When leaders from government, business, and civil society met on 23 September 2019 to announce potentially far-reaching steps to confront climate change at the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York, Refugee Law Project (RLP) had just completed its 9th Institute for African Transitional Justice (IATJ) under the theme: ‘Environmental Destruction: The Transitional Justice Issue of the Future?’.
At both the UN Summit and Refugee Law Project’s Institute, the need for more action, less talk, and the non-negotiatiability of climate and environmental issues were all critical points. Resonating with what the Director of RLP, Dr Chris Dolan said during the 9th Institute; “…Changing the role of TJ from addressing the legacies of conflicts or violent past to mitigating future conflicts or violence”, I want here to offer my reflection on the ways in which conflict-related environmental destruction potentially poses a threat and/or could cause conflicts in the future, and the role of Transitional Justice (TJ) in mitigating such threats.
Post-conflict communities in Uganda and across the world are often characterized by high dependency on government and donors for support, high levels of vulnerability, high prevalence of poverty, poor public health, low-income levels, and many other challenges. All these different conflict and post-conflict conditions have a bearing on the environment because they trigger various destructive human actions such as: degradation; logging, burning charcoal, and mining; depletion of natural resources - logging, mining; hunting; encroachment into swamps and wetlands; pollution - disposing chemicals and hazardous waste into waters or land, manufacturing of non-conforming plastic bags below 30 microns; and dealing in and/or selling of cheap non-biodegradables.
As part of its advocacy, RLP produced a documentary “The Golden Tree” highlighting the plight of two endangered tree-species, namely Afzelia Africana (known as ‘Beyo’ tree in the local language) and ‘Shea nut tree’. Community members interviewed in the documentary justify their continued involvement in the destruction of the environment by arguing that it symptomatic of their vulnerability - which itself is caused by many years of conflicts that have plunged the community into a state of poverty and left people struggling to meet basic social and economic needs.
This exploitation of environmental resources and the related destruction of the environment is – in the short term - greatly enhancing the prosperity of a handful of rich citizens in exporting countries to the detriment of their fellow citizens, the environment and Africa as a continent. But will the impacts of climate change be choosy? The catastrophic effects - namely mass human and animal destruction – will impact all, wealthy and poor alike. The pursuit of short term gain is thus inexcusable and self-destroying.
What is Government doing to regulate the various mushrooming “investors” who litter our markets with already mentioned non-biodegradables, and our environment with degradation hostpots, such as marram and stone quarries left abandoned by multi-national companies involved in constructing roads and industries?
As one participant commented during the 9th IATJ at Churchill Courts Hotel in Gulu; “The law is not the problem; the enforcement of the law is the problem”. When Government and its agencies provide Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certificates to investors/developers for projects that allow, for instance, rice to be grown in swamps, aren’t they insulating the perpetrators of environmental crimes from prosecution? What is the future of Lwera Swamp, for example? To what extent are the pesticides and rodenticides being sprayed on farmland polluting nearby water bodies? Why is there not more effort to stop the continued settlements and encroachments on ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands? Is Uganda’s National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) playing its role in ensuring that standards in the protection of the environment, public health and safety are maintained? And, very specifically, how effectively is the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) using its environmental watchdog mandate?
As already noted earlier, the economic struggles of numerous post-conflict communities fuel the use of environmentally hazardous products as seen in the photos below. Should we continue to watch communities carrying on with environmental destruction and pollution under the disguise of addressing poverty without providing an alternative livelihood source or income to them?
Photo: Cheap non-biodegradable plastic products on sale in Cere Aleno market in Gulu and along Gulu-Kampala highway.
Similarly, while conducting oral history documentation recently in Kasese, I was shocked by the testimony of a war victim and former Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) abductee about the level of deliberate environmental degradation he witnessed during that war. He escaped from the jaws of death while trapped in the thick bamboo vegetation and under heavy military artillery fire from the UPDF in the jungles of DRC. He lamented “we could not move a foot forward because we were trapped in the thicket of the bamboo all cut to the ground by the bullets from the machine guns they were using to shower us with bullets and bombs so that we could come out”. In the jungles of DRC, and within areas such as Atoo hills and Kilak hills in northern Uganda, rebels and government alike set up bases that involve large chunks of forest cover being lost. What is the connection between the deliberate environmental destruction and injustices perpetuated during conflicts by the warring parties, and the future of conflict-survivors facing drastic climate changes challenges in the post-conflict setting?
