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Competing Environmental Interests in Eastern Africa

As I write this on Africa Day (25 May 2022) it is very evident that Africa is not a monolithic concept or a continent with a single agenda. Far from the supposed continental unity that this day is supposed to celebrate, there are competing agendas and interests in almost every aspect of life on our continent.

After attending the discussion of the 315 bishops assembled from around the continent for the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa: “Africa’s economic problems are compounded by the dishonesty of corrupt government leaders who, in connivance with domestic or foreign private interests, divert national resources for their own profit and transfer public funds to private accounts in foreign banks. This is plain theft, whatever the legal camouflage may be.” Indeed earlier in this paragraph 113 on good governance, the pope had written that it is the duty of governments to ensure the equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens derived from scarce natural resources in order to ensure people’s basic needs. The underlying presumption of these lines is that natural resources are provided for humans to exploit, and that human benefit is the only consideration. Twenty years later, with Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ the intrinsic value of the created order was raised to its rightful ethical status: What is beneficial for nature in itself – quite apart from the good that might accrue to human beings through its preservation or exploitation – warrants serious ethical consideration.

In fact, Africa has an abundance of natural resources: plants, animals, landscapes, sunlight, wind, water, etc. Yet seldom are these given due consideration in their own right. More frequently they are perceived as exploitable minerals, agricultural potential, bushmeat, or timber. Our problems are more centred on the distribution, than the supply of the resources. For centuries there has been a net flow of natural resources out of the continent, with the plunder of the colonial era, followed by neocolonial relations of extraction with the complicity of domestic elites. The wider the promised trickle down of benefits from the resources, the easier it is to convince local populations of the urgency to exploit the resources. There is seldom a consideration of preserving our natural assets for their own sake, or for future generations, or for the benefit of all humanity. The argument runs that the continent is so needy now, that any potential source of income should be tapped for its immediate advantage.

A case in point is the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). Colleagues cite the supposed boon this will bring to the development of the people of Uganda and Tanzania as they export crude oil through the 1,443km pipeline through Tanzania to the Indian Ocean. The EACOP company claims that the construction phase will bring a 60% increase in foreign direct investment into Tanzania and Uganda (equivalent to US$3.5 billion), create thousands of jobs along the route of the pipeline, import 500,000 tons of equipment, optimize local skills and content, procure local goods, build capacity, and be able to export 216,000 barrels per day of crude oil when it is at plateau operation. Total, CNOOC and Tulow are promising to bring an investment boon.

What is not to be loved? Any opposition to the pipeline project is dismissed as a neocolonial attempt to retard the development of Africa.

The pipeline will involve the relocation of human settlements, and quite possibly the disruption of traditional places of worship. The proponents of the project advertise that they will exercise utmost sensitivity in the relocation of communities and sites of worship. Similarly they will ensure that once the pipeline is buried the migration corridors of animals will not have been seriously affected, and there will be no notable changes to the environment.

Worldwide, opponents of the pipeline maintain that it will cause untold environmental damage. For example, For Nature points out that the pipeline will pass through the one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. Along the route is prime territory for a number of species of African wildlife, several of which are endemic, and like the African savannah elephant and Eastern chimpanzee, are on the IUCN’s “red list” of threatened species. The route of the pipeline will pass through 2,000 km2 of proclaimed national reserves which are crucial for the preservation of habitats of plants and resident megafauna. The disruption to habitats caused by the construction of the pipeline, will contribute to biodiversity loss. This is not a private affair, since this particular biodiversity is a universal good which has been entrusted to the people of Tanzania and Uganda.

The pipeline will run by two major water bodies. And with the tragic track record of oil pipelines in Africa, this is a major cause for concern. For decades oil has been leaking into the delta of the Niger River in Nigeria, causing immeasurable damage to human livelihoods and natural areas. There is no reason to believe that the Uganda-Tanzania project will not similarly contaminate Lakes Albert and Victoria (the second-largest fresh-water lake in the world.) Damage of fresh water by oil is irreversible, and tens of millions of people in four countries rely on these lakes for their livelihoods.

In addition, due to the waxy, viscous nature of Ugandan crude oil, the pipeline will need to be constantly heated to a temperature of 50°C in order for the oil to flow over such a great distance. Some activists estimate that this heating alone will produce of some 34 million tons of carbon emissions annually. But the larger picture concerning global climate change is even more troubling: With the intention to deliver 216,000 barrels of crude oil per day, and an average of 770kg of CO2 equivalents per barrel of extra-heavy oil, this equates to another 61 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year once the oil is refined and combusted. To this, one may add the emissions involved in shipping the oil from Tanga to its ultimate destination. So the one oilfield in Uganda can easily be responsible for producing over 100 million tons of additional (or new) GHGs per year. This is in direct opposition to the international obligations undertaken by Uganda and Tanzania to reduce global GHG emissions when they signed the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement on 22 April 2016, and the agreement entered into force in those countries.

Aside from international law, it is not in the short-, medium-, or long-term interests of these two countries, since they are heavily reliant on stable conditions for agriculture, and therefore particularly vulnerable to global climate change. An additional 100 million tons of GHGs can only exacerbate the trajectory of rising global temperatures and cause harm to the people of Uganda,Tanzania, the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. It would be better if the fossil fuels were kept in the ground, and the two countries seek international subsidies as compensation for not exploiting the oil reserves. Agreed, the countries are not historical contributors to global climate change. But joining the club of future GHG contributors is hardly a badge of honour, and certainly not an indicator of development. It will disqualify these two countries from playing the ‘victim card’ when further climate change makes life even more challenging.

What is a fair way to deal with Africa’s embarrassment of fossil fuel riches? My native South Africa has been exporting coal for decades, as Nigeria has been exporting oil – to the detriment of global climate. How committed is the rest of the world to aiding the legitimate aspirations of African countries to develop without opening their Pandora’s box of fossil fuels? As the demand for non-Russian fossil fuels increases, will African countries be able to keep their oil in the ground?