Down the Line: Oil, Poverty, and a Future Worth Building

Andrew Bogrand Land rights, Natural Resources

Every day, communities around the globe struggle to protect their land, livelihoods, environment, and money. This is the case from the western United States, where residents in poor neighborhoods have lost everything this summer in climate-induced fires, to eastern Africa, where rural villages are navigating the low costs and high risks of oil projects. Whether these communities live downwind or “down the line”, they face structural inequalities and powerful interests that often leave everything stacked against them.

Oxfam is working with partners across the world to level this power imbalance at the root of environmental crises, climate apartheid, and human rights violations everywhere. Fighting the injustice of poverty starts with listening to the perspectives of people already impacted by powerful actors, major pollution, and mega projects.

Inequality on the line

For the past two years, we have walked with communities in East Africa caught in the middle of a race to exploit some of the continent’s biggest oil reserves on the shores of Uganda’s Lake Albert. If constructed, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline would see over 12,000 families lose land. The inequality of power between international oil companies and local communities is stark. The route will pass through rural areas with few job opportunities, underdeveloped markets, limited roads, poor sanitation, and patchy electricity.

Some families are holding out hope that oil will bring development. More are worried about pollution, lost land, and the “empty promises” of oil money. Communities are urging project developers to take responsibility for their actions, ensure the fair value of land, protect the environment, and invest in a future beyond oil.

Down the Line – Oxfam America

Building a better future

How will companies and governments respond? This is the question posed in Down the Line, a community-based film documenting just some of the experiences and hopes of people living in East Africa’s oil frontier. The risks are high: oil projects in East Africa have already been marred by allegations of forceful evictions, delayed compensation, and disenfranchisement. Civil society groups in Uganda claim they are not always able to visit villages affected by oil projects and consultations about oil development are often perfunctory, tick-the-box exercises.

This reality has proven frustrating for Mary, a farmer in the Ugandan village of Rakai near the border of Tanzania. The pipeline right-of-way will pass through her farm. She has been asked to stop planting some of her crops but is yet to receive any money for her land. She wants fair and timely compensation for her property or the ability to continue farming uninterrupted. At the moment, she has neither. She cautions others “down the line” about empty promises and highlights the importance of forming alliances with local government leaders to shift power to the community level for more equitable decision-making.

Women like Mary face major challenges if oil development continues explains Alice, a women’s rights activist in western Uganda. If families are compensated for their land, the cash often lands in their husbands’ hands, she explains. This creates social tension. Alice has fought to ensure women are at the table in conversations about their future and has campaigned for specific measures, such as separate cash transfers to men and women, to support families.

Fred, a fisherman on the shores of Uganda’s Lake Albert, is preparing for the future. He is frustrated with years of oil exploration in the lake that has made his job more difficult and is worried about leaks and pollution in the lake from future exploitation. Fred has worked with others in the fishing industry to re-open fishing areas formerly closed for seismic testing and oil exploration. He is confident that his community, and those “down the line,” will come together to defend their environment and way of life.

For Irine, a primary school teacher in Kyakaboga, an oil resettlement village near Hoima, it is critical that parents “down the line” hold leaders accountable and fight for their children’s future. For her part, Irine has worked with families and village leaders to successfully petition the government to reopen a school building in the village, using oil development funds. This building will provide more space for her oversized class and allow her to better meet the needs of her students, many of whom have face relocation because of the oil projects.

What is down the line?

Despite the odds, communities in East Africa are mobilizing for a future worth building. Our research highlights people’s concerns and their perspectives on moving forward. For their part, companies are responding to the push for more information and transparent governance: last fall, Total released its own human rights impact assessment and some resettlement action plans, in line with Oxfam’s recommendations.

But companies and government must take even more urgent action to protect those whose lives are on the line. Read Oxfam’s recommendations from communities and hear from Mary, Fred, Irine and others in Down the Line (also available in French and Luganda).


Andrew Bogrand


Sophie Kyagulanyi