24 January 2013

Uganda: Nebbi Dreams of a Better Life

A difficult role

Moses Ogamdhogwa, Total's community liaison officer in Nebbi, has the tough job of trying to manage local expectations. He at least has the benefit of previous experience in community work, having earlier served for two years as coordinator of the Nebbi District NGO Forum. In rather more than a year with Total, he says, he has helped recruit around 800 people in Nebbi, mainly for short-term, casual labour at a rate of Shs 17,000 ($6) per day.

The industry's main needs, he explains, are for labourers to work on improving roads and making new access roads to the oil well sites so that equipment can be brought in, and on clearing land where surveys and other 'oil activities' take place. The Pakwach-Panyimur road, although still made of murram, has been widened and levelled to improve access for oil industry trucks.

In a curious development, instead of speed bumps in the villages and trading centres scattered sparsely along the route, people have been hired to sit in the shade of a tree, jump up when a vehicle approaches, and wave red and green flags to encourage drivers to slow down. It's not the kind of job you would need much training for, and it doesn't promise much in the way of a future career.

The other, main oil-related job opportunity for locals is slashing away vegetation, including crops, to clear the way for technical experts. To conduct a seismic survey, Mr. Ogamdhogwa explains, straight lines about a metre wide must be cut over distances of up to a kilometre.

Then, along these paths, technicians lay cables rigged up at regular intervals with hammer-like devices. Heavy equipment is then used to pound the earth to cause vibrations and the emerging sound wave echoes are picked up by sophisticated equipment, giving a kind of 'ultrasound' picture of what lies beneath the surface. This technique is fundamental to modern oil exploration.

Yet, the community liaison officer points out, it can hardly be done by locals who have only basic education. They just supply the muscle to clear the route. To hire day-labourers, Total has developed a lottery system of which Ogamdhogwa seems proud.

According to him, Heritage Oil--which used to work in Exploration Area 1, before selling on its exploration rights at a profit of around a billion dollars--recruited labourers through local chiefs and notables. Total felt this wasn't fair. Better to have a list of hopefuls, and draw their names out of a hat. But, whatever the selection system, occasional labour at a few dollars a day seems unlikely to earn much gratitude to a company that might walk away with a billion.

Sex and the town

The development of oil infrastructure may, however, stimulate another industry: commercial sex. This is a serious concern in a country where HIV infections are reportedly on the rise after initially impressive efforts to contain the virus. Across the world, oilmen often work on an alternating, one-month-on, one-month-off basis, living in self-contained 'oil camps' during the month of work.

According to Moses Ogamdhogwa, Total's Tangi camp, located a few kilometres from Pakwach on the West Nile-Karuma tarmac highway, is as strict as a boarding school. The oilmen must respect a nightly curfew, and any worker found to be having sex with a local woman is summarily dismissed. The guilty party's supervisor or line manager is also liable to dismissal.

However, Ogamdhogwa acknowledges, some of the sub-contractors and their labourers who do not live in the same camps are not bound by the same rules.

"These [oil industry] people behave like tycoons" according to Collins Komakech, who works with a community-based organisation, Panyimur Aids Awareness Control Support for Vulnerable Children and Orphans (PACASO).

"They flash their money and our girls are attracted. Village girls today move around almost half-naked to attract the rich men in town!"

He also claims that the price of commercial sex in Panyimur, and the price of the by-the-hour rooms where it takes place, has almost doubled. Higher-up district officials consulted by Oil in Uganda share these concerns, and are worried by what they say is a noticeable in-migration of commercial sex workers.

Compensation wrangles

Local leaders are also dissatisfied with the compensation system for land, crops or other property forfeited in the exploration process. Land may be taken for access roads, oil camps and storage facilities, and each drilling site occupies a 100 metre by 100 metre area. In addition, farmers are entitled to compensation for crops lost during seismic surveys.

According to Moses Ogamdhogwa, acquiring land for long-term use has not involved significant disputes. When Total needs land, he says, they hold several meetings with communities to determine exactly who owns it, and this has succeeded in avoiding later conflicts. However, he acknowledges that there have been complaints over delays in payments of rent for land that Total leases.

These arise, he says, partly because the company requires the owners to open a bank account, so they can receive regular payments in a convenient and easily accountable way. Also, the company does not start paying rent until it has built the facility for which it acquires land, because only then can the amount actually used be assessed accurately.

These measures are meant, Ogamdhogwa says, to be fair to landowners; but, he reports, some lose patience with the process. The view from Abok village is more critical. LC-1 Chairman Odongo reports that land belonging to a neighbour of his is being used as a vehicle park for the Ondiek well, but that the neighbour has received no payment.

The landowner in question was not available for interview, so Oil in Uganda was unable to establish whether this might be a case of 'delay' of the kind outlined by the community liaison officer. LC-5 chairman Robert Okumu believes that the compensation matrix--the tool used to determine what to pay out--is unfair in any case. This matrix, updated annually, is supposed to be developed by the local government and certified by the chief government valuer.

Yet, Okumu claims, "The matrix that Total uses is the same one used in Buliisa [where Tullow made earlier oil discoveries] and an old version at that." The Nebbi district government played no part in developing it, he says. "Total has been shutting out local government."

"Crops which are destroyed when marking out the land are not always fairly compensated, yet the law calls for collaboration between the local government and oil companies to achieve fairness."

Only recently, according to Okumu, did Total approach him to discuss compensation: and that, he claims, was after they had begun to encounter problems with communities, and needed him to intercede. A meeting has been scheduled for February to discuss the matter.

Oil in Uganda, a website owned by ActionAid, and operated with funds from the East Africa office of the Ford Foundation, carried this piece about the impact of oil in Nebbi.

The Observer reproduces it in a three-part series. In this second part, the piece touches on the sensitive subject of how oil has fuelled commercial sex.

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