Rajabu Juma, 76, is a resident of Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council in Kasese District, where he has lived all his life extracting salt from the salty Lake Katwe, adjacent to Queen Elizabeth National Park.
He owns 20 salt pans on the shores of Lake Katwe, where he earns a living and the business supports his family and dependents.
Salt is mined in small plots of 10 by 12 feet wide and three to five feet deep, known as salt pans, on the shores of Lake Katwe.
They are owned by private individuals or families and are passed down through generations.
Currently, the number of salt miners is estimated at between 6,000 and 10,000 and the salt lake is their life blood, a cultural heritage, a tourist site and an academic site for geography students from secondary schools to university, and researchers.
Juma is among the more than 5,000 artisanal miners facing eviction from this lake.
The eviction threat
The looming eviction comes after the Energy ministry, in November 2018, issued an exploration license to Rwenzori Shining Star Ltd, which is co-owned by Chinese and Uganda businessmen, and on December 29, 2020, the Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council also granted the same company with surface rights, both deals that are being contested by Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) and the local artisanal miners, respectively.
The licence permits Rwenzori Shining Star Ltd to set up a salt mining plant at Lake Katwe.
“All my life is salt mining, no one has ever come to us to tell us where we shall be or benefit after the company has fully taken over the lake. As locals, we don’t oppose the government project, but where does it leave us? We inherited this business from our ancestors,” Juma asks, adding: “I, at 76 years, can’t work in the new salt factory, so where will I be with my family?”
The artisanal miners, through Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), an advocacy organisation whose main objectives is to promote environmental conservation and community rights in the extractives sector, have petitioned the Energy minister.
“More than 5,000 artisanal salt miners, including women, youth, the elderly and others who work at Lake Katwe in Kasese District face displacement from Lake Katwe and need your protection,” the February 17 petition reads in part.
“When this is done, it is expected that the more than 5,000 salt miners, including more than 3,000 women, 750 elderly persons and others will be evicted from the salt lake,” the petitioners contend.
Government evicts government
Two weeks ago, in what shocked Parliament in a dramatic scenario of “government evicting government”, UDC accused the Energy ministry of wrongfully awarding a salt exploration licence on Lake Katwe to a private firm, the Rwenzori Shining Star Ltd, a decision that UDC wants rescinded.
The UDC managing director, Dr Patrick Birungi and his team led by Finance minister Matia Kasaijam appeared before the Parliament Budget Committee to answer questions on the alleged irregularities in the licensing of the Lake Katwe salt company in Kasese District.
Dr Birungi explained that despite UDC in April 2019 having applied for the exploration licence, its application was rejected and granted to a private company while the ministry was well aware that government was interested in the project.
When Sunday Monitor spoke to Dr Birungi this week, he asaid: “After that meeting, the Ministry of Energy has asked us to remove the pillars in the lake, UDC owns the assets in and around the lake, we are in discussions internally to see that the interests of government are not lost completely in this deal.”
The deal was done behind the back of the occupants and registered users, the salt miners and the owners of the area, and UDC.
The big question is why the Energy ministry rushed to offer an exploration licence to a private company without the knowledge of the asset owners, UDC, who had earlier expressed interest and applied for the same.
When asked about the issues raised by UDC, the Permanent Secretary in the Energy ministry, Mr Robert Kasandem, said: “We are addressing those issues.”
He, however, could not explain further how they are navigating the issue.
Lake Katwe salt company is a former subsidiary of UDC before it became defunct in 1959.
According to the UDC website, the Lake Katwe Salt project was one of the projects implemented by UDC before its holding company was wound up in 1998. UDC incorporated Lake Katwe salt company in 1975, with the mandate to extract and process salt for both human and industrial use.
Regrettably, it did not produce any salt due to lack of an in-depth chemical analysis to identify the properties within the brine, hence resulting into the poor technology design.
Since then, UDC has been in the process of revamping the Lake Katwe salt project into a chemical plant to produce salt (sodium chloride) for human consumption and by-products to be used in the chemical, pharmaceutical, leather tanning and textile industry.
Irregularities and concerns
AFIEGO has poked holes in the license offer by the Energy ministry to Rwenzori Shining Star Ltd.
It says the deal happens amid a number of irregularities, gaps in mining laws and major socio-economic concerns.
