The impact of mining on pastoralist livelihoods in Karamoja

Billy Rwothungeyo

One year into Uganda’s history as an independent state, then Prime Minister Milton Obote, upon visiting Karamoja sub-region in the north-east of the country, lamented, ‘We shall not wait for Karamoja to develop.’ He is said to have been aghast by how underdeveloped Karamoja was, compared to the rest of the country, and thus decided to concentrate on the rest of Uganda and leave Karamoja behind. Nearly 60 years after Uganda’s independence, Karamoja still lags behind the rest of Uganda. School completion rates among Karamoja children are some of the lowest in the country, and the sub-region is also poorly served by health services. 

Karamoja’s lack of development persists, even though it is rich in natural resources, with considerable deposits of minerals such as gold, marble and limestone, among others. Karamoja was excluded from earlier airborne mineral surveys and assessments carried out throughout the country because of insecurity, but the government recently undertook a fresh mapping exercise of Karamoja which is expected to reveal the true extent of mineral resources in the sub-region. 

Even before this, however, businesses and individuals with mining interests have thronged to Karamoja in recent years. Several extractive companies have already set up shop in the region, and it is anticipated that their number will only increase once the full potential of Karamoja’s mineral deposits is established. Concerningly, various prospecting and mining operations have already been licensed in Karamoja on lands that are traditionally occupied and owned by indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in the sub-region. 

According to Margaret Lomonyang, a representative of the Karamoja Women’s Cultural Group, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in the sub-region are largely ignored by the authorities when mining licences are given out. ‘Mining licences are given to companies and the communities that own these lands are not consulted or even informed,’ she says. ‘You just wake up one morning and see strangers surveying land.’ Consequently, there is much anxiety and unease around what will happen next. ‘There is a cloud of mistrust that hangs over Karamoja now — people do not trust that the government is working in their best interests. No one trusts these companies that just show up on land without even informing us of what their activities are.’ 

While many Ugandans uniformly refer to everyone who comes from Karamoja sub-region as ‘Karamojong’, there are in fact several distinct ethnic and indigenous communities in the sub-region, with Karamojong being just one of them. Other populations living in Karamoja include Ik, Tapeth, Dodoth, Pokot and Nyangia. Many of these communities in Karamoja identify themselves as pastoralists: their cultures and way of life are traditionally centred around cattle. Their pastoralist lifestyle is well suited to the arid and harsh conditions of the sub-region. Karamoja receives the least rainfall of all areas in Uganda — 300 millimetres or less rainfall per annum. Due to the tough conditions of their ancestral lands, the pastoralists of Karamoja are traditionally nomadic, moving from one area to another in search of better grazing lands for their animals. Beyond climatic conditions, these movements are also often necessitated by — and in order to manage — tensions and conflict between communities. ‘The conditions in Karamoja are arid. As a result, communities often move from one area to another in search of pastures and water for their animals,’ says Andrew Byaruhanga of Resource Rights Africa, a non-governmental organization that operates in Karamoja. ‘Some return to find their lands fenced off for mining activities without their prior consultation.’

No one trusts these companies that just show up on land without even informing us of what their activities are.

Margaret Lomonyang

For a long time, Karamoja was notorious for insecurity. Larger communities like the Karamojong raided smaller communities like the Ik for cattle, and even crossed into neighbouring sub-regions like Teso and Sebei to take cattle. This problem was addressed largely by disarmament exercises by the Ugandan government. Nevertheless, with the rapid decline of resources like pastures and water, herd sizes are decreasing across the sub-region. As a result, Karamoja’s ethnic groups are adopting agro-pastoralist practices. Cropping is gaining increased importance in the sub-region as communities try to diversify their livelihoods. 

Yet the future of pastoralist communities like the Karamojong, Ik, Tapeth, Pokot and Nyangia is increasingly threatened by mining activities and the large areas of land they consume. Companies prospecting for and mining minerals in the subregion are fencing off large pieces of land, limiting the access of local communities to precious grazing areas and meagre resources like water. There are increasing reports of communities being forcibly evicted from their lands. Mining operations are also notoriously detrimental to the environment. There are reports of mines contaminating the water resources of communities across the sub-region. 

Uganda’s mining laws are not favourable to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. The legislation does not require an entity exploring for minerals in any part of the country to consult the owners of the land. Only when an entity is moving to the mining phase does the law require that surface rights are negotiated with the owners of the land. Thus, many companies do not seek the consent of Karamoja’s indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities before embarking on exploration activities. 

Uganda’s mining sector is awash with speculators who obtain licences without the intention of prospecting for or mining minerals, but rather to fish for potential foreign investors. They employ underhand methods, such as bribing clan leaders to access communal lands, or influencing local politicians to claim land in Karamoja that is owned by indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. This can lead to a bewildering array of competing claims from different companies over ancestral land. ‘It is not clear who owns what mining licence,’ Byaruhanga explains. ‘Today, you find one company claiming to have a licence over a particular area. Three days later, you find a different company claiming ownership over the same place. All these licences are issued to companies without the knowledge of communities.’  

While mining is an emerging sector in Karamoja, it has so far not vastly altered the traditional way of living of the indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities of the region. Those who engage in artisanal mining only do so seasonally, during long dry spells with little to no farming activities. As more and more companies rush to the subregion to set up mining operations, Byaruhanga fears that without proper safeguards in place, mining activities could further undermine the rights of local communities. ‘If left unchecked, mining interests may take up a lot more grazing lands from the people and this will disrupt the traditional ways of the people of Karamoja live. The government should balance between mining interests and the traditional livelihoods of indigenous people.’

Photo: Karamojong ranchers closing a deal at an animal fair in Karamoja, Uganda. Credit: Jorge Fernández Garcés

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