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Unwanted investors

By Haggai Matsiko

Making resource rich regions become food poor

Deep in Bukuya Sub County in Mubende district, a gold-mining company, AUC Mining Ltd owned by the British and some influential Ugandans, evicted about 400 peasants.

At the gate to the mining company, one finds not ordinary security guards but the mean-looking soldiers of the Uganda army in their full battle camouflage stand like menacing robots with automatic machine guns slung over their shoulders.

In the same area, peasants claim two landlords, including a former MP, have evicted about 1000 people.

On Feb. 22, President Museveni was given a report showing that investors, mainly local real estate developers, have evicted about 4000 peasants in various parts of the country.

The investors included; Zion Construction Ltd, Riis Coffee Ltd, Akright, Jomayi, Njovu properties among others.

About 1000 pastoralists were evicted from Rakai district, reportedly on State House orders to give way for big investment on the Sango Bay land even when they had standing leases on the land.

In oil rich Buseruka sub-county in Hoima District in western Uganda, the government plans to evict about 30,000 peasants to give way for a billion dollar oil refinery in the area.

In Amuru District in northern Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, the Madhvani Group of Companies and leaders at different levels of the Acholi community, are locked in disagreement over 40,000 hectares of land.

President Museveni has for over two years said the land, which he describes as idle, should be given to the Madhvani Group to grow cane and build a sugar plant.

The peasants who communally own the land have welcomed Museveni’s sugar barons but they have one request; the Madhvani’s must give them shares in the investment and allow them to retain 50 percent of the land. President Museveni has declared them “enemies of the economy”.

If the Amuru deal between government and the investors goes ahead on Museveni’s terms, it will join what critics are calling land grabbing; which has so far claimed about 300,000 hectares nationwide according to data compiled by The Independent.

It is part of a trend that has seen over 200 million hectares snatched from poor peasants by rich and powerful companies and individuals in Africa.  The figures could be higher given how secretive such deals are.

These land acquisition for investments  in Uganda have been mainly characterised by human rights abuse and violation, secrecy, destruction of peasant lives and properties and forceful eviction of  bonafide occupants  without due compensation.

As a result, these forceful evictions with no compensation are turning people destitute, critics say. They threaten to spark conflict over resources and cause widespread hunger.

Hunger looms

In Kyapaloni village of oil rich Buseruka sub-county in Hoima District in western Uganda, Norah Bahungi, a 50-year old widow with nine children, is sounding hunger drums.

Barungi has spent 40 years tilling her piece of land, taking care of her children by cultivating—she grows bananas, cassava, and was earning from her mango, orange and other fruit trees.

Not anymore.

“They stopped us from cultivating crops that take more than three months to mature, we can’t get money for school fees,” Barungi said, “Already, there is hunger here; we buy all the food.”

She is complaining about government officials who plan to evict about 30,000 peasants to give way for a billion dollar oil refinery in the area.

As we talk, a group of women and men are busy in another corner of the trading centre. They have erected stalls and are selling foodstuff including tomatoes, cassava and matooke. When I was last here barely a year ago in July, 2012, there was no such food market.

The discovery of oil and now the refinery “made me happy because it means Uganda will develop,” Barungi told The Independent, “but we also want to be treated well so we can enjoy this development because we are also Ugandans”.

The government announced it set aside Shs 70 billion but it is yet to compensate and relocate those who want to be moved to other areas.

But Barungi’s situation is critical because, according to Oxfam, women farmers produce more than half of all the food grown in the world.

Ignored farmers feed the world

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) also notes that local communities, with the biggest pre-occupation as agriculture are what feed the world.

It notes that poor small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa produce 90 percent of the region’s farm produce.

A UN scientific study, noted that small scale farmers, using organic, agro-ecological methods of production, offer a much better solution to meeting the world‘s growing food needs.

In Uganda, however, most of these farmers are not considered that valuable. The government has failed to make the much needed critical interventions in agriculture development even in the face of international calls. Money for intervention usually ends up in air-conditioned boardrooms.

