Inside Vatican meeting with Pope Francis that ended Museveni oil dreams

Ugandan activists who oppose the construction of a pipeline in East Africa greet Pope Francis on Wednesday, at the end of his weekly general audience

Ugandan activists who oppose the construction of a pipeline in East Africa greet Pope Francis on Wednesday, at the end of his weekly general audience (PHOTO/Courtesy)

KAMPALA — On Thursday, September 15, the European Parliament passed an emergency resolution by a large majority denouncing the consequences of oil megaprojects in Uganda and Tanzania, particularly two projects from French multinational TotalEnergies: Tilenga and EACOP.

The resolution referred to “human rights violations”, “acts of intimidation”, “judicial harassment”, and “immense” risks and impacts on local communities, the environment and the climate.

TotalEnergies hopes to exploit the oil lying beneath Lake Albert in western Uganda. More than 400 wells are to be drilled from December onwards, including 132 in the protected natural area of Murchison Falls.

Production from the Tilenga project (190,000 barrels per day), together with another area operated by the Chinese oil giant CNOOC, will be exported to Tanzania through a 1,445-kilometer buried pipeline called the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

Pope Francis influence

A few month ago, Ugandan climate activists met with Pope Francis at the Holy See to ask for his support in their campaign to stop the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

“This meeting with Pope Francis is vital because activists, environmental defenders and scientists have been reaching out to world leaders about the dangers the people and the planet are facing, for years now,” said Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda.

“We’ve demanded that they take action but instead we continue to see continued investment in fossil fuels. It is time to escalate our efforts to end the age of fossil fuels and having the Pope acknowledge our campaign to ‘StopEACOP’ lends even more moral authority to our demands,” she said.

The East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline is a proposed 900-mile crude oil pipeline from Hoima in Uganda to the port of Tanga in Tanzania that, if completed, would be the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world. French oil giant Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation are behind the project.

Climate activists claim the likely risk of oil spills pose a huge threat to the livelihoods and welfare of tens of millions of Ugandans and Tanzanians, and would generate over 34 million extra tons of carbon emissions every year – seven times Uganda’s yearly total – accelerating the climate crisis.

Pope Francis has been a relentless activist in the fight against climate change since the beginning of his pontificate in 2013.

His work on the subject culminated in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, considered the first papal environmental manifesto.

“The oil project requires a lot of land, and they are taking it from people who need it to grow their crops,” climate justice activist Maxwell Athahura said. “And people are left with no option, because they are given a little compensation that is not enough to buy land somewhere else.”

Those being bought out, he said, live off agriculture and herding cattle: “Without land, in our region, you cannot survive. People depend on land.”

According to Athahura, more than 100,000 people are being forced off their land, and the project risks poisoning the water resources and wetlands of Uganda and Tanzania, including the Lake Victoria Basin. More than 40 million people depend on the lake for drinking water, food production, and their livelihoods.

“This will violate a multitude of human rights,” Athahura said. “The right to property, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, the right to education, the right to health, the right to adequate housing, the right to life and safety, the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the right to free, prior and informed consent are all being trampled on.”

He claimed that environmental activists and journalists are being threatened and harassed for opposing the pipeline.

“We need people who can help us amplify our voice, because we are advocating in favor of saving the entire ecosystem,” Athahura said. “The Vatican can help us with that. We know that the pope is one of the most important people in the world, and we hope that us being here would help raise awareness over the challenge we are facing.”

During their visit to Rome, the activists not only met with Pope Francis at the end of the weekly audience, but also with several Vatican officials to discuss the different concerns the group has over climate justice and human rights that they perceive are being violated around the building of the pipeline.

The campaigners’ meeting with Francis was one stop on the StopEACOP tour across Europe. They also spoke at the United Nations in Geneva, met with French government officials, and met with representatives at BNP Paribas to demand an end to the bank’s financing of fossil fuels.

“The tour has helped us to mobilize youth and activists in Europe to create pressure on Total [the company behind the pipeline], banks, insurers, the legal system and others to stop the EACOP,” said Diana Nabiruma, who works at the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, a non-profit organization based in Uganda. “In Uganda, we don’t have much space to mobilize and engage in actions such as protests that are needed to create pressure.”

The group says they hope the people they engaged with during their visit to Rome can continue to create pressure through protests and financial advocacy.

“The future of East Africa relies on building sustainable, diversified, and inclusive economies, not by letting huge multinational corporations extract resources and keep the profit,” Athahura said.

The activist said that the “whole world is waking up to the fact that we need to stop burning fossil fuels and as a result, the price of oil will continue to plummet.”

“Rather than betting its development on a dying industry, we need to recognize that East Africa’s economic strength comes from the region’s biodiversity, heritage and natural landscapes,” he said.


Uganda’s parliament has lashed out at European lawmakers over a resolution condemning a massive East African oil project and calling for it to be delayed.


These included “wrongful imprisonment of human rights defenders, the arbitrary suspension of NGOs, arbitrary prison sentences and the eviction of hundreds of people from their land without fair and adequate compensation”.

It said more than 100,000 people were at risk of being displaced by the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) and called for them to be adequately compensated.

The project aims to extract the huge crude reserves under Lake Albert, a 160-kilometre-long natural border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and ship the oil through what would become the world’s longest heated pipeline.

Lake Albert lies atop an estimated 6.5 billion barrels of crude, of which about 1.4 billion barrels are currently considered recoverable.

Uganda’s deputy speaker, Thomas Tayebwa, reacted angrily to the EU parliament resolution. “These are projects which were approved by the parliament of Uganda, the parliament of a sovereign country and anything to do with challenging their approval is an affront to the independence of this house and we cannot take it lightly,” he said on Thursday.

But environmental group Friends of the Earth France welcomed the MEPs’ stance. “It sends a strong political message against the Tilenga and EACOP projects, whose human, environmental and climate costs are undeniable and simply unacceptable,” senior campaigner Juliette Renaud said in a statement.

Tilenga is the oilfield development project operated by TotalEnergies in the Lake Albert region of northwestern Uganda. The company has insisted it has taken steps to reduce the overall scheme’s impact on people and the environment.

“We are doing everything we can to make it an exemplary project in terms of transparency, shared prosperity, economic and social progress, sustainable development, with environmental consideration and respect for human rights,” it said in reaction to the EU parliament resolution.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has in the past hailed the project as a major economic boost for the landlocked country, where many live in poverty.


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