In-depth Interview with William Leslie Amanzuru – Friends of ZOKA (Oct 2019)
10/2/20 – Christen Dobson, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
William Leslie Amanzuru is an environmental human rights defender and the team leader at Friends of ZOKA in Uganda. Friends of ZOKA is a group of environmentalist activists named for its members’ love for Zoka Central Forest Reserve, located in Adjumani District in the West Nile region of Uganda. They are fighting to protect the forest reserve from illegal logging, timber and charcoal dealing. We sat down with William who shared about his communities’ efforts to protect the forest, their recent successes, and the threats and attacks they face aimed at stopping their environmental work.
BHRRC: When have you felt your work to defend human rights has made the biggest positive difference? Can you share a few of your successes?
William: I think we made the biggest difference when the government wanted to remove the protected status from the Zoka Central Forest Reserve to allow for a sugar cane plantation and I mobilized my community to stand in defense of the forest. Another success is when the Minister in Uganda enacted a ban on the transportation and sale of the Afzelia Africana and Shea nut tree species, two of the most endangered tree species where I come from. They are threatened by both people in our government and large companies across the globe. The trees are locally harvested from our forestry reserves back home, transported over 500 km to Kampala, and then the logs, timber, and charcoal are shipped, I have been told, to Asia, particularly China and Viet Nam. However, we are not seeing any political will to implement this ban. I think the ban was simply enacted because of the pressure we made. For the logs to leave my district to reach Kampala, you have to pass more than six security checkpoints. And yet these products still make it out of Uganda, even with all of these checkpoints.
Our ongoing work to save the Zoka Central Forest Reserve has also been successful. We realized late that the forest was being depleted as I believe that the plan to illegally destroy the forest was well managed by people in the system. This is a secret trade by people who even had secret exits from the forest. When we came face to face with the products exiting, we started questioning and I began engaging in community sensitization and mobilisation and with the executive, judiciary, and legislative arms of my government to protect our forest.
The success story here is that we have managed to save around 30-40% of the forest. We have also managed to put pressure on those responsible, especially within my local district. We could not go so far as to secure legal proceedings against them because they are the most powerful members of our society, but some of them were removed from their duties and were transferred away from the district.
However, the big question that we still ask is whether we can have environmental accountability. It’s not just a matter of transferring someone away from the district – how can this person be held accountable for the wrongs he or she has done? This is what we need but we’ve realized that this will not happen as the system that destroyed the forest has direct links to the head of state and the first family. This is why we need the international community to act.
The destruction of these natural resources directly negatively impacts us. I have always derived my livelihood from the land, from when I was zero years old as my parents tilled the land.
Everything around us – be it clothes, places to sleep, or the food we eat – is derived from the environment. A risk to the environment is a risk to all of us. What truly instigates some of us to take this head-on is the realization that once the forest is gone, once the environment is destroyed, we will have no way to define life because we shall die. I am a parent of two biological kids and two adopted kids. Without the environment, I don’t know how I am going to support the lives of my children.
These are some of the areas where we have had success. The rights we have been defending are the rights to life, to a clean environment, to health, and many more. Human rights and human livelihood are dependent on the ecosystem. We are working against these abuses, which are not environmental only. When the environment is harmed, economic rights, health, social life, religious life, political life – all of these are affected. I have seen people leave their countries of origin and try to reach Europe and in the process, they end up dying before arriving. As we define our lives from the environment, once it is destroyed, you have no capacity to sustain your life. So, if someone approaches you and offers an opportunity in another country that you don’t know, you may end up being trafficked to that country. All of these things have a root in the environment because in Africa most of our population defines its livelihood from the environment. That is how huge this problem is. People are also killed in the process of defending environmental rights.
BHRRC: Can you share more about the strategies that you and the communities you work with use in your efforts to protect human rights and the environment?
William: One of the strategies we use is taking this fight back to the community to own. We ask “what is the relevance to you of not cutting down trees”? Asking these questions surfaces the cultural values community members attach to trees and people become active.
