MURCHISON FALLS NATIONAL PARK, Uganda — Under dense forest canopy sheltering elephants, rare birds and colobus monkeys, roaring bulldozers and excavators shatter the idyll, toppling ancient trees and carving roads to reach Uganda’s newest source of riches: Oil.
“This is a sanctuary,” said Ben Ntale, a Ugandan tour guide who has been bringing visitors to the Murchison Falls National Park for two decades. “But they are intent on destroying one of our greatest heritages.”
An oil rush is now underway in Uganda, a verdant, landlocked country in East Africa which has signed onto a multibillion-dollar joint venture with French and Chinese oil companies, arguing that the revenues will fund schools, roads and other development.
Drilling has already begun on the shores of Lake Albert, and in the pristine habitat of Murchison Falls National Park, workers are clearing areas to lay pads for oil wells. Land is being acquired and cleared to build a pipeline to carry the oil from the lush west of landlocked Uganda, through forests and game reserves in Tanzania, to a port on the Indian Ocean coast.
Residents in both countries have been displaced from their lands, drawing international criticism and lawsuits. Environmentalists are alarmed that oil spills could threaten Lake Victoria, a vital source of freshwater for 40 million people, and ravage the park that protects Murchison Falls, one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, where the Nile River roars through a narrow gorge.
The Biden administration set off a similar uproar among environmentalists this week when it gave formal approval to a huge oil drilling project in Alaska, in what is said to be the country’s largest single expanse of pristine land.
The project in Uganda and Tanzania has affected towns and villages where small farmers living in mud brick houses with thatched roofs tell of having all or part of their land expropriated by the joint venture, known as the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. Many spoke of still waiting for payment years later, while the pipeline company forbade them from planting vital cash crops like bananas, which pay for food and school fees for their children.
“They are only thinking of the outsiders who will buy their oil, not us who own the land,” said Sarah Natukunda, a 39-year-old mother of five in Kijumba, a village in western Uganda, who waited years before she was paid for her land. By then, the sum was too small to buy similar property nearby where land prices had appreciated in value, she said, and the pipeline company refused to raise its price.
“If we had denied them land, will they pass this pipeline up in the air?”
Fishing communities as well as farmers are being displaced. On the shores of Lake Albert, a newly-installed oil rig pierced the sky. China National Offshore Oil Corporation began initial drilling for oil there in January. Less than half a mile away, gentle waves lapped against the shore where idle fishing boats had been tied.
Babihemaiso Dismas, a village leader, said China National tells fishermen to stay off the lake for days on end because of the drilling — depriving them of food and income. Residents say they have seen little of the development the company promised. It paved only the roads leading to its drilling sites and offices, and hired few locals, bringing in outside laborers instead.
“They are digging millions of dollars in our land but they don’t want to share it,” he said. “They are milking the cow without feeding it.”
In Tanzania, residents in the pipeline’s path said they only learned of the project in the media, just before being informed that they had to leave. Some protested, but it was futile; under Tanzanian law, all land is public, with the president as trustee, giving the government great latitude to seize it.
“There was no opportunity for negotiations,” said Issa Fuga, 86, who said he was forced to accept compensation for his three acres of maize and sunflowers in northeast Tanzania. “It automatically came as an order.”
The governments of Uganda and Tanzania, and the two oil companies — TotalEnergies of France and China National — call the concerns overblown, even false. They insist that they have safeguarded people and the environment, and have respected the countries’ laws and United Nations principles on business and human rights.
Officials in Uganda and Tanzania defend the project as economically vital. Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu, the Ugandan minister of energy and mineral development, said in an interview that the proceeds from oil — an estimated $2 billion annually — will provide money for roads, hospitals and affordable energy.
Both countries accuse wealthy nations whose emissions largely created the climate crisis of hypocrisy for trying to dissuade poor countries from exploiting their own oil resources to lift their standard of living.
“If there’s a symbol of global hypocrisy on energy consumption, this is it right here,” January Makamba, Tanzania’s energy minister, said in a phone interview. “It’s like they are saying, ‘Let the addiction to hydrocarbons be our exclusive right.’”
TotalEnergies, in emailed responses to questions, acknowledged it had delayed some payments because investments had not yet come through, and the coronavirus pandemic caused logistical problems. The company said it and the two nations decided to pay those impacted additional compensation of 15 percent in Uganda and around 12 percent in Tanzania. It also said it created mechanisms for anyone aggrieved to complain.
China National did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The project has drawn international opposition. Six Ugandan and French environmental and human rights groups sued TotalEnergies for violating a French law that requires French companies to uphold human rights and environmental protections. The court dismissed the case in late February, citing procedural grounds, but activists vowed to continue fighting TotalEnergies in and out of court.
Financing for the pipeline has not been finalized and activists have been able to persuade some of the world’s largest banks not to support it. Several human rights and environmental groups recently filed a complaint with the U.S. government against Marsh, a New York-based company that reportedly insured the pipeline.
In both Tanzania and Uganda, people who protest the project and journalists who cover it have reported harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest. Comfert Aganyira, an activist in Hoima, Uganda, said unidentified men showed up at her office last year, shoving her and taking her phone.
“We have too much fear but we do the work anyway,” she said.
The oil rush has already brought a flood of workers, new hotels and lighted roads to the Hoima area in western Uganda.
But activists say that TotalEnergies and its partners inflated the number of jobs the project will create, initially downplayed the extent of drilling within Murchison park and underestimated the project’s full impact on climate.
Environmentalists say the risk of ecological disaster is unacceptable. The pipeline, the longest heated conduit in the world, will straddle the basin of Lake Victoria, which supplies Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya with fresh water. It will traverse a seismically active region to a coastline that has protected marine reserves rich with mangroves and coral reefs.
The drilling sites and pipeline will also cut through game reserves and steppes teeming with animals like lions, buffaloes and the endangered Rothschild giraffe that tourists flock to see. Activists warn that the project will damage habitat and the vital tourism industry.
Already, vehicles speeding on the paved road within Murchison have killed animals. The construction has driven elephants and other animals into villages, where they destroy crops and damage property, activists say.
On a recent morning in the park, a herd of elephants protecting a calf threatened to charge several buses transporting oil workers.
At peak production, climate activists estimate that the East African project will lead to 34 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, higher than Uganda’s and Tanzania’s current total emissions.
Diana Nabiruma, with the nonprofit Africa Institute for Energy Governance, in Uganda, said that rushing to dig fossil fuels despite the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions was like setting one’s house on fire because the others on the same street were already burning.
But officials of both countries insist that the project will not result in a significant net increase, and note that their nations account for a tiny fraction of worldwide emissions — about 36 billion tons.
Even so, Mr. Ntale, the tour guide, worries about lasting damage to places like Murchison park, where TotalEnergies expects to start drilling in the spring. One recent dawn, he watched a gang of buffaloes wallow in the mud, a trio of Abyssinian ground hornbills forage nearby and a lone giraffe in the distance. But soon after, the oil workers were at it again, their noise and trucks cutting through the tranquillity.
“It’s a tragedy,” Mr. Ntale, shaking his head, said. “This park will never be the same again.”
Musinguzi Blanshe contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda and Alawi Masare from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.