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Uganda Oil Project Draws Criticism

FILE - This May 28, 2021, photo shows the new TotalEnergies logo during its unveiling ceremony, at a charging station in La Defense on the outskirts of Paris.
FILE - This May 28, 2021, photo shows the new TotalEnergies logo during its unveiling ceremony, at a charging station in La Defense on the outskirts of Paris.

Oil is coming to this biodiverse but impoverished region of Uganda on the eastern shores of Lake Albert - and not everyone is pleased.

On the ground, interest has largely focused on the economic impact from the arrival of Big Oil - and the response is mixed.

French oil giant TotalEnergies, which is developing the Tilenga oilfield, will learn on Tuesday if a court in Paris agrees with accusations that it trampled on human rights and the environment in pursuit of fossil fuels in Uganda.

From 2025, the company says, oil will be pumped from landlocked Uganda over 1,400 kilometers to the coast of Tanzania along what will be the world's longest pipeline of its kind.

The project partly stretches into Murchison Falls National Park, a protected area.

TotalEnergies says it has limited the number of wells inside the national park and designed the pipeline to minimize its impact on the environment.

Critics say it poses a poorly-assessed threat to one of Africa's most fragile ecosystems and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

TotalEnergies says Tilenga will create 7,000 jobs in the Lake Albert region, and some locals have benefited from land buyouts, scholarships, and development spurred by the project.

Emily Fwachan, who hails from Buliisa district where the Tilenga fields are located, sold two hectares of land to TotalEnergies for a compensation package valued at 25 million Ugandan shillings ($6,800).

The company built the 54-year-old a new home, and she used some of the cash to buy her son property and a motorcycle, help her daughter find work, and establish a bee farm to sell honey to oil workers.

"For me I got more benefits than problems," Fwachan told AFP.

Joselyn Katusabe, a single mother of six, received roughly $1,000 for selling a small parcel of land where she grew cassava. The 48-year-old opened a small salon and paid off school fees before the cash ran out.

"Unlike the cassava farm that was taken over by the oil project, the salon gives me a daily income. Still, it is not enough," she said.

On the other side of the issue, Jealousy Mulimba Mugisha refused the compensation offer and was taken to court by the government for allegedly obstructing a state project.

The 51-year-old father of seven lost the case but is appealing, though isn't confident of his chances.

"In Uganda if you are poor, you don't expect justice," he said.

The East African nation has been ruled by President Yoweri Museveni with an iron fist since 1986.

Mugisha said some family members were "intimidated" into taking the $960 compensation money.

"But we insist that rather than accept the paltry compensation offer, in future we can tell generations to come that oil is a curse rather than a blessing," he said.

Geoffrey Byakagaba, another farmer who refused compensation, said others were free to take what was offered but "we refused to be mocked".

"We cannot allow injustice," he said.

TotalEnergies general manager in Uganda, Philippe Groueix, said there would always be a few detractors but overall the response to compensation had been positive.

He defended the environmental record of the project, which lies in the Albertine Rift, a biodiversity hotspot home to a dizzying array of bird and threatened wildlife species.

"There is debate about this project, (if) this project is done in (an) exemplary manner, socially, environmentally, yes, or no. Our answer is yes," he told AFP.

"This project is one with the highest standards."

He said TotalEnergies expected a "positive outcome" from the court ruling in Paris, where six non-government organisations have accused the oil giant of ignoring concerns over livelihoods and the environment.