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In Uganda’s Buliisa, Key Hole gardens are Powering EACOP-Displaced Women to Rise Above Hunger

Investors Care About Profits, not Human Rights

Judith Bero-Irwoth in her key hole garden. Photo by John Okot.


When officials from the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) asked Judith Bero-Irwoth to relocate from her home to pave the way for the project in 2018, she sternly refused cash compensation and instead asked for another piece of land to continue farming.

The rains were about to fall and at that time Bero-Irwoth had just planted some maize seeds upon clearing her garden when officials asked her, and other community members, to leave for the oil pipeline to pass through.

“It was painful because I had sweated for weeks clearing my garden – and now I had to forget about my crops that I had planted,” says Bero-Irwoth, 38, a mother of four. “They (TotalEnergies) also gave me two options: to choose between land or money. Of course I chose land because it is the only thing I owned, and I knew I had to protect at all costs because my family has been feeding on it for years”.

Despite the terms of the agreement with French oil giant TotalEnergies, who own 62 percent stake in the EACOP, Bero-Irwoth has never been compensated for her 3-acre land. And since she couldn’t access her land to farm anymore, Bero-Irwoth was forced to live with her parents who had also been displaced. But she met a new challenge : the land was not arable.

“The nature of the land was not conducive for farmers like us who have to wait for rain for our crops to grow,” says Bero-Irwoth, who has been a farmer all her life. “It was sandy and rocky yet it was the only option I had”.

The planned construction of the EACOP, which expected to ship crude oil from 1,443 kilometers from Uganda’s oil fields in the Albertine region to Tanga port in Tanzania, has displaced more than 10,000 people and ripped through farmlands in the process. Although TotalEnergies  says it has so far compensated 96 percent of the affected persons, experts say displaced communities, who mostly small holder farmers and rely mainly rain-fed agriculture, struggle to adapt to new environments, they are forced to finds new sources of livelihoods to survive – and they bear the brunt of climate change. This has rendered many households vulnerable as they grapple with food insecurity.

“Oil projects like the EACOP attract investors whose interest is making profits at the expense of the welfare of the communities and living in harmony with the environment,” says Amos Wemanya, Senior Advisor on Renewable and Just Transition Aspects at Power Shift Africa.

“Human rights are violated, people are evicted as a result they are forced to look for ways of survival or adapt to new environments as they battle with the changing climate despite being the least emitters”.

In 2021, Bero-Irwoth, together with her eleven friends, heard about a local non- profit, Pure Grow, that was training communities affected by the EACOP expansion on African keyhole gardening in the Albertine region.

Upon enrolling for the training  Bero-Irwoth realized that one could grow crops productively despite having minimal space or even during dry season when water is scarce

“We also leant how to raise seedlings on nursery beds made by us,” she says. “I realized that I didn’t buy fertilizer or pesticides which can be harmful to soil health. Now I can make organic manure from garden wastes such as leaves and peelings and organic pesticides from neem leaves, pepper and ash which is totally cheap”.

Two months after completing training, Bero-Irwoth opened her new garden and began planting vegetables in sacks , plastic bags and buckets, which she had filled out with soil and compost manure.

“I was happy to see some okra and eggplants coming out on top and on different sides of the buckets where I had poked holes,” she narrates. “I sold some and shared the rest with my family. But the beauty of it all is that it didn’t cost me much since I relied mostly on natural materials from my garden”.

African key hole gardening is a method of farming which involves heaping mounds of soil in sacks, buckets or concrete arranged in a key-like shape where spaces are left for fertilizers or water. During dry spells, farmers are able to grow crops all year since the garden has a number of layers that can retain moisture within the sacks making it a more resilient and productive method than the conventional gardens.

“This method does not rely on fossil fuel like most large scale farmers,” says Alexander Ampeire, an intensive compound gardening expert. “Keyhole gardening also relies on compost manure which also have different microbes  that add nitrogen, potassium and phosphate that help stimulate plant growth”.

As food systems increasingly  bubble up to the center of global climate discussions, with policy makers and climate activists are looking for cleaners ways of producing food with less emissions. Uganda currently emits 5 million tones of carbon emissions – and commercial agriculture is one of the common causes. At the COP28 , 134 world leaders signed up for the landmark agriculture, food, and climate action declaration to help strengthen food systems, build resilience to climate change, reduce global emissions, and  transform production practices through addressing soil health, food waste and biodiversity loss. To meet those goals, signatories agreed to accelerate innovation and increase financing for agriculture-based climate solutions.

