The foothills of the Moroto Mountains in northeastern Uganda are marked by hundreds of holes dug by eager villagers in search of gold. Close by, mining machinery installed by the private mining company, Jan Mangle Company Ltd., crank noisily in search of the same.
The relatively recent discovery of gold in the Karamoja region holds the potential to change the fate of the region’s pastoral communities. But whether this change will be negative or positive remains to be seen. The poorest region of Uganda, Karamoja, has been damaged by decades of violent conflict, and many in the region feel they have been neglected by the central government.
In 1980, a fifth of the Karamojong population, including 60% of infants, perished in a widespread famine that resulted in the fall of dictator Idi Amin. Conflict ensued once Karamoja’s clans looted the Moroto armory and used the weapons to ransack cattle from villages in neighboring Kenya and what is now South Sudan.
Cattle are considered among most Karamojong people to be a person’s main representation of wealth. For this reason, many of those unfortunate enough to have their cattle stolen from them during the years of conflict were prompted to begin digging and panning for gold.
Today, the region is relatively free from conflict and has returned to a state of peace and security. This is mostly due to the controversial government disarmament programs in which villages were surrounded and searched for hidden weapons by troops in the Ugandan People’s Defense Force.
The return to security has opened the door for many corporations to poke their noses into Uganda’s mineral-rich lands. In Karamoja, the foreign presence of Jan Mangle Limited has prompted mistrust among locals. It is popularly assumed that the benefits will flow toward the wealthy, leaving the poor even poorer.
“We don’t know where the gold is going to,” said one young villager. “We hear the land is sold to investors and we are afraid we will not see any benefits from the gold. They have not told us anything.”
The government of Uganda has a strong history of forcibly displacing indigenous people in order to buy up land to sell to corporations. An example is the eviction of 392 families to make way for a German coffee company in 2001 or the nearly 20,000 people evicted in 2012 to clear land for a British forestry company. In various regions of northern and central Ugandan, hundreds of families are being paid peanuts for their land that is then sold to corporations such as the AUC Mining Company and Jan Mangle Company Ltd.
Years of manipulation and neglect from the central government have lead Karamojong residents to believe the worst, and it is nearly impossible to get information on government contracts from private corporations.
But government officials such as Moroto District Commissioner Nahaman Ojwe insist that the indigenous of Karamaja will actually see two benefits from the mineral extraction. First, current landowners will receive royalties from the mining companies. Second, the wealth collected from the gold by the central government could be redistributed to the indigenous of the region.
Whether these benefits will actually be felt by the people of Karamoja will be revealed in the coming years. But for now, the villagers keep digging while the machines keep drilling in Uganda’s poorest region.
– Kathryn Cassibry