As a result, throughout the villages this reporter traversed along impassable roads, trucks carrying sacks of dry maize and beans could be seen stuck in the mud. They were taking food to the peasants in the villages instead of carrying any surplus food out.

With no study to show the impact of land grabs in these communities, it is hard to confirm the assertions that people no longer have land to grow food crops. Neither can anyone authoritatively prove assertions by several villagers that land grabbing is responsible for the hunger they are facing and that is likely to get worse in the future.

However, one thing is not in dispute. Regions that are dominated by commercial plantations have experienced food shortage and ever spiraling food prices.

Questionable investors

There is no doubt that investment is welcome, and indeed urgently needed, according to a 2013 Oxfam report titled,  Promises, Power, And Poverty Corporate land deals and rural women in Africa. But, Oxfam says, the model of investment and the drivers behind it are questionable.

The overwhelming driver of these corporate investors, critics say, is big profits—they try to keep costs as low as possible by paying farmers low prices, and workers low wages. Workers have severally demonstrated over poor pay at the sugar companies and recently at Bidco in Jinja and some time back at the company’s plant in Thika, in neighbouring Kenya.

That is why it is the duty of the government to protect its citizens by ensuring first of all that land acquisitions are legal and proper.

Busoga region for instance, despite the several sugar companies operating here, is considered Uganda’s second poorest region. Farmers abandoned food crops for cane growing. Yet considering that majority of Ugandans own 0.5 hectares, the returns from cane to such farmers can only be meager. With the demand for food surging all the time, the prices too are.

“Sugar factories have been in Busoga for several years now but Busoga has the worst social and economic indicators,” one farmer based in Jinja said.

Yet President Museveni has been battling to give Madhvani 40,000 hectares of land in Lakang village in Amuru District to grow sugar there, making promises of jobs and better incomes for the locals.

With the soils in Mukono and Busoga getting depleted and Bunyoro already under another sugar manufacturer, Kinyara Sugar Works owned by the Metha group, the untouched and heavily fertile lands of Acholi are simply too luring to Madhvani.

But locals, including top leaders like the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanya, who is an area MP, the Acholi “people’s wealth is measured in terms of herds of cattle…the land is used to feed the cattle, and even for hunting. It is not idle”.

If sugarcane growing is the ideal, some ask, why not let the locals grow the cane and sell it to the Madhvani’s instead of taking their land?

In neighboring Karamoja locals claim that gold mining companies and other investors have already grabbed about 60 percent of their land.

Another bio-fuels investor, Bidco Oil Refineries, conquered Kalangala Islands erecting a plant to process palm oil from its 62,000 hectares of farmland and 3000 hectares of its out growers. But with the project, critics claim, came food scarcity and exorbitant food prices.

Irresistible incentive

The incentive for Museveni to parcel out land to these investors is too high. At a political level, these investors pay taxes and locally provide formerly imported household staples like sugar and edible cooking fat.

By June last year, Bidco was producing 16,000 tonnes of edible vegetable oil and paying Shs 74 billion in taxes. Museveni’s argument is that if the company started producing 250,000 tonnes of vegetable oil, its tax contribution would rise to Shs 900 billion. It would also save Uganda an import bill of Shs 750 billion.

The commercial forests, coffee and sugar investors also have such statistics which Museveni likes to quote.

However, critics disagree.

In December last year, Kofi Annan, told the 34th Session of the Governing Council of the International Fund for Agricultural Development that priority must be given to growing more food, not cash crops.

“The market within Africa for staple food crops,” Kofi said, “… far exceeds the revenue Africa receives for internationally traded cash crops like coffee, cocoa, tea and cut flowers. Food, primarily for domestic consumption, must be our focus.”

Companies which ignore the issue of land tenure, a December 2012 report, The Financial Risks of Insecure Land Tenure: An Investment View by the Rights and Resources Initiative notes, expose themselves to substantial, and in some cases extreme, risks.

