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(Kampala) – Uganda’s nascent mining industry could do more harm than good for indigenous people unless the government makes reforms and mining companies start respecting rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Uganda’s government has promoted private investment in mining in the remote northeastern Karamoja region to bring economic development, but should implement reforms to respect the rights of indigenous people to determine how their lands are used.

The 140-page report, “‘How Can We Survive Here?’ The Impact of Mining on Human Rights in Karamoja, Uganda,” examines the conduct of three companies in different stages of the mining process: East African Mining, Jan Mangal, and DAO Uganda. Human Rights Watch found that companies have explored for minerals and actively mined on lands owned and occupied by Karamoja’s indigenous people. But the Ugandan government, in partnership with the private sector, has excluded customary land owners from making decisions about the development of their own lands and has proceeded without their consent. Human Rights Watch also found that donors, including the World Bank, have failed the people of Karamoja by working to enhance the burgeoning mining sector without addressing indigenous people’s rights, including the right to development.

“Mining development could be a real boon to the people of Karamoja, bringing jobs and better security, services, and basic infrastructure,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “However it is still unclear how the people of Karamoja will benefit, if at all, from mining, or how the government intends to protect their rights during this process.”

Karamoja has long been thought to contain considerable mineral deposits and appears on the verge of a mining boom. Several extractives companies have gone to Karamoja in the past two years seeking natural resources, particularly gold and marble. The Ugandan government has massively accelerated licensing of companies to carry out exploration and mining operations – a more than 700 percent increase between 2003 and 2011. But the government’s ability to support and educate affected communities and inspect and monitor the companies’ work lags far behind.

While foreign investment in Uganda has escalated in recent years, development of the oil sector in the western part of the country has renewed concerns about political patronage, the ability of civil society to critique government development plans, and corruption. The mining in Karamoja raises similar concerns.

The report is based on research in Uganda from May to November 2013, including 137 interviews, 61 of them with people living in areas where companies are exploring for minerals or actively mining. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of the companies, the central and local governments, the army, national and international nongovernmental organizations, and donor governments and agencies.

Karamoja has a population of 1.2 million, many of whom are indigenous people. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how basic survival remains very difficult. The region has a history of conflict, the highest rates of childhood malnutrition in Uganda, and periodic food insecurity. People have faced generations of colonial and state-sponsored discrimination, together with externally imposed “development” and the seizure of their lands for wildlife conservation and hunting.

Over the last decade, the Ugandan army’s brutal campaign of forced disarmament to rid the region of guns and reduce raids between neighboring groups has caused death and loss of livestock. With the increasing encroachment on their land over recent generations and increasingly extreme weather patterns, families have turned to artisanal gold mining for cash, intensifying community concerns about how large-scale mining will affect their survival.

East African Mining, the Ugandan subsidiary of Jersey-registered East African Gold, began exploring for gold in 2012 in Kaabong without consulting the indigenous land owners, said Human Rights Watch. Instead, the first people knew of the company’s interest in their lands was when employees and soldiers entered their lands and began taking soil samples from their gardens and even within their homes, prompting fear and mass confusion. While the company began holding community meetings months into its exploration, community members have continued to express confusion as to what the company is doing, how it may impact on them, and how they may benefit.

“Eight men in yellow uniforms just entered my garden and started excavating – they said nothing,” said one man from Lois parish, in Kathile, Kaabong. “They just started digging and taking my soil. I just looked at them. I was afraid. So, I couldn’t get near them. They stepped on some of our crops and damaged them. I asked them, ‘Why are you destroying our crops?’ They said, ‘It will be good for your survival…’ We were afraid and feared to stop them. They moved around like a rooster, like this was their land.”

Time and again, community members told Human Rights Watch that they were confused about the private investors’ intentions and long-term plans, unaware of the communities’ rights or the government’s obligations and companies’ responsibilities under national and international law. The companies have consistently failed to secure free, prior, and informed consent from the local communities before they started operations on communal lands. The central and local governments have also failed to insist that the companies adhere to this established international standard.

“This is a very bad situation for us, bad for my people,” one Dodoth elder in Kaabong told Human Rights Watch. “No one consults us, and no one has told us what will happen next. Someone comes and occupies your land or takes your soil; it is something we haven’t really experienced before. People will die. People will die for this land and this gold. We cannot survive without them.”

