Climate activists appeal to Pope over oil pipeline in East Africa


ROME – Ugandan climate activists met with Pope Francis at the Vatican at the end of his weekly Wednesday audience to ask for his support in their campaign to stop the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

“This meeting with Pope Francis is vital because activists, environmental defenders and scientists have been reaching out to world leaders about the dangers the people and the planet are facing, for years now,” said Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda. 

“We’ve demanded that they take action but instead we continue to see continued investment in fossil fuels. It is time to escalate our efforts to end the age of fossil fuels and having the pope acknowledge our campaign to ‘StopEACOP’ lends even more moral authority to our demands,” she said.

The East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline is a proposed 900-mile crude oil pipeline from Hoima in Uganda to the port of Tanga in Tanzania that, if completed, would be the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world. French oil giant Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation are behind the project.

Climate activists claim the likely risk of oil spills pose a huge threat to the livelihoods and welfare of tens of millions of Ugandans and Tanzanians, and would generate over 34 million extra tons of carbon emissions every year – seven times Uganda’s yearly total – accelerating the climate crisis. 

Pope Francis has been a relentless activist in the fight against climate change since the beginning of his pontificate in 2013. His work on the subject culminated in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, considered the first papal environmental manifesto.

“The oil project requires a lot of land, and they are taking it from people who need it to grow their crops,” climate justice activist Maxwell Athahura told Crux on Wednesday afternoon. “And people are left with no option, because they are given a little compensation that is not enough to buy land somewhere else.”

Those being bought out, he said, live off agriculture and herding cattle: “Without land, in our region, you cannot survive. People depend on land.”

According to Athahura, more than 100,000 people are being forced off their land, and the project risks poisoning the water resources and wetlands of Uganda and Tanzania, including the Lake Victoria Basin. More than 40 million people depend on the lake for drinking water, food production, and their livelihoods.

“This will violate a multitude of human rights,” Athahura said. “The right to property, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, the right to education, the right to health, the right to adequate housing, the right to life and safety, the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the right to free, prior and informed consent are all being trampled on.”

He claimed that environmental activists and journalists are being threatened and harassed for opposing the pipeline.

“We need people who can help us amplify our voice, because we are advocating in favor of saving the entire ecosystem,” Athahura said. “The Vatican can help us with that. We know that the pope is one of the most important people in the world, and we hope that us being here would help raise awareness over the challenge we are facing.”

During their visit to Rome, the activists not only met with Pope Francis at the end of the weekly audience, but also with several Vatican officials to discuss the different concerns the group has over climate justice and human rights that they perceive are being violated around the building of the pipeline.

The campaigners’ meeting with Francis was one stop on the StopEACOP tour across Europe. They also spoke at the United Nations in Geneva, met with French government officials, and met with representatives at BNP Paribas to demand an end to the bank’s financing of fossil fuels. 

“The tour has helped us to mobilize youth and activists in Europe to create pressure on Total [the company behind the pipeline], banks, insurers, the legal system and others to stop the EACOP,” said Diana Nabiruma, who works at the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, a non-profit organization based in Uganda. “In Uganda, we don’t have much space to mobilize and engage in actions such as protests that are needed to create pressure.”

The group says they hope the people they engaged with during their visit to Rome can continue to create pressure through protests and financial advocacy.

“The future of East Africa relies on building sustainable, diversified, and inclusive economies, not by letting huge multinational corporations extract resources and keep the profit,” Athahura said.

The activist said that the “whole world is waking up to the fact that we need to stop burning fossil fuels and as a result, the price of oil will continue to plummet.”

“Rather than betting its development on a dying industry, we need to recognize that East Africa’s economic strength comes from the region’s biodiversity, heritage and natural landscapes,” he said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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