Ugandan farmer James Mubona, 73, looked pensive as he sat in a blue plastic chair under a mango tree next to three of his four wives, one breastfeeding a five-month-old baby, contemplating the imminent loss of his 22-acre farm to an oil pipeline.
The government is set to take about half of the land, which feeds Mubona’s 20 children and numerous grandchildren, to build the world’s longest electrically heated oil pipeline from northwest Uganda to Tanzania’s Tanga port on the Indian Ocean.
“I am worried because I don’t know where to go when this land is taken,” Mubona told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Kyakatemba village in Hoima District, a poor region along Uganda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. “When the pipeline takes a bigger portion of your land and you remain with a small portion, what do you do with that small portion?”
Uganda discovered crude reserves estimated by government geologists at 6.5 billion barrels in the Albertine rift basin more than 10 years ago.
The east African country aims to refine crude oil domestically and export some via a 1,445-km (900-mile) pipeline through neighboring Tanzania by 2020.
An energy ministry official told Mubona that a chunk of his land will be used to run a 30-meter-wide pipeline, road and power line from the refinery to the sea.
Uganda signed an agreement in April with a consortium, including a subsidiary of General Electric, to build and operate a 60,000-barrel-a-day refinery that will cost up to $4 billion, the president’s office said.
Yusuf Masaba, a spokesman for Uganda’s energy ministry, said the entire pipeline route had been mapped out and plans to compensate and resettle people were at an advanced stage.
“Once the government valuer is done with valuation, then compensation will be done. I cannot say when they will be compensated,” Masaba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are not going to break people’s homes to pass the line.
There are no settlements in the areas that the pipeline is going to pass,” he said, emphasizing that the government is only going to acquire farmland, not houses.
Mubona will not be the first Ugandan to lose land to the oil project, which the government hopes will spur economic growth, pay down the national debt and reduce poverty.
More than 7,000 people were evicted from 13 neighboring villages in Hoima District in 2012 for the refinery and a new international airport, which will fly in oil equipment, according to the energy ministry.
In Kyakaboga resettlement village, some 50 km west of Mubona’s family, about 50 concrete, three-bedroom houses with red iron roofs stood in neat lines.
More than a dozen lay empty.
The urban-style houses were built for families that lost their land and homes to the refinery and opted to be compensated with an equivalent amount of land, rather than cash.
“I can’t live here,” said Christop Opiyo, one of the small minority who chose resettlement over money when the government acquired his land in Kabaale for the airport.
“It looks like a camp and there is no privacy. All houses are so close together,” he said, gesturing at the two rows of houses, as construction workers in orange and red reflector jackets laid stones to build a police station in the midday sun.
Many families who have been resettled on the 530-acre plot complained that they could not keep livestock at the tightly-packed modern houses, unlike at their old rural homes, and that their new farmland was too far away, he said.
The families who chose cash compensation have not fared much better, activists said.
Innocent Tumwebaze, chairman of the Oil Refinery Residents Association, which represents evictees, said the 4.5 million shillings ($1,230) per acre compensation was too little to buy land in the same area.
“We were compensated using outdated rates,” he said, standing outside his house in Kyakaboga resettlement village.
Masaba said land is valued according to the market price in the area and that people who choose to receive cash compensation agree to the rate before accepting the money.
“There is no one who is forced to take compensation they don’t agree to. We have a grievance mechanism and they can also go to court,” he said by phone.
Some men who received the cash, as the customary landowners, deserted their families and disappeared to towns, abandoning their wives and children, who are staying with relatives.
“Issues of compensation have broken up many families,” Tumwebaze said.
Back in Mubona’s village, red crosses, painted by government officials in April, mark the doors of five mud-walled houses.
“I was told that an oil pipeline is going to pass through here,” said Jacinta Kyomukama, 48, whose house is marked, adding that she is unsure whether to plant for the next season in case she is moved.
Masaba said the marks did not mean those houses would be demolished, as the pipeline’s final route has not been decided.
“I expect to be compensated and then go and buy land elsewhere,” said the mother of seven, as her grandchildren milled around her. “I don’t intend to go very far from here.”