Jan Mangal, a company with roots in India’s jewelry industry, arrived in Rupa, Moroto, complete with excavators and other mining equipment in mid-2012, with the support of high-level government officials, but without the knowledge of indigenous land owners or an exploration license. While the company has negotiated agreements with several individual members of the community for use of the land, many elders and most community members are confused about what has been agreed, and whether there is an agreement at all. This has prompted inter-communal animosity and accusations that certain elders have sold the community’s land.

DAO, the Ugandan subsidiary of a Saudi and Kuwaiti construction firm, failed to consult the community prior to cutting marble under its exploration license. While, after some time, it held several meetings to determine which families had households on the land it occupies and compensated individual families, tensions over land, employment, and water persist. The community’s right to respect for their communal ownership of the land does not appear to have been clearly considered.

The government urgently needs to create a land registration system that ensures security of tenure, particularly for communal land owners, and respects land rights of indigenous people. In the absence of such adequate protection, fears of land grabbing have proliferated. Uganda’s land laws recognize customary land ownership, but the government has not granted such certificates anywhere in the country.

Land is held communally in Karamoja and used for grazing livestock and growing crops, as well as for traditional purposes such as burials and spiritual shrines. Some groups migrate across the lands seasonally. There has been considerable governmental resistance to communal or collective land ownership involving large numbers of owners, as in Karamoja.

“We said [to the company’s employees], ‘This soil is ours, not yours,’” said a local artisanal miner from Lopedo, in the Kaabong district. “They said, ‘[President Yoweri] Museveni gave us this land…’ We said, ‘You are so powerful. The government gave you our way of survival.’”

Companies arriving to carry out exploration have promised communities benefits to mitigate the loss of land use and livelihood and other impact, including schools, hospitals, boreholes, jobs, scholarships, and money in exchange for their cooperation. But even as exploration or mining has continued, the communities have not seen the promised benefits. Nor was this based on any consensual agreement between the communities and the companies over the use of their land.

Governments have a duty, and companies have a responsibility, to consult and cooperate with indigenous people to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources. This responsibility is based on indigenous people’s right to own, use, develop, and control their traditionally occupied lands and resources, which has been affirmed by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

There are ample concerns about the government’s willingness and commitment to protect the human rights of Karamoja’s indigenous groups, Human Rights Watch said. Uganda’s mining law requires negotiating a surface rights agreement with landowners before mining begins, and payments of royalties once revenues flow, but the law does not require any communication or consent during exploration work. And communities that cannot prove land ownership may not ultimately receive royalties or be able to protect their land.

The presence of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces at exploration and mining operations has prompted significant confusion and fear, and is likely to impede constructive consultations with affected communities, Human Rights Watch said.

International donors, particularly the World Bank, have had a prominent role in supporting Uganda’s development of the mining sector, but so far, projects have excluded indigenous rights and therefore failed to set a positive precedent that would have supported the rights of the people of Karamoja.

“Donor-supported mining projects have yet to successfully address indigenous people’s rights in Uganda,” Bekele said. “The key requirement that all ‘development’ projects, including minerals exploration, may only take place with the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous land owners needs to be at the core of all donor projects in Karamoja.”

Quotes from “How Can We Survive Here?”
“I was surprised to hear some noise one day… Then we saw some soldiers. They stopped and we saw they had a machine. They took some soil, using the machine, and put it in polythene bags. I almost took off running with fear.”
– A woman in Lois, Kathile, Kaabong, July 6, 2013

“There is nothing bad about companies coming, but what we hate is the way they come in, don’t show us respect, and don’t show us the impact and the benefits of their work for my people.”
– Dodoth elder from Sidok, Kaabong Town, July 3, 2013

“We want to see our natural resources exploited but our people should not be. Pastoralism lives here, we are pastoralists. The land looks vacant but it is not.”
– Mining community organizer, Moroto, July 7, 2013

“If companies come, as a visitor comes to your home, they should first consult you. They should consult us, make us an offer, before they start work… Instead, they go to the government only, they don’t come to us… You can tell whether a government is good by whether they consult with us [in making decisions that affect us].”
– Dodoth Elder, Kaabong, July 4, 2013

East African Mining, one of the companies mentioned in the report, “How Can We Survive Here: The Impact of Mining on Human Rights in Uganda," submitted a statement disputing some of the findings about their company, and to highlight other aspects of their business in Uganda. We have posted their response in full here.

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