas like that—sad, poor and displaced.

One of them is Mzee Matayo Kiyitawaguru, 80, one of the 2,000 people that were forcibly and brutally evicted by the Ugandan army following the government’s lease of the residents’ land to Kaweri Coffee Plantation, a subsidiary of the Hamburg-based Neumann Kaffee Gruppe.

Kiyitawaguru, once a proud owner of a 30 iron sheet house, now lives in one roomed shack and alone. He can only walk with the aid of a stick.


His house was burnt during the eviction. With no house and income, his wife started strangling him blaming him until she left him. “I have suffered my son, I loved my wife but we had to part because when I lost my property she turned anger on me,” he says as he gasps for breath because of hunger—a terrible juxtaposition of a man that once used to harvest six and two bags of coffee and tea respectively.

“They destroyed and burnt everything as bullets flew in the air,” Kiyitawaguru says, “they lied that they would build us [three elders] houses, two of us have died I am the only one left.”

Kiyitawaguru lives in a crowded village outside the vast coffee plantation with some of the people that he was evicted with.

A few metres from his home is David Sekandi whose grandfather was one of the earliest people to stay on this land. He says that his ancestors relocated here over 100 years.

Ssekandi reckons that the August of 2001 was like nothing he had ever seen. “Kids and old people died—some were beaten by mosquitoes and snakes,” he says, “we used to live in the bush because our houses were burnt and we had nowhere to stay.”

He adds that with no option, many evictees were forced to work for the company that displaced them.

The company also displaced the areas main school– Kitemba Primary School—where its head office now comfortably sits. As such many children dropped out of school and now some of them work in the company – some 15 of them were seen seated outside the head offices having porridge for lunch.

Workers say they are paid between Shs. 2300—2700 to work on an area of 700 trees of coffee or about two hectares daily. Since Uganda has no minimum wage, Kaweri officials say that the wages are adequate using the wages in the tea and sugar sectors as a defence.

No lessons learnt—Namwasa

Despite public outcry and international concern over the eviction, 10 years after, another group of 20,000 villagers [2011Oxfam report] has been evicted by the army, their crops destroyed, houses burnt from about 10 villages to give way for a plantation forest by New Forest Company Uganda Limited (NFC).

52 year old, William Bakasheka who represents part of this group says they are now concentrated in a small village-on a certain landlord’s one mile and 560 hectares of land on the outskirts of the forest company.

The villagers here know that as President Museveni pushed Parliament to pass the Land Amendment Bill 2007, claiming it was to protect tenants from evictions with one hand, his other hand wrote letters sanctioning their eviction from the land most of them had spent over 10 years.

“I know for sure that it’s the President that ordered my eviction from land I had spent about 14 years,” Bakasheka says.

In a Sept 14, 2009 letter, Museveni wrote to the Minister of Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba, asking her to evict the villagers. On his orders, Kirunda Kivejinja (then Internal Affairs) and Asuman Kiyingi (State for Lands) and Mutagamba to visit the area and order the people off the land.

“These ministers came here and wanted us to quit on that very day but one of our leaders negotiated with them to give us a month so that we could prepare ourselves,” Bakasheka says.

Gold mine

Although, government insists that the area is a forest reserve, President Museveni’s letter to Mutagamba says the area is littered with gold. He said Kisita Mining Company was commissioned in 2001 to prospect for gold in the area.

Museveni was also clear. Only people who settled in the area by 1992, would be resettled in line with his “Executive Order on halting the eviction of encroachers” on forests. Of the 20,000, NFC says that on 32 families were there by 1992.

Several officials disagreed with the eviction but theirs fell on deaf ears.

Godfrey Kazibwe, the Presidential Advisor on Luwero Triangle for instance, wrote to the National Forestry Authority in April 2009 dismissing claims that the area was a forest reserve and telling them not to evict people.

“There is suspicion that the land in question is not part of the forest reserve and the people involved are private individuals disguising themselves as NFA personnel whereas not, or are using some elements in NFA,” Justus Karuhanga, President Museveni’s former legal aide, also wrote to the RDC Mubende, on July 25, 2005.

