What has amazed many of us in Uganda is the total lack of thought given to the needs of locals. Is the project a threat or an opportunity to induce the sustainable development of a region with great potential?
Perhaps more importantly, among the dissenting voices, is the lack of mention of an uncomfortable reality: Through deforestation and poor fuel management, poverty is, in fact, far more environmentally destructive than any energy project. The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project actually represents an opportunity to help alleviate such wanton destruction of the environment in the region.
Are these factors taken into consideration by the well-meaning, but often ill-informed, members of the Western public? Rather than an environmental calamity, the proposed oil projects should be seen as a lifeline for Uganda to escape the cycle of poverty and embrace a cleaner, more sustainable future.
The wider picture
It was expected that the EACOP project would not please everyone. Indeed, an oil project has a direct environmental impact that can’t be denied, whatever the efforts made by the operators to mitigate them. However, the vicious and condescending tone dominating much of the media coverage regarding the EACOP extraction shows this is no usual protest, but part of a Western attitude that still sees Africa through a patronising lens, a primitive ‘Eden’ to be kept untouched.
Antiquated farming methods, lack of efficient energy sources, land scarcity and the absence of alternatives to subsistence agriculture are by far the biggest sources of environmental destruction in the region.
The truth is, more than 90% of Uganda’s population currently bases its livelihood on agriculture, fishing or forestry. Antiquated farming methods, lack of efficient energy sources, land scarcity and the absence of alternatives to subsistence agriculture are by far the biggest sources of environmental destruction in the region.
The country’s population has doubled since the beginning of the century, leading to a phenomenon of land scarcity. Fields needed for farming crops and grazing cattle are becoming insufficient, forcing locals to resort to deforestation and other practices of land clearing. In simpler terms, poor Ugandans need a lot of land to produce necessary food, which they will cook by burning whatever they can find.
The potential benefits of the oil and gas project to local Ugandans are huge. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Uganda’s economy has been on an upward, but constrained path of growth. The country sorely needs foreign currency on the back[drop] of a deeply-rooted trade deficit (no less than $4.6bn in 2021), with complicated access to primary sources of energy. For Ugandans, the project is not merely an industrial one, but, if done right, a massive step on the path to development.
The districts of Buliisa and Kikuube, […] where most of the extraction and processing [will] take place, were among the nation’s most inaccessible regions, virtually separated from the rest of the country. The “oil roads” […] built for the project are changing th[is] at a fast pace. Finally, being connected to the outside world offers locals access to new markets, new jobs and new opportunities.
Putting oil to good use
Obviously, it is of utmost importance that 21st century solutions are employed to make sure that industry, nature and human development can coexist. All the participating parties in this private-public venture have made strong assurances that the environmental and social impact of the project has been thoroughly scrutinised to hold the endeavour to the highest modern standards.
The answer to the important question of food security can be found in raising agricultural efficiency. Increased mechanisation, higher quality fertilisers and wide-scale electrification of farms are all fundamental transformations that need to take place.
Rather than attempting to block the project, Western organisations should help Ugandans overcome local institutional weaknesses…
[However], such a process is easier said than done in a country where less than half of the population [only has] basic access to electricity. By bringing cheaper energy and, maybe more importantly, […] nurturing local agricultural value chains through better infrastructure and local procurement, such projects can indeed foster rapid progress.
Rather than attempting to block the project, Western organisations should help Ugandans overcome local institutional weaknesses by supporting civil society organisations or by helping to define rules that guarantee […] better governance and revenue sharing. In the end, the real issue is how to better implement the project rather than falling for the binary logic of doing/not doing it.
From Norway to the Gulf States, plenty of the world’s regions have grown rich and stable from making smart use of their oil and gas reserves. There’s no reason why Africa should not be allowed to do the same.
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