Least mentioned are the dry and barren cleared areas around the destroyed and abandoned military armaments, UXOs, and former military camps/bases and/or barracks. Whose role is it to revitalize the now infertile lands? Can we hold the perpetrators responsible and accountable in our courts of law? Does our legal system have what it takes to prosecute such crimes to a conclusion? Whose role is it to ensure these crimes are prosecuted? Is it possible to have reparations for such crimes? But most of all, can there be truth-telling first?
As we join with other environmental activist and organizations worldwide to recognize the World Environment Day on 5 June each year, we recognise the need for a different approach to preserve the endangered indigenous trees species and forest cover that we are losing through Public Private Partnership (PPP). Can the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities partner with Cultural and/or Traditional institutions to: identify the areas with engendered tree species; gazette and have MOUs with Kingdoms and Chiefdoms to protect these areas to conserve and preserve; dialogue with communities to provide land for rejuvenation of planting of trees with cultural and traditions importance? Can districts and sub-counties be encouraged to come up with ordinances and by-laws respectively to provide for engagement between community, Local Government and line ministries?
Last but not least, where is the political will and buy-in? In the debate about who is responsible for the continuous destruction of our forest cover, communities, activists, Forestry Authority, security operatives, district local governments, and the military, have all been targets of accusations and counter-accusations. Despite efforts to apprehend the culprits, their frequent release with impunity, provision of permits or authorization letters, and securing of release through connections, have all undermined activism.
A Call to Action for All;
Central Government should ring-fence a program to cater specifically for the needs of war survivors and victims’ such as the LRA returnees, to rebuild the social and economic potentials of communities. Environmental Desk Officers are needed at the Ministry of Finance to step up efforts to mainstream environmental issues into the overall budget framework.
Parliament should debate the Climate Change Bill and pass it into law.
Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) is responsible for the formulation, promotion of the use of, and the enforcement of standards in the protection of the environment, public health, and safety. Therefore, UNBS must intensify its inspections, and ensure the charging and prosecution of apprehended suspects manufacturing and dealing in below 30 microns plastic bags contrary to the UNBS Act, 2013 in the Standards, Utilities and Wildlife Court at the Chief Magistrate’s Courts.
NEMA needs to take a pro-active approach; specifically, it must go beyond mere gazetting of environmentally sensitive areas with mark stones to also enforce arrest and prosecution of encroachers and violators through the established environmental police. The government should also ensure that the number of the environmental police supporting NEMA is adequate enough to execute the task at hand.
To CSOs and other actors, how do we deal with changing such mindsets in the community? Conduct awareness-raising or sensitization campaigns for communities on the dangers of environmental destruction actions. Fundraise to conduct Poverty and Environmental Initiatives.
To the Community, the questions then would be, is charcoal burning, logging, and sale of non-bio-degradable plastic the only alternative livelihoods or source of income? After the trees on our land are destroyed due to charcoal production or logging, what next? Communities should embrace the use of environmentally friendly energy sources to stop massive logging for fuelwood and timber. Such sustainable use of forest products could be through activities like craft making which ensures minimal levels of extraction.
In conclusion, therefore, hasn’t the time for accountability already come? Do we have to wait for that day when Mother Nature gives way as already being experienced through unique climatic changes such as hurricanes knocking communities around the world to the ground; heatwaves such as those in France causing deaths beyond the normal levels; the Dead Sea beginning to disappear; flooding such as recently in India? The list is endless. It will no longer matter where you live, who you are, which positions you held, actions taken or inactions. Shall we remain ‘Bystanders’ watching the “Monsters” swallowing us? Tough calls and actions have to be taken to avoid the threat of mass destruction. What is the future of the world if countries like Saudi Arabia and Brazil are staying away from the recently held climate-change Summit in New York with the latter facing a huge pressure over the continued destruction and possible extinction of its Amazon rainforest? We need to act urgently as Greta Thunberg warned world leaders during the Climate change summit in New York; “We will be watching you”. Similarly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres questioned how do we get out of the “deep climate hole” saying “time is running out, but it’s not too late”. There is increasing desperation that humans are facing an unprecedented threat in need of an unprecedented response by leaders and all.
With all these, shall we be seeing impromptu cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions discussing whether to define the negative actions on the environment leading to Climate change, Global warming, and Environmental destruction as Crimes Against Humanity? Can Transitional Justice approaches and mechanisms play a more critical role in addressing environmental crimes and injustices not just in the future but starting NOW?