Apart from the two, residents sold their remaining belongings, raised Shs20million and sued the forest company for harassing, and trying to evict them.

On Aug 24, 2009, High Court at Nakawa issued an order restraining it from evicting people. The directive was to be heard on Oct 8, 2009 but Justice Faith Mwondha extended it to March 18, 2010.

However, on December 11, 2009, ministers Kivejinja, Mutagamba, Kiyingi and RDC Bewayo at a rally told the people to vacate the land by Feb 28, 2010.

On Jan 3, 2010, the army arrested some of the villagers and their leaders in Kyamukasa as they met to plan on what to do. And the evictions took off. Although NFC authorities say the eviction process was peaceful, Bakashesha says that one kid died in one of the houses that were burnt, another fell in a water pond as they escaped.

Zawedde Lukwago & Co. Advocates, the counsel for the villagers says that two schools were closed by the forestry company. Ssefra Parents School had 350 pupils while Mpologoma Parents School had 400.

Government officials say most of these are illegal immigrants from Congo and Rwanda. But Bakasheka disputes this saying that they were given land by Kayoga Lubega (commander of the world war heroes) that the president had given him to distribute amongst the sons and grandsons of heroes.

“Government had given us LCs, we had polling stations, if they knew we were illegal immigrants why did they give us LC and polling stations; they knew we were here lawfully,” Bakasheka says.

Bakasheka, still the NRM chairman in his village – he registered supporters for the party – says they were threatened to vote for Museveni.

“We were threatened, we were told that if you give Besigye votes, Museveni will go back to the bush and you will have two wars to fight hunger and war,” he says, But honestly now I am NRM on the skin but not at heart.”

The displaced group mainly farmers have lost years of their hard labour. Most of them are renting shelter in a small trading centre. On the outskirts of the trading centre, hundreds of the evictees have erected one-roomed-triangular-shaped grass thatched shacks where they stay in what looks like a refugee camp.

Everything here including food, Bakasheka says, is expensive, most of these people can hardly feed themselves, how can they feed their families, all their lives they depended on one thing farming but now they have nowhere to farm.

According to the Population and Housing Census Analytical Report 2005, the district’s population is projected at 603,900 in 2012. Of these, 78.2 percent of the households depend mainly on subsistence farming.

Like Kiyitawaguru and all those displaced by Kaweri coffee, these people know not Christmas and some of them are not likely to have a meal on that day. The cheapest meal here goes for Shs.3000, yet a labourer on a plantation which is what most of them do earns a maximum of Shs 2700.

Many kids have dropped out of school. Bakasheka who is arguably better off is a frustrated man. He had four kids in secondary school, three of which have since dropped out because of lack of school fees.

He says that nobody cares about them as if they are a cursed lot. “Ever since we were displaced, no single government official has ever cared to know where we relocated to, how we are copying, no one,” he says sadly, “It is only NGO’s like Oxfam, journalists and Uganda Land Alliance that keep coming to see how we do.”

It is not two years since Bakasheka and his fellow villagers were displaced. But for Kiyitawaguru and all those evicted by Kaweri coffee, it is now over 10 years and the government has never cared to look their way despite several promises to compensate them. “We only see them during campaigns and when they get votes that is where it ends,” Ssekandi says.

Together, Kaweri coffee and New Forest Company have displaced over 22,000 people in Mubende district alone.  Going by the 2002 Population and Housing Census which put the district’s population at 436,493, the two international companies have evicted five percent of the population. Since 2007, over 17,000 were also evicted the neigbhoring Kiboga district.

The total area of Mubende District is 1793.4 sq Mile or 464,611.4 Hectares. But of this the two companies sit on 22510 hectares or 87 sq Mile – Kaweri 2510 and NFC 20,000 hectares.

As you traverse the district, there are thick commercial plantations mainly of commercial pine forests that residents say were once home to people. Residents say that there are more villagers where evictions are looming because of commercial plantations.

According to the environmental alert report 2006, forested area outside protected areas in Mubende was estimated at 123,127 hectares which is 26.5 percent.

