AFIEGO petitions minister to protect Lake Katwe artisanal salt miners

Some women mine salt in Lake Katwe, Kasese District. (Courtesy photo).

The Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) has petitioned the Minister of Energy and Mineral Development, Mary Goretti Kitutu, calling for urgent protection of artisanal salt miners at Lake Katwe.

According to AFIEGO, the miners are faced with eviction following the Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council in Kasese district issuing Rwenzori Shining Star, a Chinese and Ugandan company, with a Surface Rights mining licence covering Lake Katwe.

In November 2018, government issued the company with a three-year salt exploration licence causing suspicion amongst the Katwe salt miners who feared that they would be evicted to pave way for industrial salt mining at the lake.

“The miners’ fears were realised when on Friday, September 4, 2020, Rwenzori Shining Star applied for a surface rights licence for a salt mining project at Lake Katwe. The application was made to the Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council. Consequently, on December 29, 2020, the town council resolved to issue this licence. Since then, fear, security challenges in which local activists working to protect the artisanal salt miners’ rights have been arrested and others have gripped the community,” the petition signed by AFIEGO Chief Executive Officer, Dickens Kamugisha reads in part.

The organisation says Uganda’s mining legal regime has a major gap of failing to define what surface rights are and how they may be acquired for public lands or resources in consultation with resource-dependent communities or stakeholders.

The petition dated yesterday Wednesday, February 17, 2021, says neither the 2003 Mining Act nor its attendant regulations define and provide for the surface rights meaning that applicants for licences for surface rights and government including local governments aren’t legally bound to consult resource-dependent communities before licenses are issued.

“In the Katwe salt miners’ case, this legal gap meant that the Katwe-Kabatoro Town Council was able to issue the surface rights license without consulting the miners. Moreover, failure by Uganda’s laws to provide for artisanal mining, which has existed since about the thirteenth (13th) century on Lake Katwe, has left the salt miners not to mention other artisanal miners vulnerable to eviction by companies”.

Although the proponents of Rwenzori Shining Star say that they will provide employment and inject billions of dollars in Katwe-Kabatoro, AFIEGO reasons that from experience, it knows that that those billions of dollars rarely benefit the common man and woman adding that the often touted jobs rarely go to locals and when they do, the locals are employed in poorly-paying casual jobs.

The petition also says the elderly and women who form a big part of the workforce at the Katwe salt lake are unlikely to get the energy-sapping manual jobs that factories often give to locals.

AFIEGO highlights another concern that bio-diversity conservation will be affected including birds, flora and fauna when Rwenzori Shining Star starts mining the salt.

A man loads rocks of salt at Lake Katwe in Kasese District. (Courtesy photo).

Katwe salt lake neighbours Queen Elizabeth National Park with great biodiversity and there is an impending oil exploration licensing of an oil block in the park.

“Lake Katwe neighbours Queen Elizabeth National Park. As a result, the lake attracts and is a sanctuary for important fauna. The lake attracts over 25 bird species including Arctic migrants from Europe in addition to intra-African migrants such as flamingos. Animals such as hippopotamus and buffaloes among others are attracted to the lake to lick the salt and enjoy the salt flavoured grass at the lake. There are fears that drilling for salt at the lake will not only affect Lake Katwe but Lake Munyanyage as well which will affect that bio-diversity.”

Now, AFIEGO wants the minister to stop the salt mining project at Lake Katwe by Rwenzori Shining Star until all statutory requirements including conducting an ESIA through which the protection of the salt miners’ livelihoods and biodiversity will be provided for are met and public hearings be held on the Environmental Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) as the proposed project is controversial and is within the trans boundary of the Queen Elizabeth National Park locally known as Ruwenzori National Park.

In the petition, AFIEGO also wants the minister to work with relevant stakeholders to stop the rights abuses of the activists that are speaking against the giveaway of the lake. Some activists were arrested and released on police bond in January 2021.

“Today, the local activists (salt miners) have been intimidated and were told not to speak about the surface rights license. They were also informed that anyone found with a copy of the license will be imprisoned. This is against the activists’ access to information rights. In addition if any license is to be issued, it should be given to the indigenous community that has been using and protecting the Katwe salt lake for generations”.

The organisation urges the minister to ensure the fast tracking of the enactment of the 2019 Mining and Mineral Bill that provides for and protects the rights of artisanal miners in addition to avoiding issuance of an oil exploration license for Ngaji oil block in the national park and Lake Edward to protect biodiversity and communities.

AFIEGO argues that the prospect of oil opportunities in the park could be the factor that is attracting elements that want to destroy biodiversity and livelihoods.

 For generations, the miners and their families have sustainably mined for salt from Lake Katwe, with mining for salt at the lake going as far back as the 13th century. Salt mining is therefore of great socio-economic importance to the community.

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