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As oil activities encroach on sacred natural sites, a small Ugandan community feels under siege

BULIISA, Uganda (AP) — Alex Wakitinti is concerned about the sacred natural sites he maintains in the large swath of bushy grassland near Lake Albert. It is the same piece of his homeland that oil companies are developing so that Uganda can become an oil producer by 2026.

But French oil company TotalEnergies and others working toward that goal are recklessly ignoring the significance of Wakitinti’s spiritual work, he said, as well as that of the other trustees overseeing sacred natural sites in the remote district of Buliisa, near the Congo border.

“According to Total’s program, there are no custodians,” said Wakitinti, chief custodian of sacred sites in Buliisa. “We are not in their program.”

That’s a mistake, he said, noting the bad luck that can result from disturbing these special places without performing the necessary rituals or making offerings to spirit mediums — such as the tree where Wakitinti recently knelt to pray. to pray and present a bird’s nest.

Sacred natural sites here range from a few trees in the bush to the gorge in the land where the River Nile meets Lake Albert, creating a spectacular landscape that intensifies the Bagungu’s respect for nature. They believe these sites are gathering places for occult mediums with the power to solve problems ranging from a thief in the community to a disease in the family.

As TotalEnergies invests billions in oil field development and acquires more and more land, Wakitinti and other Bagungu people who practice traditional beliefs worry that the spiritual power of at least 32 sacred natural sites in Buliisa continues to decline. There are already signs that the prolonged drought in the region is, according to some, evidence that the sanctity of some sites has already been violated.

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‘You see we don’t have any rain. … We are crying,” said farmer William Byabagambi, noting that communal sacrifices on liquor will be less as community members move to make way for oil infrastructure.

Uganda is estimated to have recoverable oil reserves of at least 1.4 billion barrels, and officials see future oil revenues as lifting millions of people out of poverty. Investors from Australia, Ireland, China and, most recently, France have been involved over the years.

TotalEnergies – the largest shareholder in the Ugandan oil project – is facing a legal challenge and pressure to pull out over concerns over a heated pipeline that campaigners say undermines the Paris climate agreement.

A Uganda spokesperson for TotalEnergies did not immediately respond to detailed requests for comment on the Bagungu’s concerns.

In 2006, a commercially viable amount of oil was discovered in Buliisa, home to fewer than 100,000 Bagungu, a community of farmers and others who depend on the Albertine area for everything from food to religious practices. Their traditional beliefs are seen as peculiar in this Christian-majority country of 45 million people, adding to the sense of injustice that is now driving a campaign to protect their sacred natural sites from oil activity.

“The sites are under threat,” said Robert T. Katemburura, an activist with the Uganda-based African Institute of Culture and Ecology.

Most families in Buliisa maintain small shrines for ancestral spirits close to home, but sometimes take trips to sacred natural sites, seeking revelations and blessings in response to their more serious affairs.

While the sites remain largely intact, the sanctity of two sites has been violated by a nearby pipeline and processing facility. Excessive noise from oil-related work is believed to anger the spirits, he said.

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“We blame the oil companies for running their roads and infrastructure through the sacred natural sites,” he said.

In 2020, Irish company Tullow Oil completed the sale of its $575 million Ugandan assets to TotalEnergies, raising oil production hopes after delays due to corruption scandals and tax disputes. But the French company faces challenges as some activists are taking legal action and others are urging banks to withdraw their support.

European lawmakers passed a resolution last year urging TotalEnergies to suspend its operations in the region. This year, the company faced a second lawsuit in Paris over its project in East Africa. The lawsuit, filed in June by French and Ugandan civil society groups, accuses the company of failing to comply with France’s duty of vigilance law and seeks compensation for six years of alleged violations of land and food rights.

TotalEnergies has long denied the allegations, saying it uses state-of-the-art design — including horizontal drilling — to minimize environmental damage.

In Buliisa, the land rush destroyed cultural commons as landowners foreclosed on their properties awaiting compensation, says Wilson Kiiza, founder of the Bugungu Heritage and Information Center. He pointed out that unmarked natural areas in the jungle are particularly vulnerable due to the enormous amount of money.

Human Rights Watch published a report last month warning of impending disaster, claiming that households affected by land purchases are worse off than before. “The land acquisition process was marred by delays, poor communication and inadequate compensation,” the report said.

Newplan, a company contracted by TotalEnergies to handle the environmental aspects of relocations, did not respond to the AP’s questions. It claims that cemeteries and shrines have been moved in a respectful manner, with relatives themselves being paid to perform the proper rituals.

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The oil boom has caught people off guard, with community leaders being too slow to identify potential threats to sacred natural sites after oil deposits were discovered, said Gilbert Tibasiima, the second-in-command in Buliisa.

Attempts to fix this have stalled. The Buliisa Assembly passed an ordinance in 2020 that would restrict access to holy sites and impose fines for disturbances. But it has yet to be ratified by Uganda’s Attorney General’s office, highlighting the politically thorny nature of the matter.

“The discovery of oil and gas found people unprepared for the industry. These are people who did not know the potential consequences,” said Tibasiima, a Mugungu who grew up in Buliisa. “Had they known sooner, they probably could have developed local resources to protect the environment in general, including the protection of their sacred sites.”

Sacred site managers were unable to predict the impact of mandatory land acquisitions, mainly because oil companies withheld information about project trajectories to keep compensation costs low. Now some authorities view the Bagungu’s concern about holy sites as a burden that could only delay the start of oil production, he said.

Wakitinti, the chief custodian, said he sees the prolonged dry conditions in Buliisa today as a sign that the spirits are not happy with oil activities. He also mentioned the elephants roaming from nearby Murchison Falls National Park, where TotalEnergies is digging oil wells and trampling on people’s crops.

Those are signs of bad luck, he said.


Associated Press religion coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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