In the Albertine region, Bero-Irwoth has since trained more than 300 women under environmental rights group,’ Tufanye pamoja’ (meaning “let’s work together” in Swahili language), on how to grow crop in an eco friendly way. She also grows all kinds of vegetables – such as egg plants, carrots, green and red peppers, onions, lettuces – at her  farm  where she also conducts her monthly training.

Although she is open to training all genders, her focus has been women since they were affected severely by devastating impacts of climate change which is majorly globally by burning fossil fuel.

Bero-Irwoth, who is a climate activist, has for years also been campaigning against the EACOP project and sensitizing communities about the dangers of fossil fuel since it is the major driver of climate crises. But activities have sometimes landed her in trouble with the local authorities.

“If we don’t speak about dirty oil now, who will?” asks Bero-Irwoth who was arrested twice for holding “unlawful” and “sabotaging government projects”.

“It’s even harder women”.

Studies show that women are disproportionately affected by the climate change in sub Saharan Africa despite providing the bulk of labour in agriculture according to the World Bank. In Uganda, an estimated 77percent are engaged in agricultural work, mostly small holder farmers – whose primary caregiver role involves looking after children and having responsibility for household energy, foods and water.

“Whenever forests are cut down to construct big factories, it’s women who suffer the most because they have to move longer distances to fetch firewood, get food or herbal medicine. If the dry season sets in and water sources dry up, it is women who trek longer distances to collect water. And if any other disasters strikes, still it’s the women who suffer the most because they bear all the responsibility to make sure that their children are safe or not starving,” says Beatrice Rukanyanga, an eco-feminist and climate activists who heads a non-profit, Kwataniza Women Farmers’ Group .

“These factors make women even more vulnerable and susceptible to climate crisis because culture has dictated that they need to look after the children while the men remain free here in our communities”.

Indeed, similar scenarios have been happening in Buliisa district, Albertine. Villages, like Kasenyi, have been battling floods continue that continue to submerge farmlands and water sources unlike in the past. In 2021, Total Energies cleared large swathes of trees to pave way for the 700-acre industrial area, and as result, a vast piece of land was left bare thereby exposing the communities to floods. Elephant conflicts have also become rampant due to the changing landscape of the area forcing more than 500 locals to petition the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) over “oil activities”.

“Our hope is the key hole garden,” says Beatrice Agenorwoth, 39, whose garden remains flooded and was trained by Beor-Irwoth. “We are survive on it since one require a small piece of land and its easy look after”.

But TotalEnergies denies this, saying “Buliisa district is historically prone to floods”. To control the floods, the oil company, however notes that is has so far constructed two water retention system “which can  hold 102,516.5 cubic meters and 279,38 cubic meters of water respectively with a plan to later release the water through existing drainage channels at a controlled pace to avoid damaging neighboring land”.

TotalEnegies also says it has been supporting the affected communities through restoring their livelihoods such as crop cultivation, livestock which are “determined by many aspects such as rainfall, climate and culturally-related livelihood practices”.

The livelihoods programs, TotaEnegies adds, are being implemented in two phases – the first to ensure food security after relocation which include: land preparation for cultivation, main crop improvement programs, development and planting of vegetable gardens.

The second part is that “transitional support will be provided to physically and economically displaced PAPs to complement compensation payments and to ensure that households can meet their basic needs and maintain levels of food security and standards of living once access to Project affected land has been lost,” TotalEnergies Spokesperson, Stephanie Platat said in an email.

“The nature and extent of the transitional support is tailored according to the severity of impacts… The components of transitional support include food rations that are based on a percentage of a Project Affected Household nutritional requirements and in line with a typical United Nations World Food Program food basket providing cereal, rice, pulses, oil, and salt”.

Despite these interventions by TotalEnergies, communities continue to battle devastating crises every day. One clear action would have been to halt the oil project. The European Parliament had previously called upon TotalEnergies to postpone the EACOP project citing “immense” impact on environment and “human right violation” and climate activists have so far been successful in campaigning against the project since many western investors pulled out. Despite that, Uganda is not showing any signs of leaving the project and the east African nation is seeking funding from China.

Amid all that, Bero-Irwoth biggest challenge if water shortages especially when the dry spells lasts long. But she, however, remains simple: to train as many people as she can in her community on how to use kitchen gardening. In future, she hopes to open a fully-fledged training facility – and with a proper water connection – that can train farmers from other regions as soon as she gets money and her land compensated by TotalEnergies.

“We are already surrounded by the oil pipeline, and we don’t know what the future holds,” she says. “But the signs are visible and they look good. But we can survive this if we are able to adopt resilient, cost-effective and ecologically friendly ways of growing food because our climate change is already part of us”.

This story was produced with assistance from MESHA and IDRC Eastern and Southern Africa Office for science journalists reporting on COP28.

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