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  • Writer's pictureEdith Vos

Total oil exploitation in Uganda: A Paradigmatic Battleground

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Within the category of Total’s scandals, the French petroleum company’s current construction of the world’s longest heated oil pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania stands out as a particularly sordid project. Total (or TotalEnergies since 2018, when the company did a green rebrand) is already at the central stage of socio-environmental corporate scandals. Mid-October, the company requested to exploit gas fields in one of South Africa’s most biodiverse areas, cutting through the migration route of animals in danger of extinction. In France, citizens are queuing for previously unimaginable lengths, motors off, to refill their cars in a dystopian atmosphere, as Total’s employees have been on strike and blocking oil refineries to demand higher salaries.

If Total started constructions last February in Uganda and Tanzania, this project regained the media spotlights in mid-October as the EU parliament voted an emergency resolution to stop this megaproject- denouncing human rights violations, acts of intimidation and judicial harassment. I argue that this enterprise and its resistance are a symbol of our times and its (very slow) paradigm shift. An outdated money-driven phrenesis against the backdrop of a now generalised consciousness of planetary boundaries and striving for basic global human dignity. David vs Goliath. A neoliberal and neo-colonial battlefield.


The story goes as follows: in 2006, major oil reserves were found in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest natural reserve. Churchill, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, once described it as “Africa’s pearl”, but asphalt roads now streak it. In April 2021, Total, the primary operator of this project, along with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC) and the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC) received authorisation to start the €9 billion project. It’s a two-part endeavour. The Tilenga (jocosely meaning antelope) project includes constructions around the oil fields, including, e.g. 400 wells and a refinery complex. The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) brings oil from pumping stations in Uganda to the sea in Tanzania, where they will transport it to the rest of the world - since Uganda is landlocked. This 1440km-long heated pipeline would be the longest in the world.

Churchill at Hippo Camp in Uganda

The consequences of the project are devastating. On the socio-political front, around 118,000 people, mainly farmers with a few acres and zébu herders, are displaced by force, many of whom felt obliged to sell their lands under the pressures of Total and its subcontractors. 26% of Ugandans and 85% of Tanzanians are still waiting for compensation, which is still not enough to buy back a plot of land, given the soaring prices in the region induced by the project. In the meantime, it is forbidden for communities to grow food on their land, which has led to serious hunger and school dropouts. The national court gave the nine families who refused expropriation wrong for ‘hindrance to their country’s development’. NGOs opposed to the project are subject to pressure and intimidation by the Ugandan police, arrests of the project’s opponents are commonplace in the country, and the area has become closed to journalists. The government even expelled an EU diplomatic mission and several other European countries. Four members of the European Parliament managed to gain access to the national park this summer on a tourist visa and came back with reports of people opposed to the project receiving death threats. All while, Total claims that the company is defending human rights.

On the environmental front, Total’s enterprise is causing deforestation and substantial biodiversity losses. The pipeline route crosses forest reserves and wetlands, home to animals such as elephants, hippos and leopards, all of which are in danger of extinction. How will these animals react to the noise and vibrations of the 140 wells operating 24/7? There is also a significant risk of oil spills polluting two of the central water reserves in Africa. Such a spill would have disastrous consequences for the millions of people and animals dependent on them. While Uganda presents a robust framework of legal environmental and social protections, the government lacks the enforcement and budgetary mechanisms to protect the vulnerable ecosystems and local populations. To answer these critics, Total will reintroduce the black rhino and hire 50% more rangers, purchase surveillance drones against poachers and support programs to ‘protect the area’. The company claims that its project will ultimately have a "net positive impact on biodiversity"...

Antelopes in Murchison Falls National Park

Going forward with this project means that there will be 34 million extra tons of CO2 in the atmosphere (which equals six times Uganda’s current annual CO2 emissions). It’s a climate bomb. Patrick Pouyanné, Total’s CEO, just announced that his vision of global warming is at 3.5°C, piercing far beyond the Paris agreements’ aims of 1.5°C-2°C. We are now at 1.1°C, and the consequences of climate change are already dramatic.

The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years, firmly supports this project. He highlights that it will create 12.000 new jobs, considerably increase foreign direct investment, generate annual revenues of up to $2 billion from oil exports to countries such as China and India, and increase the country’s energy sources. These promises cannot be downplayed. It is also worthwhile noting that if renewable energies are essential, African countries cannot rely on them alone. Although highly undesirable, in practice, more gas, cleaner than coal, might be needed.

On the other hand, dependency on fossil fuel production won’t lead to structural development. It’s a perpetual reproduction of the North-South model rooted in colonialism, where the latter exports mainly primary products and the North, manufactured goods. Total (62%) and CNOOC (8%) would together hold far greater shares of the gas pipeline than the Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts (both 15%). And with little redistribution plans, the project will benefit rich stakeholders far more than the poorest, thereby perpetuating inequalities.

Thus, the project goes against the new ‘end of neoliberalism’ rhetoric, which, although still mainly a narrative and lacking holistic policies, is slowly walking to the forefront and arguably becoming a paradigm shift. It claims a rupture with the Washington Consensus (WC), the rampant 1980s neoliberal ideology of privatisation, profit-maximisation and minimum state intervention. Total’s megaproject counters this movement which, although lacking practical implementation, increasingly gains traction in debates and narratives.

Opposition to Total’s project has triggered global mobilisation- which offers some hope. The StopEcop campaign brings together 300 NGOs. A group of 85 French personalities called for a halt to the Tilenga project only a few weeks ago. While Pouyanné has the financial support of its main shareholder, Amundi, and the French Bank Crédit Agricole, 20 other banks and 11 insurance companies have refused to support the project.

Total has been dragged to the French court, provoking the first lawsuit using the Duty of Care Act, which requires large companies that their activities abroad comply with social, environmental and Human Rights standards. The Act is a unique French law created in 2017 following the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. It essentially states that a French company cannot do in Uganda or Tanzania what it would not be allowed to do in France. Investigations are still stuck in a procedural battle. And finally, in mid-September, by condemning Total’s activities in Uganda, the European Parliament voted a (non-binding) resolution against a petroleum company for the first time in history. The EU is far from an ethical power, considering there are always political trade-offs. But this action will be celebrated as a small step towards a more significant, nascent, paradigmatic shift.

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