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NGOs sue in French court over oil project in Africa

December 8, 2022

A civilian court case in France hopes to block an oil exploration project in Uganda and Tanzania developed by energy giant TotalEnergies. It's a beacon of hope for civil rights groups.

A river in Murchison Falls National Park
NGOs are suing to end a Totalenergies fossil fuel extraction project in UgandaImage: Juliette Renaud

French petroleum giant TotalEnergies' Tilenga project plans to exploit the oil and gas resources from near Lake Albert in western Uganda, which it estimates at over 1 billion barrels. Once completed, Eacop, a buried pipeline almost 1,500 kilometers (about 930 miles) long, would cross neighboring Tanzania and link the oilfield to the Indian Ocean.

The company has said the development, which includes 400 wells, dozens of which fall inside the Murchison Falls National Park, will create tens of thousands of jobs in East Africa. But its environmental and human impact has been controversial.

On Wednesday, a French court began hearing a case brought against TotalEnergies by four Ugandan and two French environmental and civil rights groups aiming to stop the Tilenga project.

A controversial crude oil pipeline

"Total[Energies'] plans [...] jeopardize the 2015 Paris climate accords and the very survival of humanity," said Louis Cofflard, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, during the one-day hearing in Paris.

"The project plunges numerous families into poverty — we're demanding for it to be suspended immediately," he added.

First accountability law of its kind

The case is based on a 2017 French law, the first of its kind in the world.

According to the legislation, multinational companies with their headquarters in France need to set up a so-called "vigilance roadmap" for activities carried out by subsidiaries in other countries. This requires them to document and offset their projects' impact on the environment, local populations and human rights.

If they fail to comply, parent companies risk having to pay damages and suspend their projects.

TotalEnergies has established such a roadmap, but the plaintiffs have alleged it's not detailed enough and does not include the necessary mitigation measures.

The company refutes those accusations.

"The plaintiffs have a maximalist view — no vigilance roadmap will ever be able to satisfy their demands. And including too much information in the plans would be counterproductive," Ophelia Claude, a TotalEnergies lawyer, told the court.

"Companies, not the judges, should decide which measures are needed," she added.

Displacement without compensation?

On the ground in Uganda though, Geoffrey Byakagaba said TotalEnergies' roadmap is falling short of his needs.

"The situation is not good at all," he told DW.

The 44-year-old, together with two siblings and his mother, used to cultivate cassava, corn and sweet potatoes on nine acres of land in the eastern village of Kasenyi, where preparative works for the project's central oil processing facility have started.

Geoffrey Byakagaba
Byakagaba struggles to provide food for his family since accepting TotalEnergies' land-for-land swap Image: Lambert Coleman/Hans Lucas

"In 2017, we opted for Total[Energies'] land-for-land scheme, as the money they were offering was not enough to acquire another equivalent plot," Byakagaba said. "But so far, we have not received any land in exchange, and I had to rent a one-acre area elsewhere to cultivate at least some vegetables."

Byakagaba explained that he struggles to provide enough food for his family and pay for his nine children's school fees.

"Plus, I've been suffering from muscle and bone pain but can't afford going to a specialized hospital," he said. "I have to go to a cheaper one for my check-ups."

Dickens Kamugisha, director of Uganda-based Afiego, a group promoting good energy governance, said Byakagaba's is not an isolated case. That's one of the reasons the group is among the plaintiffs in the Paris case along with France's Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Survie, and Uganda's CRED, Nape and Navoda.

"More than 100,000 people are being displaced and tens of thousands haven't received any compensation payments or new stretches of land," he told DW, adding that he fears this could be just the beginning.

"National parks and central forest reserves are under attack; lakes, rivers and wetlands will be affected," he said. "We are going to face much more problems."

TotalEnergies claims positive effect on biodiversity

TotalEnergies addresses some of these issues in its vigilance framework.

The company writes that more than 700 households — roughly 5,000 people — have been offered land-for-land agreements. It also claims that its project will positively affect biodiversity, partly through the re-introduction of rhinoceros in some areas.

In court, TotalEnergies' lawyers focused on formalities — asking the judge to declare the case inadmissible for procedural reasons.

"The plaintiffs are obstinate to turn this into an emblematic case, but in the face of fury and noise, TotalEnergies addresses this case with serenity," the company's other lawyer Antonin Levy said.

"We should focus on what's essential — that is, the judge's scope of competence," he added.

A giraffe eats leaves in Murchison Falls National Park
Some of TotalEnergies' planned drilling will take place in Murchison Falls National ParkImage: Juliette Renaud

Case 'could set a precedent'

Kamalia Mehtiyeva, a law professor at the University of Paris-Est Creteil, said she thinks other international companies will hardly feel serene watching the case unfold.

"It's the first time that national judges in one country preside over a compensation case regarding potential harm done abroad based on the duty of vigilance — this could set a precedent," she told DW.

"The law creates a real economic risk for multinationals, as their activities can be suspended if there's no adequate vigilance framework," Mehtiyeva added."Plus, judges can impose a daily penalty until the framework is updated."

For Afiego's Kamugisha, the court case is a beacon of hope.

The group is also involved with five cases in Ugandan courts to stop various parts of the oil and gas project. It has also brought the matter in front of the East African Court of Justice, the judicial body of the East African Community, which includes  Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

"So far, we have not seen any justice in Ugandan and regional courts. That's why we decided to take this to France, a developed democracy. Our hope is that the case in France can give us justice," he said.

The Paris court decision is expected on February 28.

But a ruling in Paris to stop the Tilenga project is just one of the NGOs' goals, said Juliette Renaud, senior campaigner at FoE.

"Through this court case, we are asking for a suspension of the Tilenga and Eacop works, as the oil drillings and pipeline buildings are imminent," she told DW. "But this legal case is only one tool in our fight, which goes further through national and international mobilization. We want Total[Energies] to abandon these projects."

Edited by Ruairi Casey