Gulu is as welcoming, friendly and sunny as ever, but while I’ve been gone a pretty shocking and disturbing incident happened in one of the rural areas we work in.
Last month, a team from the ginnery started planting pine trees on a ~300ha remote piece of land north of Gulu. It’s potentially a great business and an important antidote to Uganda’s rampant deforestation, albeit one that requires 18 years of patience and faith, and a bit of luck in avoiding forest fires.
A South African manager and many Ugandan employees have been living in a small group of tents on the land. Last Thursday, around 9pm, the entire group was attacked by local villagers. The villagers outnumbered the ginnery’s employees, and beat them using weapons including canes and pangas (metal tools).
I’m relieved to be able to write that no one died, but many were severely injured and brought to hospital in Gulu town. I can’t imagine how scary it must’ve been, being so far from anywhere, and not knowing how far the attackers would go before they stopped.
Why did they attack? It’s hard to find rhyme or reason. It’s both very disconcerting and coldly fascinating to me that the locals retaliated against the pine project despite the logical benefits it would bring them: employment options, and therefore regular income as well as more people buying locally grown food, better infrastructure such as roads. All this in a very very remote area, where people are cut-off and destitute. But when the locals were offered jobs, they weren’t interested.
This wasn’t a case of people’s land being ‘grabbed’; the land was owned and leased solely by the father of the ginnery’s accountant, and before the pine it was empty, with just tall grass growing in the fertile soils.
The ginnery staff can barely understand it either; when I’ve asked them, they talk about a cultural attitude that attaches more importance to land than anything else – above jobs, security, even food. And they explained it was also a result of tempers flaring over larger land purchases happening nearby. Museveni, Uganda’s President, visited a neighbouring area last week to formally announce the handover of 40,000 hectares to the Madhvani’s, an Indian family conglomerate who will build Uganda’s largest sugar cane plantation.
It’s a reminder to me that there are many cultural things I just do not and cannot understand. Sometimes people act in completely unexpected ways, even when the opposite, rational response seems so blatantly obvious. At the same time Max reminds me not to credit the attackers with some grand agenda when they are just drunken thugs, and he’s right, Waraji (Ugandan gin) sold in dirt-cheap plastic sachets takes a big share of blame for the attack.
So the ginnery is cancelling the lease and abandoning work on the land. The team will return their focus to other pine forests they’re planting, in areas where, so far, local communities have welcomed the commercial development of unused land. And the police are working to track down the attackers and bring them to justice.
Ps. Despite the blatant thuggery in this situation, the reaction of locals to land purchases is very topical right now. As the Guardian reported yesterday, Museveni is on the verge of chucking Oxfam out of Uganda for suggesting he was involved in forced evictions from land in order to sell it to large companies…