Eyewitnesses: New abuses at Danish-subsidised oil field in Uganda

Villages near TotalEnergies' oil field in Uganda are plagued by new violence, affecting both livelihood and mobility of the locals. "Very worrying," acknowledges PensionDanmark, which has invested in TotalEnergies. PFA is "responsive" and Danica will contact TotalEnergies.

A girl walks past a sign pointing the way to TotalEnergies' Kingfisher oil field, located southeast of Lake Albert in western Uganda Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

Displacement, beatings and sexual assault. This is the reality at Kingfisher, one of TotalEnergies’ two oil fields in East Africa.

This is what locals and eyewitnesses who recently visited the area in western Uganda say in taped interviews that Danwatch has reviewed together with the NGO Just Finance International.

“They arrest people every day. They are soldiers and they are armed. When they arrive with their weapons, they beat us, burn our boats and order us to leave our homes. Of course we have to flee, but I am worried that they might shoot us. We have information that shootings have taken place in other villages,” a local resident told Danwatch.

When they arrive with their weapons, they beat us, burn our boats and order us to leave our homes

Danwatch knows the identity of the man, who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons.

The pension funds PFA, Danica and PensionDanmark have together invested DKK 3.4 billion in the French oil company TotalEnergies.

Opgjort pr. 31.12.2023

The situation at Kingfisher is tense because EACOP is a major prestige project for the Ugandan government and President Yoweri Museveni. He has therefore deployed the army to protect the project.

"EACOP is expected to make a big difference to Uganda's economy. The government has placed the pipeline on a pedestal, which means that even very serious abuses against the civilian population are overlooked. The government would rather protect its stakeholders than its people. This is highly problematic," a researcher specialising in human rights and business at one of Uganda's largest universities told Danwatch.

For fear of reprisals from the government, he does not want his name in the public eye either.

The Chinese oil company CNOOC and Uganda's state-controlled oil company are also co-owners of the oil field.

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"If we refuse to sleep with the soldiers, they take our fish"

The new eyewitness accounts are far from the first of their kind. TotalEnergies' EACOP project has previously been accused of violations, displacement and lack of compensation for residents in the affected areas.

For example, the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented abuses and violations of local people's rights.

Even the EU has recognised the problems and passed a resolution on human rights violations in Uganda and Tanzania linked to investments in fossil fuel projects.

But while criticism has previously directed at the construction of the oil pipeline itself (EACOP) that will transport the oil, the new eyewitness accounts are about incidents at the Kingfisher oil field, located in the southwestern part of Lake Albert in Uganda, where the oil is extracted.

And Danwatch has come into possession of extremely harsh eyewitness accounts obtained in February this year from the area.

"Before the soldiers built their barracks, they slept in our houses. The soldiers threaten us and steal our fish if we refuse to sleep with them," says a young woman in her twenties, whose identity Danwatch also knows.

She explains that the lake is an important source of income for her and many other local Ugandans, and that chemicals from oil extraction are making it harder to catch fish.

According to the woman, the oil pipeline has made it almost impossible to make money selling fish... She also says that she has been threatened by the military several times.

"One day we were arrested. The soldiers found us in the market where we sell our fish. They forced us to choose whether we wanted to be arrested or have sex with them. Even though we gave them our fish, we were beaten and arrested," she says.

Other people in the area say that illegal arrests have become commonplace in many of the villages located in the areas near the Kingfisher oil field.

The harsh fate of one elderly man sums up the consequences for many of the 1200 people in the villages in the area.

"I have been beaten by soldiers and I no longer have a good life. I had a wife and eight children, but now I have nothing. They abandoned me. I was a fisherman, but after I was beaten by the soldiers, I have become paralysed. I cannot do anything anymore," he tells Danwatch.

The oil from the Kingfisher field is planned to flow through the pipeline to the Tanzanian coast and onto the world markets by 2025.