“… unresolved conflicts over land tenure significantly augment the financial risks for companies in infrastructure, mining, agriculture and forestry,” the report notes.

To deal with mushrooming land grabs, President Museveni recently decreed that there are no more evictions.

But critics say that the President Museveni’s directives are illegal and a potential cause of conflict between landlords and tenants.

“What Uganda needs is clear land policies with proper safe guards for its people and not illegal decrees like that,” says Esther Obaikol, the executive director of Uganda Land Alliance (ULA).

Indeed, a new land policy and raft of land laws are under review. But Uganda’s problem has not been laws and policies, it has been their implementation.

As activists marked the International Global Day of Peasant’s Struggles against Land Grabbing on April 17, this reporter embarked on a four-day journey tracing locals that have already been pushed off their lands to give way for big investment.

Big land investments, the government usually claims, bring jobs and roads to the locals, but half of the 500 miles covered during this investigation, was on the impassable roads. The majority of those pushed off their land had not secured jobs as the prized large plantation and other investments create very fewer jobs compared to traditional agriculture.

In areas like Mubende, where government evicted over 20,000 peasants to create room for development, the investors have cordoned off natural resources like water ponds and wells making water scarce. The peasants now have to buy costly water.

Foreign investors

For the 4000 residents of Kitemba village in Mubende district, life has been terrible for the last 12 years.

Kaweri Coffee Plantations Ltd forcefully evicted them with no compensation, leaving them to brave hunger at the edge of the vast 2,512 hectares coffee plantation owned by the subsidiary of German’s Neumann Kaffee Gruppe.

The ULA, which researches and documents land issues in Uganda, notes that already foreigners control between four and eight percent of the country’s land. Under Uganda’s complex tenure systems, foreigners cannot own land. But they can get leases of up to 99 years.

A few kilometers away, in the same part of the district, thousands of residents remain patched on a small piece of land after the government deployed soldiers that forcefully evicted over 20,000 of them, destroyed their crops, burnt their houses to give way for a UK commercial tree company, New Forests Company.

The trading centre where they most of them settled, renting shelter and buying everything from salt to food is now even bigger—an indication that it is turning into a settlement.

As negotiations over compensation and relocation of the peasants trudge on, the poor who were once food stable have been food insecure; the trucks that once left the villages overflowing with sacks of Irish potatoes and other food stuffs are eerily absent.

The victims of AUC Mining Company in Mubenda say officials from State House, the official home of President Museveni, are behind the eviction force.

Many land grabbers claim a connection to State House and the military. In some cases, however, the claims are bogus and are used by imposters to intimidate the land owners.

In Bukuya, the evicted peasants are patched on the edges of the vast hoarded-off land. A few who were compensated have bought small patches of land that they cannot grow enough food on. All say they can barely scrape by.

“I never benefitted from anything,” Sseruwaga Bonny, 55,  a father of 11 says, “When they evicted us, the money they gave was very small, they had written our properties, houses our crops promising to give us good money only to give us peanuts.”

Sseruwaga says his piece of land was nine acres and he was given a little over Shs 2 million. He ended up buying about an acre and a half.

To eke a living now, he wakes up very early and climbs the hill to mine gold in an illegal site. With not enough land to cultivate, it seems the only option for him and his family to eke a living. But his future here is uncertain too. The investor next door has paid a visit at their mine and expressed interest in it to the authorities.

Foreign considered best

The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth, a 2012 book by Fred Pearce attributes the land take-overs by foreigners to the neglect of agriculture by the African governments.

Pearce notes: “Their [African governments] desire for a quick fix to deep—seated problems makes foreign investors with their big promises attractive. Many governments ask few questions when investors come calling. They clear land of existing inhabitants, and often do not even ask for rent.

There is often an unspoken cultural cringe, in which foreign is always considered best. The investment, ministers believe, will inevitably bring food and jobs to their people. But such easy assurances rarely work out, for reasons that are social, environmental, economic, and geopolitical—and sometimes a toxic mix of all the four.”

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