November 26, 2021

#StopEACOP: The 900-mile pipeline in East Africa that will devastate communities and ecosystems

Words by Jessica Kleczka

The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project is arguably one of the largest environmental threats of our present time. The pipeline will transport oil from the shores of Lake Albert on the border between Uganda and DRC through Tanzania to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean. At nearly 1,445 kilometres (900 miles), it will be the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world and one of the largest infrastructure projects in East Africa - with disastrous consequences for communities, wildlife, and the planet. The pipeline will pass through multiple diverse habitats with endangered species (including Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake), jeopardise community water sources, cause air pollution, and its construction will negatively affect up to 120,000 people.

In April, the governments of Uganda and Tanzania signed agreements with the French oil and gas company Total (who own 62% of the project) and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC, with an 8% share) after four years of negotiations. The project value is estimated at $20 billion (£14.8 billion) and forecast to deliver 1.7bn barrels of crude oil starting in 2024 - with a capacity of 216,000 barrels a day. 

EACOP will produce more than 34 million tonnes of carbon annually, which is more than the current combined emissions of Uganda and Tanzania and equivalent to nearly 7 million passenger vehicles. The governments’ environmental and social impact assessments have failed to include mitigation measures in case of oil spills, and have no detailed plan on combating climate change. While the project justifies its impact with high economic benefits for the region, in fact only 300 permanent jobs will be created during the pipeline’s operation.

The East African oil industry has a history of major corruption and environmental scandals over the past decade, leading to land conflicts, closing of civic spaces, and human rights infringements such as intimidation and unlawful evictions. The project comes amid an economic crisis in the oil sector and human rights rollbacks across the region. Pipeline construction began in July 2021 and was met with protest and international criticism. The #StopEACOP campaign is currently supported by more than a million people.

The East African Crude Oil pipeline (EACOP) will stretch 900 miles from Lake Albert in western Uganda to the Tanzanian port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean. Map: Yale Environment 360

More than just a pipeline...

Although the extent of the EACOP project is often played down, it reaches far beyond being “just an oil pipeline”. The project consists of

  1. The “Tilenga” project, operated by Total: Six oil fields with 419 wells, mainly inside Murchison Falls Natural Park, covering 425 square miles. Plus construction of an industrial area with a processing plant outside the park.

  2. An oil refinery and airport, built by the Ugandan government.

  3. A mega-pipeline (EACOP) built by Total, British-owned Tullow (now owned by Total), Chinese CNOOC and the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, spanning 1,445km from Uganda to Tanzania. The pipeline will be buried two metres underground, will be 61cm wide and heated to 50°C so that the crude oil does not solidify. Above ground, a 30 metre corridor will be cleared of all structures, trees and shrubland.

  4. Other related infrastructures built by Total, its partners and the two governments - primarily a water abstraction system to use Lake Albert’s water to meet the needs of oil wells; a combined network of 180,000 kilometres of oil pipelines (some passing under the Nile), oil waste management, storage and treatment facilities; and new roads to facilitate the growth of the oil industry.

The scope of the project is huge, but there is even more oil to be extracted: Uganda has proven oil reserves exceeding 6.5bn barrels, of which 2.2bn are currently recoverable. Uganda's new energy minister has plans to make the country sub-saharan Africa’s fifth biggest oil producer, which will pave the way for future projects. It also sends strong signals to the rest of the region and Kenya in particular to unlock their own oil and gas potential. Uganda’s investment in renewable energy has been limited so far, with a 2020 report showing that solar power accounts for 4% of Uganda’s energy production - 1% of the country’s 2040 goals.

Who is financing EACOP?

The project has an estimated cost of $3.5 - a lot of which will be financed through loans. Financial experts have warned that only foreign investors will gain from the project, while Uganda will most likely sink deeper into public debt. This will be exacerbated by the destruction of agricultural land and natural habitats. Because of the unwavering support of ruling governments for EACOP, opposition is now largely directed at the banks that could finance the project, and as Total itself - which recently rebranded itself as TotalEnergies and aims to be a renewable energy pioneer.

To this day, $10 billion have been invested in the project - most of it by French multinational Total - which will profit the most from the pipeline’s construction - and Chinese state-owned CNOOC. Both hold licences to extract oil in Uganda, but can only begin drilling once EACOP is built. Total and CNOOC can not afford this alone, and are therefore reliant on other investors around the world such as commercial banks, public financiers, contractors and insurance providers. An estimated $10 billion more are needed to follow through with the project, and financing is tight.