“Hon minister, we would like to bring to your attention a major gap in Uganda’s mining legal regime: failure to define what surface rights are and how they may be acquired for public land or resources in consultation with resource-dependent communities or stakeholders. Neither the 2003 Mining Act, nor its attendant regulations, define and provide for the above,” AFIEGO contends in a petition to the Energy minister.
It further argues that this gap means applicants for licences for surface rights and government, including local governments, are not legally bound to consult resource-dependent communities before licences are issued.
“In the Katwe salt miners’ case, this legal gap meant that the Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council was able to issue the aforementioned surface rights licence without consulting the miners,” Mr Dickens Kamugisha, the AFIEGO chief executive officer, wrote.
He added: “As registered users of the lake, the miners had an interest in it and ought to have been consulted before issuance of the surface rights. However, this wasn’t done. As a result, the miners’ livelihoods are at risk.”
Interestingly, when Sunday Monitor asked the Kasese District environmental officer, Augustine Kooli about Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council offering surface rights to a private company, he said he was not aware of the offer and he even described the deal as illegal.
“I am hearing it for the first time from you, that deal is illegal. A town council has no mandate to grant surface rights over Lake Katwe,” he said.
When contacted about this, the chairman of Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council, John Bosco Kananura, said: “The miners’ rights are well catered for by our council.”
But some local activists, who are also miners, are contemplating suing Kananura for alleged abuse of office.
“We were not consulted by our leaders or anybody as users of the lake or was any public hearing held in this regard, the council flouted rules of procedure. As users, we want to sue our chairman for abuse of office,” Sulaiti Kasunzu, an activist and a miner, said.
The 2019 Mining and Mineral Bill that provides for and protects the rights of artisanal miners is yet to be enacted into law.
Tampering with the lake catchment that consists of several water streams that refresh the salty lake and the restored vegetation (trees) at the shores by National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) may cause silting and flooding of the salty lake, leading to extinction like it was almost five years ago.
“The lake risk depletion and even if the company is to provide jobs, it will never ever sustain the livelihoods of thousands of communities that depend on the lake,” Rajabu Yusuf Bwengye of NAPE, said.
Lake Katwe neighbours Queen Elizabeth National Park and as a result, the lake attracts and is a sanctuary for important fauna and there are fears that drilling for salt at the lake will not only affects Lake Katwe, but Lake Munyanyage as well, which would negatively affect the biodiversity, Kamugisha argued.
Rwenzori Shining Star Ltd indicates in some of its documents that Sunday Monitor has seen that it carried an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) but which AFIEGO contends is full of flaws as it is opposed to an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) study as mandated under the 2019 National Environment Act.
“No consultations of the salt miners were undertaken during the EIA study, which in itself is a violation of the 1998 EIA regulations” Kamugisha argued.
In his September 4, 2020 communication to the authorities at Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council, Capt George Michael Mukula, the chairperson of Rwenzori Shining Star Ltd, said the Chinese-Uganda consortium was set to invest $390 million (about Shs1.4 trillion) in salt mining and mineral beneficiation at Lake Katwe.
About Lake Katwe
During Idi Amin’s regime in 1975, the Ugandan government contracted that of Germany to construct a salt factory at Lake Katwe but unfortunately, the salt industry collapsed during the time of Apollo Milton Obote II regime.
In the National Resistance Movement (NRM)’s 1986 10-point programme booklet, the same industry is mentioned to be rehabilitated but after 35 years in power, the country is still depending on imported packed salt.
Salt traders come from nearby markets in Uganda and from other countries such as DR Congo, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania to buy raw rock salt at Lake Katwe.
According to geologists, Lake Katwe produces salt because there is a depression where water collectes. Deep in the ground is a main salt rock that lies on a contour line that connects lakes:Katwe, Munyanyange, Nyamunuka and Kasenyi (Bunyampaka).
All these lakes have a salt rock deep in the ground, but only Katwe and Bunyampaka can produce edible salt. This is because the two lakes have streams that feed them.
In the middle of Lake Katwe, there are vents or holes which go from the main salt rock to the outside. They are scattered in different parts of the lake. Water from the streams goes through the vents and dissolves the main rock in the ground to become a salt solution, which quickly turns into salt.