Land grabs at gunpoint in Kiryandongo – New report

A resident who was beaten and hacked with a machete during the eviction. (Photo credit: From witnessradio.org by Community member archives)

A new report released today August 25, 2020, by Witness Radio, GRAIN and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, says many people are being violently evicted from their farms to pave way for foreign-owned plantations in Kiryandongo District.

“An estimated 35,000 number of people in Kiryandongo district are being violently evicted from their homes and farms to make way for the industrial farming projects of three foreign-owned companies— Agilis Partners, Kiryandongo Sugar and Great Season SMC”, the report says.

It is reported that based on the testimonies from local community members, the affected people are being displaced by companies with the active collaboration of private security firms, the army and the police.

Despite the evictions, the residents are struggling to get justice.

Ms Joyce Badudu, says that her family is suffering without food after Kiryandongo Sugar evicted her from her land.

“Our hearts are broken. Our children are not going to school and we do not have food. We are angry, very angry and we are hungry.”

Ms Badudu says before the agribusiness companies came in, she and other residents grew crops and reared animals.

However, currently, their big chunks of land are covered with sugarcane, maize, coffee and soya bean grown solely for export while Agilis, one of the companies produces cereal for the United Nations World Food Programme.

“I had 23 acres of land, a banana plantation as my biggest investment. “I also farmed maize and cassava and grew yams. I kept 60 free range chickens, 47 pigs and free range ducks. I also had a chain link fence for my pigs and those chains are still there although the fence was destroyed,” says Mr Emmanuel Agarubanda, another affected resident.

The report states that people produced surplus for markets in Kampala but now hunger and malnourishment stalk the communities. Without land to farm, the local people have decided to work on the plantations.

Ms Jane Kobusingye, a former resident of Ranch 23, says her husband died from shock and distress of being evicted from their home. She is now looking after 12 children, has no choice but to work as a casual labourer on the Kiryandongo Sugar plantation where she earns US$0.50 for a day’s work.

Mr Joseph Walekula sympathises with people working in sugar plantations.

“Those people working in sugarcane are really suffering. They are living like slaves. We often wonder if these companies come to impoverish Ugandans. We asked one police officer at the time that we were jailed why he was torturing fellow Ugandans. He told us that they want us to suffer and live on the streets. It feels like the government and these investors are just set out to torture ordinary Ugandans,” he says.

The heavy use of agrochemicals on the plantations and burning of sugarcane has also had a negative impact on the health of the residents who say they are not protected or forewarned when crops are being sprayed or being burned.

The report adds that the effects of the chemicals are visible on the residents’ bodies and compromised the health of children and women.

The communities complain that the plantations have increased the population of mosquitoes in the area yet the companies have not established clinics for the workers and local people impacted by their operations.

Such primary schools as Bright Future,  Quality, Nile View, Good Hope and God’s Grace amon others have been closed since children can no longer access them while Mark Osunde, Akweko, and Otyaluk drug shops among others have been destroyed.

Violence

Kiryandongo District Police Commander, Mr Joseph Bakaleke (extreme right) with other police officers at an eviction. ( Photo credit: From Witnessradio.org by Community member archives.

The report says it began in early 2017 when the residents of Kakoba village on Kiryandongo district heard on the radio that they were soon to be evicted from their land.

“I heard over the radio that the people should prepare to have their lands valuated, to be compensated and to leave the eviction site,” said Mr Edward Bakaikara, 78, before adding: “The advert was run for two months. No meeting or information was given to us pertaining to alternative settlements nor did they carry out public hearing and valuations.”

The report says that according to the findings, several government and private security agencies were involved in the evictions.

“Witness Radio has collected evidence that soldiers from 4th Division of the Uganda People Defense Forces (UPDF), Kiryandongo police personnel and private security guards, like Saracen Uganda Limited, from outside the area are working directly with Kiryandongo Sugar, as well as Agilis Partners and Great Season, to carry out the evictions”.

The findings also indicate that apart from Saracen, the companies also employ untrained and violent security guards who are armed with machetes as well as bows and arrows citing Great Season that reportedly collaborates with a local land dealer named Reuben Mwesigwa who sold them the land titles in the area.

“Although community leaders have seen documents from the government’s local Land Protection unit in Kibuli showing that these land titles are fake, Mwesigwa has used his close relationship with the Kiryandongo police to prevent the local residents from challenging the company’s occupation of their lands.”

Community leaders say that the police have acted on Mwesigwa’s orders to physically assault members of the community and to arbitrarily arrest and detain community land rights defenders”.

According to them, the area’s police post at Kimogola refuses to handle any complaint from community members affected by Great Season’s operations and all of their attempts to file cases have been rejected.

The report says on March 22, 2020, Mr Sipiriano Baluma, a resident of Jerusalem village, was arrested and detained at Kimogola Police Station when he tried to lodge a complaint against Great Season regarding the destruction of his crops.

He was later transferred to Kiryandongo Police Station where he was charged with criminal trespass and released on bond after spending 10 days in an illegal detention centre.

The report adds that on March 25, 2020, in Nyamuntende, company agents from Kiryandongo Sugar, accompanied by four soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), entered the property of land rights defender, Mr Richard David Otyaluk with a tractor belonging to the company and ploughed up his maize fields.

When Mr Otyaluk tried to stop the tractor from destroying his crops, “the soldiers detained and beat him. They also beat and detained land rights defender Mr James Olupoti who tried to photograph the attack. Both were taken to a camp belonging to Kiryandongo Sugar that houses workers and UPDF soldiers. There they were tortured before being transferred to the Kiryandongo police station. They were held there for seven days before being charged with criminal trespass and released on bond”.

Such constant violence has made residents fearful of speaking out and fighting back.

“Of course, I fear for my dear life and reprisals if what I have said here reaches our evictors,” says Mr Benon Baryaija, one of the former residents of Ranch 23, where Great Season is operating. “These companies have established a surveillance network to spy on us, on everything we do.

It is against this backdrop that the report authors recommend that African governments must stop handing out farmlands to foreign companies and start prioritising their own people’s access and local food systems.

They also recommend that evictions should be stopped and reversed and the villagers must be fully compensated for any damages suffered in addition to an urgent and independent investigation into the crimes of fraud, torture, sexual abuse, corruption and illegal activities that are alleged to have occurred in the eviction of the communities from their homes and lands in Kiryandongo district.

Witness Radio adds that all those responsible for the crimes committed including government authorities and company owners must be persecuted with the full weight of the law among others.

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