Different studies on the land question in Albertine region reveal a low legal awareness on land matters among the citizenry; as well as a limited access to information on land rights. Specifically,communities lack knowledge of key provisions in the national constitution, in the national land act and now the national land policy; and are ignorant of the tenure systems in the country. Women, children,and the youth hardly participate in the land policy processes and therefore, this has kept them in the dark about their land rights. They lack information on steps to take when faced with land conflicts.

In many cases, some government authorities including Police, Resident District Commissioners and elected leaders have severally attempted to authoritatively settle land disputes without any mandate and fairness. Given its cultural diversity and, the recent discovery of oil, Albertine region has been faced with rampant land rights related conflicts and abuses over the years. In some instances, citizens have got shocked when they are evicted from the land they have occupied for their lifetime! The resulting displacement has greatly increased the vulnerability of women, youth and children. Indeed, in some instances, some lives have already been lost in struggle for land ownership in the region.

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A lady goes about her farm work: Photo Credit: Africa Renewal on Flickr

Albertine area is part of the wider region in Uganda where Oil and Natural Gas is discovered, with over 60 different tribes living together. The region has a total population estimated at 1,872,494 people spread in Nebbi, Bullisa,Kiryandongo, Nwoya and Hoima districts (Source: Extract from District Development Plans). Hoima and Masindi account for 57% of the total population. 25.3% of people are poor according to the research report of Economic Development Policy & Research Department-Ministry of Finance, Planning & Economic Development; May 2012. The region is faced with highly contentious, yet unresolved tribal conflicts commonly referred to as the “Bafuruki” and “Balalo” questions. The “Bafuruki” mean immigrants and the “Balalo” mean pastoralists from Ankole region.

 

Other development challenges identified in different studies indicate that the region is faced with: Inadequate access to information relating to land rights and the legal regime; Dysfunctional land administration and Dispute resolution institutions; inadequate access to legal justice for land rights;

Weak adherence to customary rules and; Gender disparities. These challenges and others have severely affected the rights of women and children; as manifested in the increased domestic and gender based violence, family displacement, loss of property, school dropouts, food insecurity, environmental destruction, societal disintegration, as well as poverty. The discovery of oil has further escalated these challenges with speculators flowing into the region hoping to cash in on available employment and other opportunities from oil exploration.

In terms of economic and political context, over 70% of the local citizens in the region are mainly subsistence farmers who plant mainly cassava, maize, potatoes and beans for their livelihoods according to district development plans. As a result of oil development activities, crops in the periphery of oil wells have been destroyed and landowners evicted. Where compensations are affected, it has been marred with corruption, disagreement on rates, and delays in compensation.

Photo Credit: SouthWorld
Photo Credit: SouthWorld

The Uganda National Constitution (1995) states that, the land in the country belongs to the people and outlines four land tenure systems including Milo land, leasehold, freehold, and customary tenure. In the Albertine region , over 80% of land is customarily owned, with over 85% under family/clans. The Land Act also upholds the constitution’s support for women and children, specifically the girls’ property rights by stating in Article 27 that any decision made on customary land according to the customs or traditions that denies women access to ownership, occupation or use of any land or violates the rights of women in the 1995 constitution is null and void. The Land Act further outlines what obligations tenants and landlords have towards one another. The 2010 amendment was made to the Land Act which requires court orders for a lawful or bona fide tenant on mailo land to be evicted, and also requires landlords looking to sell to give tenants the first option to buy.

 

The Land Act 1998 (Chapter 227) encourages open land markets, the legal way to the rich,powerful and those holding strong positions in various parameters of government- alongside a continuously growing population and the weak rule of law, brings on board the unfavorable competition for land. This scenario further contributes to the high rate of tenure insecurity in the region-presenting a heinous situation of bloody land disputes already occurring. This all affects women,children and Youths.

