Thu, Dec 09, 2010 - Page 14 News List

Moved to tears

Ugandan farmers are losing out as climate change reroutes the Semliki River, robbing them of their land and altering national borders

By James Randerson  /  THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

Photo: Bloomberg

Amos Mwesige looks across the 15m of swirling water to the opposite bank with a mixture of frustration, anger and defiance. He is angry because the river’s changing course has taken his land and delivered it to a man on the other side — a man who lives in another country.

“The land where our grandparents used to cultivate — it is now in Congo. It is now being controlled by [the Congo government],” says Mwesige, a farmer and cattle herder in Kabimbiri in western Uganda. “I have to go and kneel before them: Congo’s leadership.”

Worse, he now has to pay one cow per year in rent for the privilege of cultivating the crops on the land he used to own. All he wants is the return of the farm that he sees as his birthright.

Mwesige is far from alone in his plight. Increased flooding of the Semliki River in recent years has led to major shifts in its course. It is just one example of the way changes in the local weather patterns are affecting people in the region: With the changed seasons, farmers no longer know when to plant and harvest; diseases such as malaria are spreading into new areas; and the moving river means that Uganda is shrinking.

It is problems such as these that are an integral part of current international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, that will reach their climax tomorrow. Although politicians have been frantically playing down expectations for the talks after the limp outcome of last December’s gathering in Copenhagen, many observers are hopeful of progress on aid funding for poorer nations to help them adapt to climate change. On the table is a proposal from a group of economists, finance ministers and heads of state on how to raise US$100 billion a year by 2020. The plan — to be discussed by ministers at the UN climate talks today — combines carbon taxes, aviation and shipping taxes, and the redirection of fossil fuel subsidies.

John Magrath, a climate change researcher with Oxfam, believes the plight of people such as Mwesige shows how vulnerable much of the population in the region is to any change in the climate. “For generations, they have relied on fairly set weather patterns and an environment that has served them well, but now they are undergoing great change and heightened risks to their health, security and welfare.”

International action on climate change has so far been characterized by a “pathetic lack of urgency,” he says, and governments must make amends for failing to reach a substantive deal at Copenhagen. “The longer the inaction, the harder it is for people like those in Uganda to begin to protect themselves from its effects.”

For the time being, Mwesige and his fellow farmers are on their own. They refer to the river “eating” the land, and although the change in the river has taken sections of bank from both sides, it is Ugandan farmers who have lost out the most. Because the river forms the official border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the boundary between the two countries has moved with it, meaning Uganda has got smaller.

There is seething resentment in the community. “I feel suppressed and squeezed,” says Francis Mwhanuzi, another farmer. “I’m meant to pay 50,000 shillings [US$22] and a goat [in rent] but still I remain with a broken heart because of losing my land.”

Both men sometimes opt not to make the boat trip across to their farms for fear of violence. “At times Congo has a very big problem, it is politically unstable,” Mwesige says. “At times we fear to go to our gardens because of civil war.”

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