The Guest Blog

Guest blogpost by Anne van Schaik, Sustainable Finance Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, and Sam Lowe, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland (EWNI).

In 2011, communities across the island of Kalangala, Uganda, were ejected from their land in order to facilitate the expansion of oil palm. Financed by the Uganda government, the International Fund for Agricultural Develoment (IFAD) and private financiers, and run as a joint venture between oil palm giants Wilmar and the Kenyan company Bidco, the project was designed to create jobs and infrastructure and reduce Uganda’s dependence on oil palm imports.

However, for many of the island’s original residents the cost has been high. People have lost their land and any compensation they received – if indeed there was any – was inadequate. In Kalangala, an estimated 3,600 hectares of natural forest have been destroyed to make way for the palm oil plantation. Now people are encroaching on the remaining forest for timber, food and medicine.

Following a Friends of the Earth Europe and NAPE/Friends of the Earth Uganda report in 2013, the issue has been discussed in the Dutch and European parliaments and brought to the attention of Wilmar’s international financiers – including many European and US banks and pension funds.

Today, we are returning from a fact-finding mission with our Ugandan partners NAPE, having found that – despite district level commitments to address the issues – community members are still awaiting fair compensation and/or a return of their land.

John Muya, a farmer in Kalangala, continues to fight for the return of his land. The overgrown foundations of an unfinished home, intended to house his family for generations, stands as a reminder of what was taken from him.

Despite multiple setbacks John and others have not given up. With the support of NAPE, they are considering taking legal action against those that forced them from their land.

John’s story is not unique to Uganda. Around the world, in Indonesia, Liberia and Nigeria, communities are losing their land in the name of oil palm-led ‘development’ projects, led by Wilmar, amongst others.

Much of this global expansion is driven by consumption in the developed world and financed, directly and indirectly, by Western investors and banks. US and EU financiers have a total of 371 million Euro in Wilmar shares, and 1.1 billion Euro in loans outstanding to Wilmar.

The expansion of oil palm is not just affecting communities; it is also causing an increase in global carbon emissions. As we approach a climate tipping point, it is clear that this is an issue that affects us all. Deforestation and peat drainage related to palm oil expansion has been linked to a significant increase in global greenhouse gas emissions. Such actions across South East Asia are estimated to have contributed an extra 2 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Back in Europe there are clear steps that can be taken.

Agrofuels are a key driving force for land grabs world-wide. Big commodity crops like palm oil, sugar cane, rapeseed and soya are now key ingredients in the petrol tanks of Europeans’ cars, thanks to EU targets. The EU must recognise its part in encouraging the rush for land and agrofuels commodities, and must halt the expansion of agrofuels competing for global crop land in reforms soon to conclude.

Besides that, we urgently need regulation of European banks and pension funds that provide financial services to these palm oil companies. Even though most financiers have a sustainability policy in place that should prevent them from financing these kinds of companies, it is clearly not sufficient. Therefore we are calling on the European institutions as well as national parliaments to install measures to regulate the financiers directly.

Development cannot be considered sustainable and successful if it consists of projects built on the backs of the powerless, and prioritises short-term gain above the livelihoods of future generations. John Muyisa and the community of Kalangala are fighting back. It is high time that we here in Europe did the same.

If you want to support John Muyisa’s struggle in his search for legal redress, please visit this link.

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