Keyhole farmer

In Buliisa, keyhole gardens are powering EACOP-displaced women to rise above hunger

(Last Updated On: 4 December 2023)

Buliisa I When officials from the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) asked Judith Bero-Irwoth to relocate from her home to pave the way for the project in 2018, she sternly refused cash compensation and instead asked for another piece of land to continue farming.

The rains were about to fall and at that time Bero-Irwoth had just planted some maize seeds upon clearing her garden. When officials asked her and other community members to leave their homes (lands) for the oil pipeline to pass through, she got upset.

“It was painful because I had sweated for weeks clearing my garden – and now I had to forget about my crops that I had planted,” says Bero-Irwoth, 38, a mother of four.

“They (TotalEnergies) also gave me two options: to choose between land or money. Of course, I chose land because it is the only thing I owned, and I knew I had to protect it at all costs because my family has been feeding on it for years.”

Despite the terms of the agreement with French oil giant TotalEnergies, who own a 62 per cent stake in the EACOP, Bero-Irwoth has never been compensated for her 3-acre land. Since she couldn’t access her land to farm anymore, Bero-Irwoth was forced to live with her parents who had also been displaced.

But she met a new challenge: the land was not arable. “The nature of the land was not conducive for farmers like us who have to wait for rain for our crops to grow,” says Bero-Irwoth, who has been a farmer all her life. “It was sandy and rocky yet it was the only option I had,” she recalls.

The planned construction of the EACOP, which is expected to ship crude oil from 1,443 kilometres from Uganda’s oil fields in the Albertine region to Tanga Port in Tanzania, has displaced more than 10,000 people and ripped through farmlands in the process.

Although TotalEnergies says it has so far compensated 96 per cent of the affected persons, experts say displaced communities, mostly smallholder farmers who rely mainly on rain-fed agriculture, struggle to adapt to new environments. They are forced to find new sources of livelihood to survive – and they bear the brunt of climate change. This has rendered many households vulnerable as they grapple with food insecurity.

“Oil projects like the EACOP attract investors whose interest is making profits at the expense of the welfare of the communities and living in harmony with the environment,” says Amos Wemanya, Senior Advisor on Renewable and Just Transition Aspects at Power Shift Africa.

“Human rights are violated, people are evicted as a result they are forced to look for ways of survival or adapt to new environments as they battle with the changing climate despite being the least emitters,” Amos adds.

In 2021, Bero-Irwoth, together with her eleven friends, heard about a local non-profit organization, Pure Grow. The organization was training communities affected by the EACOP expansion on African keyhole gardening in the Albertine region.

Upon enrolling for the training, Bero-Irwoth realized that one could grow crops productively despite having minimal space or even during the dry season when water is scarce.

“We also learnt how to raise seedlings in nursery beds made by us,” she says, adding, “I realized that I didn’t buy fertilizer or pesticides which can be harmful to soil health. Now I can make organic manure from garden wastes such as leaves and peelings and organic pesticides from neem leaves, pepper and ash which are totally cheap.”

Two months after completing training, Bero-Irwoth opened her new garden and began planting vegetables in sacks, plastic bags and buckets, which she had filled out with soil and compost manure.

“I was happy to see some okra and eggplants coming out on top and on different sides of the buckets where I had poked holes,” she narrates. “I sold some and shared the rest with my family. But the beauty of it all is that it didn’t cost me much since I relied mostly on natural materials from my garden.”

Also read: Agroecology, a remedy to mycotoxins in Northern Uganda

African keyhole gardening is a method of farming which involves heaping mounds of soil in sacks, buckets or concrete arranged in a key-like shape where spaces are left for fertilizers or water. During dry spells, farmers can grow crops all year since the garden has a number of layers that can retain moisture within the sacks making it a more resilient and productive method than the conventional gardens.

A recent report co-authored by a team of African experts and presented during the African Climate Summit in Kenya urged African nations to support ecologically friendly farming initiatives to promote “food sovereignty and conserve biodiversity, local knowledge”. The report added that this will “provide a more sustainable food production while protecting smallholder farmers and their livelihoods”.

“These methods do not rely on fossil fuel like most large-scale farmers,” says Alexander Ampeire, an intensive compound gardening expert.

He says keyhole gardening also relies on compost manure which also has different microbes that add nitrogen, potassium and phosphate that help stimulate plant growth.

For Bero-Irwoth, she has since trained more than 300 women in the Albertine region under the environmental rights group ‘Tufanye pamoja’ (meaning “let’s work together) in the Swahili language. She also grows all kinds of vegetables – such as eggplants, carrots, green and red peppers, onions, and lettuces – at her farm where she also conducts her monthly training.

