UK timber firm forces 25,000 Ugandans off their land — Oxfam

Sunday October 2 2011

By PAUL REDFERN, Special Correspondent

Nearly 23,000 people in Uganda have been forced off their land to make way for a new timber company.

The claim in a new report by Oxfam says the acquisition — which the UK company says is perfectly legal — is evidence of increased ‘land grabs’ by international companies in Africa.

The British timber company involved with the claim, the New Forests Company, stated that the majority of local residents who were moved had no legal right to the land, had left peacefully and that the process was the sole responsibility of the Ugandan National Forestry Authority. 

It told Oxfam that it had brought jobs and amenities to local communities and that its activities had been approved by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and International Finance Corporation (IFC).

However, many evictees told of how they were forcibly removed and have been left destitute, without enough food or money to send their children to school. There were court orders restraining evictions in force that named the company but eye-witnesses say that company workers took part in some of the evictions anyway. New Forest denies that it was involved in any evictions.

“All our plantations were cut down — we lost the bananas and cassava,” said Christine, a farmer in her mid-40s who lived in Kiboga district before the Uganda land grab.

“The company’s casual labourers would attack us —they beat and threatened people. Even now they won’t let us back in to look for the things we left behind.”

“The Uganda evictions clearly show how inadequate current safeguards are to ensure the protection of vulnerable people,” said Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. 

“Thousands of people are suffering because they have been evicted without meaningful consultation or compensation. 

The New Forests Company describes itself as an ethical company, adhering to international standards.  It must investigate these claims urgently and respect the needs and rights of poor communities affected by their investment.” Oxfam is calling for remedies to the Ugandan mass eviction and the other large-scale land grabs included in the report.

It says investors, governments and international organisations must also put a stop to land grabbing by fixing the current policies, regulations and business practices, which frequently fail to ensure that local people are consulted and treated fairly during negotiations.

They should also ensure that all relevant international standards are respected, including the IFC Performance Standards and the FSC standards.

The Uganda evictions took place between 2006 and 2010. One High Court order was granted on August 24, 2009 and remained valid until March 18, 2010. The other was granted on June 19, 2009 and remained in force until October 2, 2009. Both were to restrain evictions by the company.

The New Forests Company told the UK-based Daily Telegraph that people were resettled peacefully.

“This has been corroborated on a number of occasions by meticulous audits of the company by highly respected international organisations including the FSC and the IFC,” said a spokesman

On an international level, Oxfam wants financiers and buyers to take responsibility for what is happening on the ground, while governments in countries where companies involved in land acquisitions are based should demand standards and safeguards for small-scale food producers.

Measures such as biofuel targets that encourage large-scale land buys should be removed, the report urged.

In developing countries as many as 560 million acres of land have been sold, leased or licensed in large-scale land deals since 2001, mostly by international investors, according to the report, Land and Power.

The secrecy that surrounds these deals makes it difficult to get exact figures but preliminary research by Oxfam suggests that half of these acquisitions are in Africa, and cover an area nearly the size of Germany.

However, many of the deals are in fact “land grabs” where the rights and needs of the people living on the land are ignored, leaving them homeless.

“Land investment should be good news for people in poverty, but the frenetic scramble for land risks taking development in reverse,” said Mr Offenheiser. “Investors have increasingly set their sights on land, often ignoring the people who live there and depend on it to survive.  This unprecedented drive is leaving many of the world’s poorest people worse, not better-off.”

The report warns that a modern day land rush follows a drive to produce enough food for people overseas to meet damaging biofuels targets or speculate on land to make an easy profit. 

This is likely to get worse as the increasing demand for food, the gathering pace of climate change, water scarcity and non-food crops like biofuels compete for land.

Oxfam’s report profiles the devastating effect land grabs in Uganda, South Sudan, Indonesia, Honduras and Guatemala are having on vulnerable communities.

Oxfam estimate that 227 million hectares (560 million acres) have been sold, leased or licensed in large-scale land deals since 2001, mostly by international investors.