The National Forest Authority claims that by leasing what they say is a forest reserve to private commercial farmer’s they are rejuvenating Uganda’s diminishing forest cover. John Diisi, NFA’s Coordinator of GIS/Mapping, said out of Uganda’s 3.6 million hectares of forest cover, 80,000 hectares is lost each year.

This could gain Uganda a lot of carbon credits but according to Oxfam denying the residents due compensation, NFC contravened international practices regarding resettlement and development.

Oxfam Country Director Ayman Omer says their report was not looking at the legality of people on the land, but at their rights. “You cannot just evict them without giving them alternative livelihoods,” Omer told The Independent.

Oxfam also found the term “encroachers” offensive. “This is a dangerously loaded term that pre-judges people’s rights and dehumanizes them, making it easier to justify violent actions. And it is a highly misleading term, because the people maintain that they did in fact have lawful entitlement to the land and were testing that argument in ongoing legal cases,” the report argued.

But NFC blames the delay in resettling the entitled families on the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, whose mandate it says was to provide compensation.

Risky business

No one wants to comment on land issues in Mubende because apparently it is risky. At the district headquarters after several requests, a top district official agreed to talk to us but on conditions of anonymity.  But the official started with a warning:

“My son be careful as you follow these land issues in Mubende, you are still young and your parents still love you. These people who have deployed armies, fired bullets and shot some people cannot sit as you expose them.”

Asked why there were rampant land evictions in Mubende than any other district in Uganda, the official said that the main reason was that much of the land in Mubende was Mailo land belonging to Buganda Kingdom but was grabbed by individuals and has been changing hands since then.

The district official also added that knowing that most of this land belonged to the Buganda Kingdom, several top government officials have connived with multinational companies to evict people from the land. This land according to the official is in former Bewekula and Singo counties part of the 9000 sqmiles.

The official cited plantation farming as one of the major drivers of evictions adding that while people have heard about mainly Kaweri and Namwasa evictions many people have been evicted by powerful individuals who buy land expensively and fence off other dwellers forcing them to sell. The official cited lack of effective laws to protect landlords and squatters.

Apart from nongovernmental organizations and some of the evicted, the district official said that the only person that has authoritaty on the land issues is the Resident District Commissioner because of the office’s deep involvement in displacing people.

Although the district has a land board, according to the official, this has not taken any part because the directives come from the President’s office thus the direct connection with the RDC’s office.

So touchy is the matter that when this reporter approached the Deputy RDC, Evelyn Tinkamarirwe, she quickly referred him to the District Internal Security Officer (DISO), where she called a small meeting to probe the reporter’s intentions.

“The Namwasa issue has reached a point of no correction by local media, Oxfam an international NGO came and did a false report,” one of the officers said as the, “there is not much you can change, we would advise to go back to Kampala.”

While Mubende is at the centre of massive land evictions and grabbing cases, several parts of the country have suffered too.

For instance in Buliisa and Hoima districts, since the discovery of massive deposits of oil of about 2billion barrels, it was estimated that by 2009 over 700 hectares of land were grabbed and people evicted. Some hundreds of people in Bullisa still complain that they have not been compensated.

A Feb 2008 World Bank northern Uganda land study found that Government was massively grabbing land either directly or indirectly through military officers to give it to investors. The report pointed to high ranking military officers who had grabbed land in Acholi particularly Amurru Districts and the elite Acholis in Kitgum District.

Although the Land Act 1998 prohibits the sale of land to non-Ugandan enterprises and foreign companies, President has made it his habit to give them land and in most cases free of charge.

A 2009-2010 report by FIAN, Food First Information and Action Network, an international organization, found that the government has reportedly leased 2m feddans of land (840,127 ha) – a staggering 2.2% of Uganda’s total area – in various parts of the country to Egypt, so that Egypt’s private sector may come in and produce wheat and maize for export to Cairo.

In 2003, the High Commissioner for Human Rights observes that ‘this race to attract investment might lead to a race to the bottom to the severe detriment of human rights.

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