NGO to investors: Make demands on TotalEnergies

According to the NGO Just Finance International, which has visited Kingfisher several times, TotalEnergies ignores the violent behaviour of the Ugandan army.

"TotalEnergies and CNOOC, who are responsible for the Kingfisher oil project, do not take into account the state-sponsored violence of the Ugandan army that is aggressively forcing local communities out of the area. The army is destroying the communities' survival resources, such as their fishing gear and farmland. Many people are now on the brink of famine and have nowhere to go," says Nils Resare, Senior Advisor at Just Finance International.

The NGO told Danwatch that investors should demand that TotalEnergies ask the military to leave the area and stop the abuses.

Danwatch asked PensionDanmark and PFA if they are aware of the problems at Kingfisher and whether it will have any impact on their investments in TotalEnergies?

"The information about the treatment of local people in the area around the Kingfisher field is deeply concerning and we expect TotalEnergies and their partners to recognise and respect the human rights of local people and actively address the issues described," says Jan Kæraa Rasmussen, Head of ESG and Sustainability at PensionDanmark.

From PFA, which has more than DKK 2 billion invested in TotalEnergies, Head of ESG Investments, Rasmus Bessing, says that they are in dialogue with TotalEnergies and other players related to the EACOP oil pipeline.

"It is important to PFA that the companies we invest in are operated in a responsible manner that also takes people and nature into account. We are therefore also responsive to other stakeholders such as NGOs and representatives from the local population. This also applies in relation to EACOP," writes Rasmus Bessing in an email to Danwatch.

Neither PFA nor PensionDanmark wanted to be interviewed.

Danwatch also asked Danica, which has over a billion Danish kroner invested in TotalEnergies, how they handle the situation at the Kingfisher oil field.

"We are not aware of these incidents and we are therefore now reaching out to TotalEnergies and the research agencies for further information and clarity on the situation," Danica's press department wrote in an email to Danwatch.

TotalEnergies invites investors on a tour

While researching this story, Danwatch learnt that TotalEnergies has invited a number of investors to Uganda to inspect the EACOP project from 22 April and the rest of the week.

Both PFA and PensionDanmark have been invited on the trip, but informed Danwatch that they will not participate. Instead, PensionDanmark has given input to their partner who represents them.

"We have a partner among the participants and have attended a preparatory meeting where we have given our input. PensionDanmark has also had a face-to-face meeting climate activists from Uganda and discussed their concerns regarding EACOP," says Jan Kæraa Rasmussen.

Nils Resare believes there is a risk that TotalEnergies hides the problems and that the participants are not presented with reality.

"There is a high risk that investors are only shown a backdrop and that they don't meet the most affected people, such as the communities from Kingfisher who have been heavily terrorised by security forces and lost their livelihoods," Nils Resare warns.

He has a clear appeal to all investors in TotalEnergies and the Chinese oil company CNOOC, operator and co-owner of the project.

"Investors must demand that the Ugandan army leaves the project area immediately and cannot return. TotalEnergies and CNOOC must immediately discuss the matter with community leaders so that they can be properly compensated for land, houses and the loss of their livelihoods," says Nils Resare.

He also believes that investors should demand an independent assessment of the situation in Kingfisher to shed light on whether the rights of local communities are being respected.

"If TotalEnergies does not agree to this, investors should sell their shares in the company," says Nils Resare.

However, PensionDanmark maintains its investment in TotalEnergies and says that they are in dialogue with TotalEnergies.

"We are aware of Just Finance International's descriptions of human rights violations in the area around the Kingfisher field, and we take it very seriously. Through our partner, we are in dialogue with Total and we have raised several critical questions, which are also prompted by the meeting we have had with representatives from the local community," says Jan Kæraa Rasmussen.

Danwatch has presented the reports of threats and abuse to TotalEnergies, which refers to CNOOC. CNOOC has not responded to our inquiry.

The Ugandan military has also not responded to our inquiry.

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