Uganda: ‘We’re Surrounded By Oil’ – Activist Gardening in a Shadow of EACOP

Ugandans displaced by the mega oil pipeline are turning to…


Ugandans displaced by the mega oil pipeline are turning to African keyhole gardening for both survival and a way to channel their climate activism.

Judith Bero-Irwoth had just finished clearing her land and planting maize in 2018 when she was approached by officials from a new regional mega-project. The individuals explained that the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which had begun construction the previous year, would cut through her land in Kasenyi, western Uganda, and that she would need to relocate.

They asked her if she wanted her compensation to take the form of cash or a new plot.

“Of course I chose land,” says Bero-Irwoth, 38. “It is the only thing I owned, and I knew I had to protect [owning land] at all costs because my family has been feeding on it for years.”

Nearly six years later, Bero-Irwoth is still yet to be compensated by TotalEnergies, the French oil giant who own a 62% in EACOP, for the three acres she lost.

This has forced her to stay with her parents, who were also displaced by the pipeline that is set to transport crude oil 1,443 km from oil fields in Uganda’s Albertine region to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. The land there is unsuitable for rain-fed agriculture.

“It was sandy and rocky, yet it was the only option I had,” says the mother of four.

For the first couple of years after losing her land, Bero-Irwoth struggled to farm on her parent’s land while also learning more about EACOP and its potentially devastating impacts. The pipeline will traverse sensitive biodiverse ecosystems, and studies estimate that it will eventually result in 379 million tonnes of carbon emissions – more than 25 times the annual emissions of Uganda and Tanzania combined. The project is expected to displace 100,000 people and threaten the lives and livelihoods of many local communities.

“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 and forced to look for ways of survival or adapt to new environments as they battle with the changing climate despite being the least emitters”.

A concerned Bero-Irwoth joined campaign meetings about EACOP and warned others about the dangers of fossil fuel projects. “If we don’t speak about dirty oil now, who will?” she says.

Her actions, however, landed her in trouble as the government increasingly cracked down on environmental activism. As part of a bigger trend of growing nationwide repression, police stormed Bero-Irwoth’s home in September 2021 and arrested her twice on charges of “unlawful assembly” and “sabotaging government projects”.

Keyhole gardening

It was around this time, as Bero-Irwoth was deciding to be more cautious in her activism, that she heard that a local non-profit, Pure Grow, was training people affected by EACOP in an innovative farming technique: African keyhole gardening. Through this course, she learned how an idea that originated in Zimbabwe and developed in Lesotho could be effective on dry lands in Uganda too.

The African keyhole gardening system Bero-Irwoth learnt works by heaping mounds of compost or manure into sacks or buckets that are piled on top of each other, leaving space to add water and natural fertilisers. The resulting structures are a metre or so tall and of a similar diameter. Originally designed to help people suffering with AIDS to continue gardening, they are tall enough that farmers don’t need to bend over and small enough that the entire bed is within arm’s reach.

But that is just one benefit. African keyhole gardens also use minimal space. They allow farmers to natural materials to provide nutrients. And they are highly effective at retaining moisture, making them productive and resilient through the year, including in the dry season.

Two months after the training, Bero-Irwoth began planting vegetables using the new methods she had learnt. She was pleased with the results.

“I was happy to see some okra and eggplants coming out on top and on different sides of the buckets,” she says. “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”.

Alexander Ampeire, an intensive compound gardening expert, explains that keyhole gardening is also far more environmentally friendly than approaches that rely on heavily artificial inputs.

“This method does not rely on fossil fuel like most large-scale farming,” he says. “[It] relies on compost manure which have different microbes that add nitrogen, potassium and phosphate that help stimulate plant growth”.

The global food system is responsible for about one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions. African researchers and civil society have long called for a shift to more equitable and ecological methods that enhance food sovereignty, conserve biodiversity, and improve local livelihoods.

Activist farming

For Bero-Irwoth, African keyhole gardening not only enabled her to farm productively on poor land but gave her an alternative avenue through which to pursue her activism in a new creative way.

Today, she grows a wide variety of vegetables – from carrots and peppers to onions and lettuce – and has trained over 300 women in the Albertine region. With the local group Tufanye Pamoja (meaning “let’s work together” in Swahili), she teaches local groups about agroecological methods as well as explaining the effects of climate change and how to advocate against the fossil fuel industry.

“Our hope is the keyhole garden,” says Beatrice Agenorwoth, 39, one of Bero-Irowth’s trainees. “We are surviving on it since it requires a small piece of land and is easy look after”.

Although the group trains all genders, it focuses on women given the disproportionate burden they face from climate change and displacement. In Uganda, an estimated 77% of women are engaged in agricultural work, mostly as smallholder farmers.