Several weeks ago I accompanied a group of Ugandan radio and TV journalists for a visit to south western Uganda. It consisted of Hoima and Buliisa and a whiz through Queen Elizabeth National Park. Much of Uganda’s oil exploration areas are in the north western part of the country ( often people say oil has been found in western Uganda because this was where the first discoveries were made).
The beautiful park a major tourist attraction presents a major challenge for the national oil program. While south of the park land is increasingly a political issue now associated with oil- northwards the park and uninhabited lands long under the shadow of the northern Uganda war have meant less tension. There are some problems in Amuru and possibly in Nwoya.
Our group itself was interesting. It is part of the outreach of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Departmentat Entebbe. Amongst the group were individuals known as “callers in” or if you like ordinary opinionated Ugandans who phone in enough into various radio and TV programs to be recognizable. I met for the first time Jossy Nuwabwiine who is a regular “caller in” on the show I do on KFM called the Hot Seat. Also tagging along was Capital FM’s Oscar of the Capital Gang.
One of the talking points around the park is how to preserve its natural beauty, protect the animals and yet get oil out of the ground. One of the tests at a site run by the French company Total is whether instead of building pipelines above the ground- it can be done under the surface. And then there is the touchy subject of waste disposal. So far two sites monitored by the environment regulator hold drilling waste while guidelines have been issued but the waste is yet to be disposed. There is talk of horizontal drilling and combining tourism with the oil sector. A survey has been done amongst some tourist the park authorities say. Many said it would not be the same if oil rigs crowd out the scenery. Others are more hopeful.
Now that the oil bill has been passed attention will turn to opening more accreage for exploration here. The environment debate has been less loud than the one about political control of the sector or the national oil company- just one of the institutions that will come out of the new law. Its likely to be drowned out by the other bill- the Public Finance and Accountability Bill also known as the revenue management law.
Organised environmental groups have long been the backbone of activist civil society and some like ACODE have continued and forayed into other policy areas recently including oil. Most famously they combined environment and governance issues into a filibuster of the Owen Falls Dam improvement program ( Bujagali Dam).
However the parks unlike say Mabira Forest another conservation protest are far removed and hardly visited by Ugandans to be something that captures the popular imagination. Also unlike the corruption issue that has coupled well with politics to make the oil debate such an attraction to the general public- talk of Ramsar sites or Uganda’s unrivaled bird diversity may not be sexy enough. I suggested that for the next several years perhaps the Wild Life Authority together with the ministries of education and tourism mandate a school touring program for subsidized visits for Uganda’s millions of students both as an income and as an education about their heritage- but this too is still moot like the plan by the Madhvani Group to build a golf course somewhere here ( I have no problem with the course but its been shot down because the locations chosen may interfere with animal migration and mating areas)
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of Uganda’s oil sector will probably be the sensitive environment. Unlike the polarized debate in Kampala it requires a meeting of minds on technology and policy choices about the oil sector that is bound to completely change the face of this land forever.
(pictures by Angelo Izama)