Following pressure from the #StopEACOP campaign, the African Development Bank declared it would not finance the pipeline. In March, Barclays and Credit Suisse - both significant funding sources of Total - became the first two commercial banks to rule out financing for EACOP. To date, 11 commercial banks and 3 insurers have publicly committed to not supporting EACOP - which led to the unlawful arrests of journalists and activists by the Ugandan government.

The campaign now focuses on directors, shareholders and other stakeholders backing EACOP - such as South Africa’s Standard Bank, Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China - arguing that their support would be financially reckless and morally indefensible (see the end of this article for ways to support the campaign). Several major insurers have made clear that they won’t insure the pipeline, but others are considering it. The campaign is reaching out to insurers with a known track record of insuring oil pipelines, including several in the UK, asking them to publicly commit to not supporting EACOP.

EACOP is an ecological disaster

The pipeline will disturb nearly 2,000 square kilometres of protected wildlife habitats, including Murchison Falls National Park, the Taala Forest Reserve, the Bugoma Forest, Wembere Steppe, and the Biharamulo Game Reserve - all of which are critical to the preservation of vulnerable species, such as the Eastern Chimpanzee and the African Elephant - the largest animal walking the earth, which pays a crucial role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

Both the construction and operation of the pipeline pose severe risks to wildlife in one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions. The so-called “edge effect” of creating a 30 metre wide line of open space for the project's more than 80 control stations will prevent many animals from accessing food on the other side. A report by an independent Dutch body found that EACOP assessments had been “unquestioning” on environmental issues, and that the pipeline was “not fit for purpose”. Another report by WWF Uganda warned in 2017 that the pipeline “is likely to lead to significant disturbance, fragmentation and increased poaching within important biodiversity and natural habitats” populated by international red list species.

The pipeline will also cross more than 200 rivers - just one oil spill or leak could have catastrophic consequences on vital freshwater sources and the millions of people who depend on them. The likelihood of this is high as the pipeline will traverse an active seismic zone which regularly experiences earthquakes, on top of existing risks stemming from erosion, accidental damage or poor maintenance. Lake Albert is thought to be at particular risk, with the Tilenga oil field on its northeastern shore and the Kingfisher project on the eastern shore, which will put the Bugoma forest at risk by pipelines, roads, an airport, and migrant workers who will need to clear land to grow crops. South of the Lake, EACOP will cross Taala Forest Reserve, which currently provides 30% of Uganda’s fish catch. A third of the pipeline’s journey will run along Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake - an essential watershed for more than 40 million people and a source of the Nile river.

Rather than meeting industry best practice to contain this risk, Total and its partners have opted for the lowest cost option - open cut trenching - for almost all water crossings. This poses a huge risk particularly to sensitive ecosystems such as the wetlands in Murchison Falls National Park, which are home to many critically endangered species. EACOP will end in the Indian ocean, which is home to some of Africa’s most biodiverse mangroves and coral reefs. Tankers up to 300 metres (the length of three football fields) long will be loaded near two marine protected areas, where cleanups can be particularly difficult.

EACOP will displace thousands of people and exacerbate environmental injustice

The pipeline is a threat to local communities who are heavily dependent on natural resources. It will displace thousands of families, and over 100,000 people across Uganda and Tanzania will lose land they rely on for farming. Many will be forcibly removed from their homes under compulsory purchase orders: A report by Oxfam found that Total’s human rights conduct is not being met in practice, with the land acquisition process being marked with a lack in transparency, inadequate valuation of land and delayed compensation. Many of people affected have been denied meaningful participation or adequate information on the environmental and social risks of the project - with representatives disproportionately stressing its benefits. Communities have expressed concern about oil spills, water shortages and deforestation affecting their right to a clean and healthy environment.

Another report by FIDH titled “Oil in East Africa” found that security forces working for oil exploration companies have been linked to killings and other incidents of violence and harassment. The Tilenga and Kingfisher fields have been marked by social disruption, slow compensation processes and problematic resettlement practices - with people living in unacceptable sanitary conditions after giving up their land. Families are facing major disruption by having to find new jobs and schools for their children, and losing their main sources of income - most of which are closely tied to the land. The projects risk degrading water and soil quality through the use of drilling, disposal and pipeline construction techniques that do not reflect best available technologies. Speaking out is often risky, with many journalists and researchers having been targeted for abuse, harassment and threats against a backdrop of human rights rollbacks.

In Uganda, 7,000 people from 13 villages have already lost land to make way for infrastructure, including an airport to fly in equipment for the oil fields. Many of the displaced now live in concrete houses in so-called “resettlement villages” and complain about cramped conditions and long walks to their fields. Many are still fighting on the land, and their opposition is supported by a number of environmental groups to resist the increasingly authoritarian government.

