Environmental Activism: A Matter of Life and Death
The name William Leslie Amanzuru is slowly becoming synonymous with environmental activism in Uganda. He placed a target on his back when he chose to speak out against the wanton destruction of the environment that was taking place in his country. Logically, the journey has been anything but rosy since these activities are being carried out with the backing of very powerful individuals from both the local and central governments.
We met with William at a rather secluded location in the West Nile city of Arua owing to security concerns that have made him change his place of residence more frequently than ever before. He has been the team lead at Friends of Zoka since its establishment in 2016. It is an indigenous organization that advocates for the conservation of Zoka Central Forest, located in Uganda’s northern district of Adjumani.
Before delving into what he does, it is important to first understand the context. We are talking about conservation, climate change, the local people’s livelihood, and how the environment can help them achieve their dreams. This has proved to be difficult because destroyers of the environment are well connected within the central and local governments. They run the show and can shut down any institution that gets in their way.
In Adjumani District, and the entire West Nile region by extension, charcoal business and illegal logging are widely prevalent. The local leadership seems to be at a crossroads —they know what is going on but their hands are tied. The perpetrators are elite military personnel, prominent politicians, and businesspersons. On many occasions, the President has spoken out against the goings at the forest reserve.
However, officials and bodies meant to implement his directives, like The National Forestry Authority (NFA) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) seem reluctant and appear to be compromised. Forest products are a good source of revenue so officials at the district level are more interested in that, rather than addressing the excesses being met out on the resources. The thought of regeneration, let alone sustainability, has never crossed their minds.
It is people like Willian who have come out to speak against these excesses. For this, they are being subjected to endless threats and physical attempts on their lives, house break-ins, and online smear campaigns.
The hurdle that is being an activist
William has had several criminal charges levied against him, and a stalling civil case, as well as social exclusion. He often encounters false reports deliberately linking him to an already existing tribal conflict, most recently by one of the most powerful media houses in the country. He is also under constant surveillance from security agencies for unknown reasons. His family, equally worried about his life, hope he could choose another line of work besides activism. Recently, the board chairperson of Friends of Zoka quit because the threats became too much. When this happened, many employees contemplated quitting. This is because they have been made to believe that working for the organization is too big a risk. As the team lead, these series of unfortunate events bog him down.
In June this year, one of their informant’s house was torched. Others who monitor illegal charcoal business and logging in the neighboring district of Moyo were held at gunpoint when they intercepted a trailer loaded with logs. Another team in Arua has been subjected to constant threats for their activism towards the protection of Barifa Forest Reserve. The same is being met out to their partners who are behind the preservation of Kei Forest Reserve. Many of these activists hold William in high regard, their shining light. So if the light glows dim, then their motivation is killed as well. These are the reasons why he avoids all manners of public and social life.
“My other big worry is the smear campaign being run against us to the public and the beneficiaries of our activism. This is intended to make them lose confidence in us,” he states.
Some individuals have been impersonating them to solicit funds from their donor partners.
“Luckily, our donors alerted us immediately, saving our reputation in the process.”
Tramped up Criminal charges
Recently, a nature walk was organized by several players including the local government authorities with over 200 people attending. Thereafter, William was summoned by the police to go and record a statement, only to be slapped with charges of arson, criminal trespass, and malicious property damage. According to the police, those charges were regarding some incidents reported during their event, yet they were with all the community members and nothing of the sort took place.
“I was not charged alone. The other persons summoned were officials of the German Cooperation GIZ. The file was later forwarded to the Resident State Attorney in Arua, where it has since stalled,” he says.
The serious nature of the charges leveled against them creates a lot of uncertainty in their interventions. They are unsure of what awaits them in case the people behind the false charges finally succeed in influencing the wheels of justice. However, he maintains that as Friends of Zoka, they are law-abiding citizens who are premised on human rights values.
“We hope truth and justice will prevail,” he asserts.
William states that they have empowered the communities about natural resources. As a result, the communities are demanding accountability from the authorities that be, as well as their stake in the natural resources. These are really hard questions and demands that they are advancing towards the concerned authorities. Consequently, this has led to environmental-related questions being raised at almost every social gathering. It is well known that once you involve yourself in empowering communities in Uganda, you become a target. You are automatically registered in the bad books of several government institutions, agencies, and powerful individuals due to their vested interests.
The players involved in natural resources abuse are well-connected individuals who run the show in the country, holding most local leaders and authorities hostage. They are prominent businesspeople, politicians, and occupants of government administrative units. Environmental abuse is their source of illicit wealth so anyone who attempts to get in their way should be prepared for the worst. Additionally, there is less accountability regarding natural resources and their management in the country. Therefore, because William and his colleagues are raising concerns and empowering communities to ask pertinent questions, they are stepping on many toes.
Implications of the witch-hunts
As a result of the smear campaigns, they often encounter social exclusion. This has further damaged their relationship with the community members but luckily, a majority still believe in them. The constant threats have led to a reduction of motivation among the staff. In William’s case, he hasn’t been able to live with his family since 2018 due to security concerns. He also avoids going to social gatherings due to his security. His continued activism has also led to a severed relationship with his family members.
He recently got an invitation from the Oslo Freedom Forum to attend a convention. When he got to Entebbe Airport, he was cleared to board but got blocked from accessing the plane. His travel was blocked on grounds that he had forged the air ticket, yet he had received it from the Human Rights Foundation of the United States. It was later established that there was an invisible hand that led to the fiasco.
Regarding their donor partners, William proudly states that they have stood with them amidst all the challenges. The donors have assured them that they admire their resilience and identify with their work, a welcome relief to the Friends of Zoka.
Is it the same for other human rights defenders?
It varies. In William’s case, his work directly touches the center of natural resources where there is no accountability. By asking for accountability they are daring people with a lot of money and authority, so human rights defenders like him are considered stumbling blocks in the pursuit of their selfish agenda.
One aspect he is proud to have mastered is documentation because whenever he is done with it, he approaches the relevant authority. However, of all the cases he has reported so far, no action has ever been taken. He continues reporting with the hope that his concerns will eventually be addressed.
As a father and husband, William can’t have free moments with his wife and children since they live separately. Social life creates our identity but it is limited due to security concerns. He believes that due to his activism, he can’t be employed anywhere else. Furthermore, his life is also at stake as some people have gone as far as placing a bounty on his head. Psychologically, it has been a real struggle for him. As the team lead at Friends of Zoka, he has to always be in the best emotional state possible, regardless of the witch-hunts.
The journey continues
William states that he has quit many times. However, he realized that there is a mess and he was one of the right people to address it. He also believes that the trials he’s currently going through as an environmental human rights defender are his refinery moment.
“All in all, if you need change, you should be the agent of change,” he states.
Currently, there is a lot of activism going on online but William requests the participants to move past the virtual activism and come to the ground. He also suggests that there is a need for them to be honest in their interventions by avoiding the usual politicking that never moves their work forward.
“Let’s also keep supporting each other rather than working in isolation,” he concludes.