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Catholic Peace Organization Exposes Brutal Land Grabbing and Evictions in Uganda

Logs of shea nut trees to be used for charcoal in Adagago and Adilang communities in Acholi, northern Uganda /Credit: Denis Hurley Peace Institute

Cases of land grabbing and forceful evictions are on the rise in northern parts of Uganda, a Catholic charity and peace organization that is investigating human rights violations in the East African country has revealed.

In an exposé shared with ACI Africa on Monday, May 17, the leadership of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI) reports the widespread evictions of populations of the entire Acholi district within the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu where victims are pushed out of their homes without compensation. The land is then given to investors.

The evictions are followed by mass deforestation where ancient forests are being decimated for the wood to be exported to China, DHPI, an initiative of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), indicates in the report.

The organization that is investigating and documenting growing human rights violations in Uganda in partnership with the country’s Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu says that the abuses were intensified during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“The situation is getting worse as the populations of entire districts people are being forcefully removed from their land. The forced evictions are a clear indication that people’s rights are not respected,” the official says in the report shared with ACI Africa.

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She adds, “The abuses intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic gave a lot of opportunists an advantage to easily access millions of hectares of land with the backing of the government and influential politicians in the country.”

According to the official of the SACBC organization, foreign firms acquired large areas of natural forests and farmland from the government under the pretext of development and employment.

“The COVID-19 pandemic was a smokescreen used to rid people of their land,” the official says, and adds, “Soldiers were deployed during the lockdown to force people from their homes by burning their houses and arresting some who were resistant.” 

The official gives the example of a cotton processing firm in Gulu which she says started cultivating people’s land with an Army General in charge.

With the support of the army, the management of the cotton firm forcefully removed the people from their homes before embarking on its activities.

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Another case involves a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander who is said to have chased away a whole Catholic Parish in Apaa, a village in northern Uganda. The area has now been made a game reserve, DHPI reports.

The official gives names of South African investors who she says have acquired land as a hunting sport facility.  

Images shared by the peace institute shows huts of families whose land has been taken and are now living in camps for the internally displaced.

Some of these people are living in Adilang Sub-County in the region inhabited by the Acholi people where they have further cut down trees to create homes, the report by DHPI details, adding that the situation is further heightening environmental degradation.

“Land grabbing leads to environmental degradation,” the DHPI official reports, and explains, “A vast number of shea nut trees have been cut. One of the areas where trees have been decimated is Adilang Sub-County, where close to 500 people from the different parts of the country have been camped in the area.”

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A variety of vices are committed in the camps including child labor where children are forced to work in the production of charcoal to make ends meet.

According to the peace organization, which is monitoring cases of violations in other African countries as well, political elites and the government who are facilitating land grabbing in Uganda want everyone to believe it is development.

The DHPI official on the ground reports, “Lack of international awareness about the land evictions and environmental destruction during the COVID-19 lockdown exacerbates the problem.” 

“The wealthy elites violate the rights of the poor by taking their land. The government does nothing about it. It in fact promotes such activities because they have an interest,” the official says, and adds, “The land and environmental degradation situation in Uganda has been kept under the radar.”

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She says that in many places in northern Uganda, large billboards have been erected to warn occupants that the land will soon be taken up and developed.

The DHPI findings are in line with the vices that Church leaders in Uganda condemned during Holy Week this year.

While leading Christians to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus on the Way of the Cross on Good Friday, the leaders including the late Archbishop of Kampala Archdiocese, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, the Church of Uganda Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu, and the Bishop of Namirembe Diocese Wilberforce Kityo Luwalira jointly condemned what they termed as a rise in abuse of human rights especially the murder of Ugandans across the country.

 “Those who are killing others…it is not really going to benefit them because after killing someone, you also eventually die. Land grabbing…you can grab it, even church land but one day you will die and only be provided a small piece for burial purposes,” Archbishop Kaziimba said in a report by The Independent during the ecumenical Way of the Cross that was spearheaded by the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC).

The Church leaders expressed their concerns a few hours before Archbishop Lwanga succumbed to a heart attack on April 3.

In his remarks on behalf of UJCC, the late Archbishop Lwanga said that as shepherds of the country, they were concerned about the actions of some security personnel in relation to the disappearance of people, especially the youth.

The Catholic Archbishop was quoted by the Ugandan publication as saying, “This is brewing anger, division, fear and anxiety within the population and totally contravenes the human rights frameworks to which we are signatory as a country. We are troubled that the disregard of these God given rights and freedoms shall weaken our social fiber of harmony, social cohesion and responsive leadership.”

The Archbishop Kizito Lwanga appealed to Ugandans to respect life and all other human rights, saying, “Shun violence, hatred and all other forms of immorality; we also call to lead by good example and sow seeds of justice and peace and awaken society whenever it deviates from these ideals.”

In an April 20 report shared with ACI Africa, the leadership of DHPI revealed chilling human rights violations in Uganda where civilians underwent torture, sexual violence, unfair arrests, and deaths in police custody among other serious human rights violations.

In the investigation that was conducted by the Justice and Peace Commissions (JPC) of the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu and Lira Diocese in the East African country, DHPI, which commissioned the investigation, called for action against the perpetrators of the crimes that were linked to those in authority.