A man and his dog observe the future site of the kingfisher oil field on the shores of lake Albert. Photo: Martin Dudek

Another report by FIDH titled “New Oil, Same Business” found that farmers faced intimidation and manipulation, forcing them to give up their land for meagre cash compensation. In order to suppress dissent, the government of Uganda has been heavy-handed with those speaking out publicly against the project. In October, six workers from the non-profit policy research group AFIEGO, who have been advocating against EACOP, were arrested under false accusations that they did not hold proper registration documents - the workers were held in jail for three days despite a lack of evidence against them. Last year, Global Witness warned about the criminalisation of environmental defenders and their communities, reporting that governments and companies exploit the legal system to silence activists who threaten their interests. Organisations are being accused of money laundering or funding terrorism after speaking out against fossil fuel developments, and subsequently have to suspend their activities.

#StopEACOP and a range of NGOs are urging governments to invest into existing industries which benefit local people. Tourism in Uganda, for example, accounts for 7% of GDP and provides over 600,000 jobs - in contrast to EACOP’s expected 200-300 permanent jobs. Rather than endangering wildlife and communities, the sector encourages wildlife and nature conservation. Another overlooked area is agriculture, which employs more people than any other sector - but only 3% of the government budget is allocated to support farmers, despite the sector generating nearly a quarter of GDP. Campaigners stress the opportunity to increase economic strength and resilience by supporting sustainable, small-scale agriculture, rather than destructive fossil fuel projects.

Women and girls will be disproportionately affected

Research into the gendered impacts of EACOP has found that women and children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of pipeline construction. The majority of rural women in both Uganda and Tanzania are farmers without capital to explore new economic opportunities. Women are particularly engaged in crop farming to generate income for their families, and face permanent loss of land due to project land acquisition. They also face discrimination which excludes women from owning, inheriting and controlling land. Other risks include increase of already high rates of gender-based violence, increases in communicable diseases caused by drivers and commercial sex work, and an increased work burden as men’s labour is diverted to the project. Women in particular depend on community support, which will be impacted by resettlement, and price inflations caused by the project will mean that girls are more likely to be withdrawn from schools if school fees increase or households have to pay more for other necessities.

Activists in France have been staging solidarity protests, urging TotalEnergies to stop financing EACOP. Photo: StopEACOP

The Tilenga lawsuit: Activists vs. Total

In January, a group of French and Ugandan NGOs brought Total to court in Nanterre, France, for breaching their duty of vigilance in leaving work to contractors. In particular, the lawsuit alleged that Total’s subsidiary Total Uganda forced farmers to sign compensation agreements under pressure or intimidation, and deprived them of access to their land before compensation was received.

France’s duty of vigilance law was introduced in 2017 in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where over 1,000 garment workers were killed in a building collapse. The law requires large corporations to develop vigilance plans and ensure environmentally and socially responsible practices within their subsidiaries and contractors. President Emmanuel Macron, who back then was the finance minister of France, publicly opposed the vigilance law.

Ugandan farmers who publicly spoke out against intimidation and unfair treatment were visited at their homes by Total Uganda before the hearing and felt compelled to hide in a safe place according to one of the NGOs involved in the lawsuit. Upon return, one witness was arrested at a Ugandan airport and questioned about the court case for 9 hours.

Total claims that it is not responsible for the actions of its agents. The court dismissed the case, but the NGOs have appealed. If the judges rule in the plaintiff’s favour, Total would likely have to publish a new vigilance plan to prevent existing and future human rights violations.

Stop Cambo stands in solidarity with Stop EACOP

Stop Cambo is joining the #StopEACOP alliance and has recently interviewed Omar Elmawi, an organiser with the Stop EACOP campaign:

Rich countries like the UK must now step up and deliver climate finance to air countries like Uganda and Tanzania in their energy transition. $100 billion were promised in 2015, but not delivered by the 2020 deadline. A just transition means that rich countries must step up to their historic responsibility and redistribute their wealth, rather than investing more into destructive industries.

How to support the #StopEACOP campaign

Support #StopEACOP’s “Act local” fund which supports frontline communities in organising actions and covering legal fees

The coalition has drawn up a list of 26 banks likely to be asked to join the EACOP project loan. You can send them a message urging them to not back the project. You can send the interested insurance companies in EACOP a message by following this link

If you can’t contribute financially, #StopEACOP have compiled a list of actions to support the campaign remotely

Follow the campaign on Twitter and Facebook and amplify their posts!