A traditional family residence near the oil production site in the Kingﬁsher development area. Photo: Just Finance International (2023).
Early this year Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni oﬃcially launched the oil drilling activities at the Kingfisher Development Area. This was celebrated as an important milestone in Uganda’s multibillion-dollar pipeline and oil drilling project. But in the villages located next to the oil wells, nobody is praising drilling.
In front of Uganda’s Lake Albert, a newly paved road wriggles down a steep mountainside. From halfway down the hill, the strong haze of the sun makes it difficult to determine where the shore ends and the lake begins. What is distinguishable is a settlement comprising hundreds of small traditional houses, one tall oil rig, and a large blue-roofed compound at the settlement’s center.
Massive changes appeared in Kyakapere in 2008. Within this small traditional fishing community, houses were rapidly demolished, land ownership changed hands and workers arrived from China and other regions in Uganda. In another two years, this small fishing community, with its original 6000 inhabitants, will concede more land to hundreds of additional workers from abroad. In addition, it will concede four well pads, 20 production wells, and 11 water injection wells.
The Kingfisher project area is operated by China’s parastatal oil company, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Compared to French TotalEnergies, its partner in the East African Crude Oil Pipeline project (EACOP), CNOOC has kept a low profile and largely avoided media contacts.
Until recently, the mountain road leading to the Kingfisher area prohibited visitors except those working or living there. Therefore, civil society organizations or independent media have reported virtually nothing about the Kingfisher project conditions.
When Just Finance International (JFI) arrived at the site in February 2023 the roadblock at the top of the mountain was unmanned and all cars could pass. During the visit, JFI members met with around 100 project-affected people from two different locations.
The JFI team moved around within the community and came close to oil operation activities. The oil operations were located surprisingly close to the fishing community’s residential areas—sometimes just a few meters apart. In some places, stray cattle prodded around the construction site.
Before CNOOC’s oil operations began, Kyakapere village had no land titles. Villagers paid no heed to who owned the land they all collectively used. Generations passed without major disputes, an arrangement recognized in Uganda’s constitution.
The villagers began to hear about plans for oil extraction in 2008. Negotiations between the village and CNOOC were led by a small delegation of elders, which later resulted in many mismanagement complaints. Instead of creating one land title for each family, CNOOC transposed the whole scattered village onto one big land title.
People who had to be relocated were told they could choose to move to another house or receive compensation in cash. But those who chose the house did not get to see the house—or even sketches of their promised residence—in advance. Instead of building traditional Ugandan houses, comprised of several small buildings, the company constructed chain houses on very small plots. Many villagers said they were disappointed when they were not brought to their newly acquired homes. All the relocated persons JFI met with said the houses were unsuitable for their needs and did not meet their traditions and customs.
“I am not satisfied. I want my land back,” said one man. His residence came without furniture, and he received no money to furnish his new home. He also shared that he only had electricity for six hours a day.
Meanwhile, relocated persons who chose cash compensation report that their compensation payments were far too low. One woman was given 600 000 UGX (about 160 USD), only a fraction of the expense of building her own house in the area.
Ugandaʼs ﬁrst oil rig in the Kingﬁsher area was launched in January and the production is planned to start 2025. Photo: Just Finance International (2023)
JFI spoke to another villager who had three houses expropriated by CNOOC. He received 700 000 UGX per house (187 USD) which was far insufficient to buy equivalent houses elsewhere. The situation took a heavy toll on his family, and his wife later moved out, leaving him behind with their children. “CNOOC’S operations broke families and brought tears”, he said.
Many villagers simply did not receive anything at all. Locals described to JFI incidents of people becoming homeless in CNOOC’s resettlement process. They were only given 24 hours to leave their property before bulldozers arrived and tore their house down.
CNOOC promised the local population new employment opportunities, scholarships, and improvements to the community’s infrastructure, schools, and healthcare services.
Yet today, 15 years after the pledges were not made, none of the community members JFI met believe that the oil project has improved their lives. Many young people received temporary jobs from CNOOC, but their pay is low and their prospects for long-term employment are limited. Furthermore, the vast majority of the work offered to the community is hard and unskilled labor. For example, during the construction of the road down the mountain, men from the local village were hired to manually move large rocks. They were also hired to mix concrete for a good foundation.
CNOOC has only built the road down the mountain. But all the heavy manual work was done by people from this community,” one man said. According to locals who spoke with JFI, such workers only receive about 10000 UGX per day (2,68 USD).
Rather than improving the quality of life for villagers, the development of the oil rig has harmed local livelihoods. An older man told JFI that he had 67 orange trees before CNOOC came to King Fisher. One day, without notifying him, the Chinese company cut them all down. He did not receive compensation or an explanation for the incident. Trees were a significant source of income for the family. The man complained to the village chairman but was ignored.
Small agricultural plots once contributed to villagers’ way of life. Yet even before they were evicted, CNOOC forbade many families from planting trees or developing communal land. Some households have endured these restrictions since 2017, cutting them off from cultivating their land and harvesting vegetables and fruits for their daily needs.
The thriving ﬁshing community has to adapt to oil activities. According to the community, the strong nightly light from the oil rig (in the background) limits the catch. Photo: Just Finance International (2023).
Raising livestock has also become harder since oil operations began. “We have no room for animals now and no room for children to play,” one man told JFI. “Our life was going to be better according to CNOOC but it has become miserable. CNOOC has damaged the life of this community.”
CNOOC’s development project threatened the village’s main source of income: fishing in Lake Albert. The rest of the completed oil rig in the area produces a strong light during night-time, which has reduced how many fish the villagers can catch. Many fishermen fear that this will affect fishing even more when the oil project is completed and with more rigs in place.
The EACOP pipeline connects Tilenga and Kingﬁsher upstream oil ﬁelds on Lake Albert with the main 1,443km heated underground pipeline to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.
For the past year, the consortium of CNOOC, TotalEnergies, and the EACOP has paid for widespread advertising on television and social media. This advertising promotes the benefits of the oil project and the generous compensation distributed to local villagers.
In one advertisement, a man smiles and says, “I got my dream house and a job from CNOOC”. JFI found this man in the King Fisher area and spoke with him. He confirmed that what he said was true, but he was one of the lucky few who received compensation. Contrary to how he was portrayed in the advertisement, he reported that he felt very disappointed with how minimally the company had done for the community.
“When many people move here, we lack hospitals or schools. We only offer one primary school. The roads need to be repaired and there are no land titles which make ownership unclear,” he said.
The man also bemoaned the lack of employment opportunities for skilled workers in the village. “There are many educated people here, but they do not get employment. We want CNOOC to train our youth, but they do not. They don’t care about our education. Instead, they move workers here from other locations,” he said.
While the language barrier has made communications difficult between the Chinese company and villagers, many locals say the real problem is not lack of ability but lack of will. They say CNOOC is not paying attention and unwilling to listen.
Just Finance International has, on several occasions, contacted CNOOC for a comment. However, to date, neither has received a response.
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