This story was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.
Kampala, Uganda – In September 2019, when Chemonges Amusa, the tourism director of Murchison Falls Park, learned that oil drilling would soon begin within the boundaries of Uganda’s most visited national park, his eyes filled with tears.
The caretaker, now 42, who had spent most of his 15-year career in the depths of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest getting used to gorillas, felt the drilling would affect the park and its animals.
He threw himself into reading books and research articles to try to learn so much about conservation in coexistence with development, and how the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) might be able to ward off the worst damage.
“Like other rangers, I had the view that the animals would run away from the oil wells,” he said. “But the government had made a decision and we had to learn to control it.”
In 2015, French oil giant TotalEnergies and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the governments of Uganda and Tanzania to drill for oil in Uganda and export it via a 1,443 km long pipeline through the coast of Tanzania.
Although the project has received much criticism from environmental and conservation groups, Uganda’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni, has supported it and warned that he will not “allow anyone to play” with “my oil”.
The three-part $ 10 billion plan includes the controversial East African crude oil pipeline, the Kingfisher Lake Albert project and the Murchison Falls project, known as Tilenga. Inside Murchison, 10 well cushions and a feeder pipeline as well as a refinery are being built on the park border.
If implemented, it will be the first oil project in a protected area in East Africa.
The Albertine Rift, which includes the park and Lake Albert – the second largest of Uganda’s Great Lakes – is one of the most species – rich areas in the world, home to more than half of Africa’s birds, 40 percent of Africa’s mammals and about 20 percent. of its amphibians and plants. It is also home to more endangered and endemic species than any other region on the continent.
Environmentalists have warned of the potentially devastating effect on several species, including the eastern chimpanzee, which is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Prominent nature conservationists such as Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and Bill McKibben have spoken out against the oil projects and supported a campaign called #StopEACOP to deter insurance companies and banks from funding the project.
“The current estimate is that the Tilenga, Kingfisher and EACOP projects will contribute 1.3 million tonnes of carbon per year. It has a huge impact on efforts to combat climate change,” said Dickens Kamugisha, Executive Director of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), an IUCN member, and part of the #STOPEACOP campaign.
So far, 20 banks have refused to fund the project, including Barclays Bank and HSBC.
Under the radar
In 2010, another company, Soco Oil, began exploration activities in the nearby Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo – home to about 200 of the last remaining 700 wild mountain gorillas on Earth. But after a global setback and exposure in a Netflix documentary, the company withdrew from the project.
Although oil was discovered in the Murchison and Virunga parks around the same time, the latter gained more international attention due to its UNESCO World Heritage status and iconic gorilla species, said a former IUCN staffer who worked in both parks.
“So while the world’s attention was on Virunga, the project in Murchison was able to quietly evolve without much resistance,” said the person who asked to remain anonymous.
The silence of the international community may be due to the fact that Uganda’s wildlife law allows for oil exploration in protected areas, provided that the impact on the environment is “minimized and the natural habitat is restored”.
But sources say there may be another reason.
Unlike Soco, TotalEnergies is strongly committed to engaging conservation groups early in their activities. According to the former IUCN employee, the organization is working with the oil company to develop its energy diversification policy despite letters of resistance from its African member states.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the IUCN said it was “deeply concerned” about the project and its impact on conservation and climate action in Uganda. It said it had not entered into a partnership with TotalEnergies, but its council was in the process of reviewing a proposed commitment on how to “implement and significantly improve” Total’s commitments to reduce the impact on biodiversity.
“As part of this process, IUCN members in five countries where TotalEnergies has a significant presence have been consulted,” it added.
Similarly, TotalEnergies commissioned the Wildlife Conservation Society to conduct a study of the effects on animal movement during an oil exploration in Murchison. It discovered that seismic activities and drilling of oil wells on pads had a significant negative impact on large mammals, with many species moving up to a mile away from the site when drilling.
“WCS later realized that working with the gas company was not the best idea and the impact was much greater than they had expected,” the former IUCN staffer said.
A WCS spokesman said its role is to ensure environmental protection and preserve biodiversity. “That is why we do the science to secure the company [TotalEnergies] does not harm nature, ”they told Al Jazeera.
The Ugandan government did not respond to a request for comment.
Nina Pius Mbuya, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Uganda Martyrs University, said the WCS study did not show further conflict between humans and wildlife. In another study, Mbuya’s students at the International University of East Africa found that a forced change in the range of elephants caused more elephants to attack crops, leading to deaths on both sides.
Despite the fact that communities expressed these concerns at town hall meetings where TotalEnergie’s executives were present, no action was taken, AFIEGO’s Kamugisha added.
TotalEnergies did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition, Kamugisha said the project’s environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) funded by TotalEnergies as permitted by Ugandan law was comparable to that of a “defendant leading his own case”.
“The results will be as they want them to be, which in this case indicates that the remaining impacts will be low or negligible,” he added.
Moses Dhaba Sadha, UWA’s head of security to enforce ESIA compliance, said the authority had provided feedback on minimizing the effects in the park. For example, in a known breeding area for Ugandan copper, a 100 meter buffer zone was created. Or in a depression where buffaloes bathe, a 30-meter buffer zone.
“We tried to find a compromise in that if oil activities were to be carried out, they had to be carried out with care for the ecosystem,” Sadha added.
In July, the East African crude oil pipeline company applied for a license to kickstart the development of the pipeline, where oil drilling was to begin early next year, according to local media. Production of 230,000 barrels per day is planned for 2025.
Sadha said UWA has already received delegations from the DRC and Ghana who are eager to see how the authority manages conservation with oil development as they are interested in doing the same.
“This is the most worrying part of this disastrous project,” said the former IUCN staffer. “When you allow oil drilling in a protected area, it opens the door to many other devastating projects.”
Meanwhile, citizens like Chemonges seem to have been drawn into the official message: that oil is necessary for Uganda’s economic development, and mitigation measures will ensure that drilling does not affect conservation.
“My initial belief was that oil exploration and drilling would cause serious migrations or deaths to animals, but that was a myth,” the ranger said. When Chemonges was asked if oil development should be extended to other national parks throughout Africa, Chemonges remained silent.