Feminist activist Faith Lumonya shares how a World Bank project in Kalangala, Uganda is investing in human rights violations, and how women are organising to fight back.

By: Fight Inequality

Faith is giving testimony on Wednesday 11 October, 09:30-15:30 Casablanca Time at the Peoples’ Alternative Global Tribunal on the IMF and World Bank in Marrakech, Morocco. Watch live via Facebook.

In a remote area called Bugala Island in Kalangala district in Uganda, communities receive the news that their area has been selected by the Government of Uganda to be the place where a large factory will be established. They receive this news with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm because of the promises for electricity, better roads and water transport infrastructure, a hospital, better schools, and even jobs for the youth. Little did they know that this would be the beginning of a never ending nightmare. That their children would lose their land and heritage, and that their visually impaired children and or adults who had mastered the corners of their homesteads and gardens would have to learn new boundaries again. 

The Kalangala Oil Palm Uganda Limited (OPUL) project was initiated in 1998 as a Public Private Partnership (PPPs) by the Government of Uganda with technical and financial support from the World Bank and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The aim of the project was to foster development to one of Uganda's remotest and poorest districts. There is a direct link between the World Bank International Financial Institution (IFC) sponsored project, BIDCO Africa Limited and BIDCO Uganda Limited and OPUL. BIDCO Africa Limited is a substantial shareholder in BIDCO Uganda, which owns 90 percent of Oil Palm Uganda Limited (OPUL). 

This company acquired over 40,000 hectares of natural forest land, 10,000 hectares of which were on Kalangala Islands in Lake Victoria, to establish palm oil plantations. To date, many communities still demand compensation for land that was taken from them. Moreover, these communities, particularly women and youth, did not benefit from the little land compensation because they didn't have or control any land. They continue to grapple with unemployment as the promised jobs never came, food insecurity as effects on food production due to loss of land, insecurity due to an increase in the number of unemployed and poor people, rise in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS especially as the population has increased as the company brings in people from outside the district and from across the country to work in the plantations and industry. 

The accounts of my narration will focus on the specific impacts that this World Bank funded project has had on people in Kalangala District, specifically driving unemployment, and precarious working conditions for the few that have been employed. In 2018, I got interested in this case, and in particular, the plight of the women working in the plantations and the factory. One thing remained clear, the precarious working conditions in which they work. They earned less than a dollar a day, had no access to maternity leave because each day or work missed meant missing out on a days wage, didn't have access to protective gear which resulted into permanent damages on their bodies, and were forced to sharing houses with men, yes, when a young woman arrived at the company, they were requested to pick a man with whom they would cohabit. This was in a bid to reduce the pressure on housing in the factory. Although these women were part of a trade union, called the Uganda Beverages, Tobacco and Allied Workers Union. This union, which was hosted in an office at the company's premises, had its hands tied. Its power to hold the company accountable was limited by this fact, with the union leader often threatened by the company for inciting rebellion among the workers each time they attempted to embark on an action. Besides this, because the leader was also an employee of the company, as a supervisor, their allegiance rested with the company and not the workers.

The unaccountable nature of the World Bank, has meant that even the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) is not beneficial, particularly for populations affected by projects funded by the Bank's private sector's arm. Instead, the Bank has sought to maintain legacies of imperialism, colonialism, extraction and exploitation, this time, through the private sector and government elites. They have financed the plundering of communities, consequently destroying our social fabric and ecosystem. 

Ironically, the World Bank describes themselves as an institution working towards poverty alleviation. Realising this requires that no matter what they do, whether direct or indirectly, poor people are vulnerable and given the power imbalances that exist against the poor, the World Bank must take up the responsibility of addressing and or avoiding the adverse effects of their projects on poor people. In this regard, the World Bank must: 

  1. Adopt due diligence mechanisms that centers the rights and needs of communities within which their projects are implemented.
  2. Work directly with governments and center public sector leadership in delivering social impact projects.
  3. The evolution process must work towards broadening the Bank's commitment and accountability to gender and women’s human rights to include human rights in general, and include strict obligations in all its departments. 
  4. Demand the unequivocal support of the process to establish the UN Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights to strengthen corporate accountability for all businesses.