Although she is open to training all genders, her focus has been on women since they were affected severely by the devastating impacts of climate change.

Bero-Irwoth is also a climate activist. For years, she has also been campaigning against the EACOP project and sensitizing communities about the dangers of fossil fuel since it is the major driver of climate crises. But activities have sometimes landed her in trouble with the local authorities.

“If we don’t speak about dirty oil now, who will?” asks Bero-Irwoth who was arrested twice for holding “unlawful” protests and “sabotaging government projects”.

Studies show that women are disproportionately affected by climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa despite providing the bulk of labour in agriculture, according to the World Bank. In Uganda, an estimated 77 per cent are engaged in agricultural work, mostly smallholder farmers – whose primary caregiver role involves looking after children and having responsibility for household energy, food and water.

Also read: Besides contaminated foods, hazardous waste disposal poses a threat to water sources in Gulu

“Whenever forests are cut down to construct big factories, it’s women who suffer the most because they have to move longer distances to fetch firewood, get food or herbal medicine. If the dry season sets in and water sources dry up, it is women who trek longer distances to collect water. And if any other disasters strikes, still it’s the women who suffer the most because they bear all the responsibility to make sure that their children are safe or not starving,” says Beatrice Rukanyanga, an eco-feminist and climate activist who heads a non-profit, Kwataniza Women Farmers’ Group

“These factors make women even more vulnerable and susceptible to the climate crisis because culture has dictated that they need to look after the children while the men remain free here in our communities,” Rukanyanga adds.

Indeed, similar scenarios have been happening in Buliisa district, Albertine. Villages like Kasenyi have been battling floods that continue to submerge farmlands and water sources unlike in the past. In 2021, TotalEnergies cleared large swathes of trees to pave the way for the 700-acre industrial area, and as a result, a vast piece of land was left bare thereby exposing the communities to floods.

Human-wildlife conflicts have also become rampant due to the changing landscape of the area forcing more than 500 locals to petition the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) over “oil activities” and problematic elephants.

“Our hope is the keyhole garden,” says Beatrice Agenorwoth, 39, whose garden remains flooded and was trained by Beor-Irwoth. “We survive on it since one requires a small piece of land and it’s easy to look after,” she adds.

TotalEnergies has denied all allegations. “Buliisa district is historically prone to floods.” To control the floods, the oil company, however, notes that it has so far constructed two water retention systems “which can hold 102,516.5 cubic meters and 279,38 cubic meters of water respectively with a plan to later release the water through existing drainage channels at a controlled pace to avoid damaging neighbouring land”.

TotalEnegies also says it has been supporting the affected communities by restoring their livelihoods such as crop cultivation, and livestock which are “determined by many aspects such as rainfall, climate and culturally-related livelihood practices”.

The livelihoods programs, TotaEnegies reveals are being implemented in two phases – the first to ensure food security after relocation which includes: land preparation for cultivation, main crop improvement programs, development and planting of vegetable gardens.

The second part is that “transitional support will be provided to physically and economically displaced PAPs to complement compensation payments and to ensure that households can meet their basic needs and maintain levels of food security and standards of living once access to Project affected land has been lost,” TotalEnergies’ Spokesperson, Stephanie Platat said in an email.

“The nature and extent of the transitional support is tailored according to the severity of impacts… The components of transitional support include food rations that are based on a percentage of Project Affected Household nutritional requirements and in line with a typical United Nations World Food Program food basket providing cereal, rice, pulses; oil, and salt,” an email reply further reads.

Despite these interventions by TotalEnergies, communities continue to battle devastating crises every day. One clear action would have been to halt the oil project. The European Parliament had previously called upon TotalEnergies to postpone the EACOP project, citing the “immense” impact on the environment and “human rights violation”.

The climate activists have so far been successful in campaigning against the project since many Western investors pulled out. Despite that, Uganda is not showing any signs of leaving the project and the East African nation is seeking funding from China.

Amid all that, Bero-Irwoth biggest challenge is water shortages especially when the dry spells last long. But she, however, remains simple: to train as many people as she can in her community on how to use kitchen gardening.

In future, she hopes to open a fully-fledged training facility – and with a proper water connection – that can train farmers from other regions as soon as she gets money and her land compensated by TotalEnergies.

“We are already surrounded by the oil pipeline, and we don’t know what the future holds,” she says. “But the signs are visible and they look good. But we can survive this if we are able to adopt resilient, cost-effective and ecologically friendly ways of growing food because our climate change is already part of us.”

This story was produced with support from the Agroecology School for Journalists and Communicators and the Eastern and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers Forum (ESAAF) Uganda.

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