Oil discovery changes land use in Bunyoro

Gardens next to a forest in Hoima District. Due to the discovery of oil in the Albertine Grabben, land has become valuable and people have started encroaching on forest land for agriculture. Photo by Francis Mugerwa.

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Mad dash. Residents worried of being left out as investors and speculators buy huge chunks of land to strategise for the nascent industry.


Steven Kisembo was born and bred on a small piece of customary land in Kakindo village, Buliisa Town Council. The 49-year-old farmer did not know that beneath his mud-and-wattle house was a huge oil well until 2008 when Tullow Oil started exploring for oil in his village. “On June 26, 2008, I was compensated to vacate my home so that the company explores oil on my land,” Mr Kisembo, a father of 10, recalls.

Mr Kisembo, who relocated to about 500 metres away from his former home, recalls being paid a compensation of about Shs10 million for his house and crops he had planted on a piece of land he estimates to be about two acres. “Government officials told me that oil exploration would only be conducted on 150 by 100 metres but I have not re-accessed my land since then,” he says.

Mr Kisembo is one of the residents of Bunyoro sub-region who are experiencing changes on their land uses since oil deposits were discovered in the region. Oil firms have set up well pads, camps and constructed access roads through communal grazing areas. Although initial indications are that they are occupying land temporarily, residents say temporary land occupation has remained ambiguous.

Impact of oil firms
In instances where they have damaged properties, oil firms said they have paid compensation rates to property owners set by the chief government valuer. “Compensation is paid for long-term land use while rentals are paid to landowners for temporary use. There are no rental payments outstanding to any projected affected persons. The amounts paid are not discretionary for the oil companies to negotiate with landowners. The law gives the sole power to determine those rates to the Chief Government Valuer,” Tullow Oil said in an email response to the Daily Monitor.

The discovery of oil and gas has also caused the appreciation of land value even in rural areas that are now getting transformed into urban centres. The resources have also attracted investors and speculators who are acquiring chunks of land to strategise how to profiteer from the nascent industry.
The oil industry has also sparked off a scramble for land that at times has left some communities to be displaced by new landlords that are procuring pieces of land from individuals that were formerly owned communally.

The Buliisa District chairperson, Mr Fred Lukumu, says communities in his district traditionally own land communally much as many of them lack documents to prove ownership of their land. “Some people take advantage of this absence of documentary ownership of land to circumvent our traditional norms and values about our communal land ownership,” Mr Lukumu, whose district has more than 20 oil wells, says. “People are moving away from communal land ownership and have started to process individual titles. Even people who migrated away from the district are coming back to reclaim ancestral and fallowed land,” he adds.

Protests over ban on Titling of land
Government has since banned the processing of land titles in the Albertine Grabben to curb land grabbing, a move that has been bitterly protested by investors and leaders in the region. Ms Mulinde Mukasa-Kintu, the acting commissioner land administration in the ministry of Lands, in an October 7, 2011 to the solicitor general, sought legal advice whether occupiers of land in oil exploration areas in the Albertine grabben can be allowed to acquire land titles.

Taking into an account of the fact that land boards are independent in exercising their duties of facilitating the registration and transfer of interests in land in districts, the solicitor general said occupiers of land in the Albertine grabben are entitled to own land titles as per Article 237(1) of the constitution.

Acquisition of titles halted
“Basing on the advice as stated above, the occupiers of land in the Albertine grabben and Buliisa should be issued with titles. The law provides a process that government can use to acquire land if petroleum is discovered. This is under the land acquisition Act and the land owner is compensated for the land,” the January 24, 2012 letter read.

Despite that legal advice, the Lands ministry has continued not to issue land titles for people in the grabben.

The Ministry of Lands spokesperson, Mr Dennis Obbo, said the ban is an administrative measure to protect customary land owners in the sub-region who were losing their land to grabbers and speculators. “The ban was also aimed at giving time for physical planning of the Albertine Grabben to ensure there is orderly development,” Mr Obbo said.

In Hoima’s Kabwooya Sub-county where explorers have discovered more than five oil wells, the sub-county chairperson, Mr Francis Twesige Mukooto, says the discoveries have heightened tensions and land conflicts in the area. “We are registering cases of new claimants of land adjacent to oil wells. There are also cases of relatives bickering over land. Some parents have demanded to repossess land that they had passed on to their children,” Mr Mukooto says.

Ms Winnie Ngabiirwe, the executive director Global Rights Alert, a community-based organization, says the government should sensitise the people on their land rights an ease the processes of acquiring land titles, especially by reducing on associated costs including money and time. “There should be deliberate efforts to sensitise indigenous communities on their land rights. Local people need to appreciate the value of their land, and therefore be able to negotiate and sell on a willing buyer- willing seller basis,” says Ms Ngabiirwe, who is building advocacy skills of communities living adjacent to oil wells.

Advice to government
She adds that there is need for public litigation and legal fraternity that can give pro-bono services to the poor people who may not have the money to face off rich land grabbers. The president of Bunyoro Lake Albert Indigenous Peoples Survival Movement, Mr Herbert Munyomo, says it is regrettable that exploration activities on the shores of Lake Albert have resulted into communities being deprived of their land.

“Oil discovery in our traditional territory has come with land grabbing and illegitimate acquisition of titles by officials who are non indigenous in the Albertine basin,” Mr Munyomo says. “This has led to collapse of our traditional economic activity of salt mining (at Kibiro Salt Mining Site) and loss of our identity such as cultures, lifestyles, traditional habitat and environment have been destroyed” he added.

The Midwestern Regional Anti Corruption Coalition (MIRAC), a regional civil society anti-corruption office, has started documenting unfair and illegal land transactions in areas where oil is being explored. “The information gathered will be used to address the identified issues for redress and advocacy” MIRAC Gender officer Herbert Monday says.