 

Land administration and dispute resolution institutions specifically the local government and traditional structures have inadequately responded to land related emerging deficits in the region – in the face of an emerging oil sector. Conflicts between oil companies and local citizens; as well as those among the local communities and within families- continue to emerge. Some of these are related to claims in the acquisition of land where oil wells are, and during seismic activities; while others are related to intra-family disputes over ownership, especially after a disposal has been made. Speculators have also rushed to acquire land in the region in anticipation of cashing in on the oil resource.

However, no meaningful dialogues, or even representation from local dispute resolution and land administration institutions have been organized for affected families and communities. Currently, local citizens feel that government has sacrificed them to land grabbers, a scenario that may stimulate conflict. This calls for an urgent intervention to make the land management and legal aid services in the region more efficient and accessible to the vulnerable populations.

 

While many land related cases go on unreported, many other victims fail to complete the process to register land disputes with courts of law; either after intimidation by the culprits or due to lack of the financial muscle required to meet the legal costs involved. Moreover, sometimes witnesses are procured and intimidated by the culprits, a scenario that subjects poor (or child) victims to maximum vulnerability. This makes it very hard for the ordinary communities to make their land rights a reality, directly impacting on women, youth and children’s rights. Moreover, courts of law in the region continue to face a backlog of cases related to land wrangles.

 

For instance, during this article development process, consultative findings indicated that; of 723 cases reported to Masindi Police Station in 2013 alone, 18% of these were related to land and property disputes (Source: Masindi Police Station Registry, Jan 2017). Between 2014 and 2015, a total of 89 land related cases were registered with the High Court in Masindi. Of these, only 13 (15% of the total) had been concluded by Jan 2017. Of the total, only 34 (38%) had been fixed for hearing in the two years, while 48% (42 cases) had never been fixed for hearing in 2 years (Source: Masindi High Court Registry, Jan 2017). In addition, the practice of adjourning the matter all the time has also affected poor victims to lose interest in their court cases. This has the potential to pave way to land grabbers and, to mob justice at times. Functionality of land administration management as well as the alternative dispute resolution mechanisms is vital in increasing access to legal justice for land rights in the region.

Gender Disparities: Women make over 90% of the land use particularly for the family consumption food production. Research findings of International Alert March 2013 revealed that in the Albertine Graben, households’ decision making is mainly male dominated. For example, more men (47%) than women (22%) reported taking charge of buying assets for the household. In addition, fewer women (19%) than men (38%) reported making independent decisions in disposing of vital assets such as land.

On most indicators of gender roles and practices, except repairing the house, more women than men reported that they do everything indicating that women’s workload is higher than that of men. In some cases unfortunately, upon the death of the male spouses, widows are immediately evicted from their marital pieces either by their in-laws or even their own children. The youth (and children) are equally treated in the same way with their mothers. In such a way, the rights of children, women and youth have been denied, rendering them helpless in the face of land related disputes.

There is always a gentleman’s agreement in communities for governing communally owned pieces of land including the wetlands. However, such agreements are not clearly known to the communities and are not respected. The women, youth (and children) have no knowledge about communal land ownership under the customary tenure, little do they know about the protection mechanisms. In this region, there is less to document, share and educate the young generation and the general population on the importance and rules of respecting all forms of customary land tenure system including communal land ownership. Therefore, when an eviction occurs, the rights of the vulnerable are highly abused.

The Civil Society Organizations are recommended to advocate for land rights issues among women in in Albertine region of Uganda and de-campaign the cultures that limits as well as impedes women’s access to Land. Regulations and policies should follow the universal rights of women to land and property ownership. To change community attitudes, there is a need to promote more open discussions to bring the problem of property grabbing out of the family sphere and into the public sphere. It is also essential that, women, children and the youth participate in efforts to secure their rights.

The media, CSO’s, religious leaders and land rights activists should increase pressure on government to increase transparency and accountability. Information’s on land transaction should be made accessible at sub counties and at the district level. The community members in the oil exploration areas should get organized under some form of group in order to pull resources, for common voice so that their voices can be heard. This could be spearheaded by the civil society. The civil society should also ensure that information reaches people. This information includes existing as well as that collected by the CSOs.