Another strategy is that we’ve created a WhatsApp group that includes representatives from the executive, legislative, and judicial arms of the Ugandan government, people who speak for these secret companies who do the logging and charcoal business, other business figures, and local actors in my region and district. We ask questions in this group that others aren’t asking such as, “how can trees cut from my area move as far as Kampala and abroad?” Asking those questions has allowed us to critique the integrity of our government, whether they’re really being honest with the local people or they’re just playing games with us. If we don’t get responses from the WhatsApp group, then we share the questions on Facebook and other social media platforms to increase accountability.
We’ve realized that it is easy to connect to people on these issues because we derive our livelihoods from the environment and the impacts are now visibly seen. We used to have a beautiful rain pattern but now have drastic weather changes. The geography books we have are now lying to us as they describe weather patterns that are no longer the reality.
There are big companies involved in the logging and charcoal business with millions of dollars’ worth of equipment that is guarded by the military who have all kinds of weapons, from small ones to machine guns. We face both online and physical attacks because of this work. Every time we receive online attacks, we share the text of the attack and the names of the perpetrator at community sensitization meetings since some people do not have access to social media. We say “this is the attack that we got, we are called [these names], but is this who we are? Because we are speaking for the trees that don’t speak, we are speaking for the environment that does not speak.”
We speak peacefully with those whose actions we are challenging, ask for roundtable talks, and write them letters with evidence of the environmental destruction. If you take up arms, you’re killing human beings and for whose benefit? You don’t get any benefit in the loss of a human. You get benefits only if you sit down and speak, they apologize for past actions, and you design a new future together. The perpetrators are using extreme methods, but we still believe in negotiation. Some of the perpetrators have come to me, told me their stories, how they were conscripted into the logging business. There have been two people who told me willingly that from today onwards, they will not do this business. That gives me a lot of joy. If we save a single tree I am happy, extremely happy, because I know that I have a least done something. I saved a single tree which would be gone if I didn’t speak. We count our success not in terms of how huge it is, but as single successes when a tree is not cut down.
When natural resources have been abused in Uganda, in Africa, in any part of this world, it should be a global concern, just as health issues or climate change are global concerns. Why is cutting a tree not a global concern, when we know the benefits of trees are many? We know that one of the best mitigating factors of climate change is to save a tree.
BHRRC: You shared that there have been online and physical attacks against you and your community. Can you share more about the attacks that you have faced in your defence of the environment?
William: I am currently facing four trumped up charges, including one for robbery and one for theft. My house was broken into three times and my properties have been looted. I don’t live with my family anymore, even when I am in Uganda, because they have been targeted due to my work. My children were targeted to be kidnapped from school and it took the intervention of some local people to stop the kidnapping process. There was an attempt to kill my wife when she was at the market. My brother has now left home, as well, given the threats.
In January 2019, a powerful woman who works for the Ugandan Ministry of Health attempted to kill me in the forest. I filed a case against her with the police but they are not investigating and I have been labelled as someone using this for political purposes. When I left the country, my mother received a phone call in which the caller said that I would be sent back as baggage from the plane and would be in a box. They are creating a lot of trauma for my mom.
These are some of the attacks I have experienced. It’s quite painful to not see how my kids are growing. Today is my son’s 5th birthday, but I am not there. Ironically, my son told me he’s growing up to be able to protect me.
I have also been offered bribes many times. The latest bribe was around USD 200,000 for me to leave this work. I told the person, “We are creating a lot of awareness and even if I leave, somebody will take over. For how long are you going to keep bribing? Why don’t you use this $200,000 to protect the environment and then we can specifically grow the kind of tree species you need. This is a good sum of money that can do a lot of work.” He asked me whether I need a good life. I said that, “for me, what defines a good life is saving a tree, not cars or money.”
It’s quite challenging, my lifestyle. We are labelled as anti-government or anti-development because of our work to protect the forest.
BHRRC: What do you think investors in business projects can do to improve the protection of human rights defenders?
William: If an investment is genuinely for the good of the people and the company and investors get in touch with the local population, we support those kinds of investments.
Investors should look into the human impacts of the businesses they are supporting. Most of the time, investors don’t want to go directly to the people who own the land or the resources. One of the challenges is that the power of the people that run these projects is always militarised.
I believe that the World Bank knows that if they are giving money for the construction of roads in Uganda, some percentage of the money is going into private pockets. But they still go ahead to give the money! This is a huge integrity question. If you know someone is corrupted, why do you still give that person an opportunity to keep being corrupted? Both parties’ integrity is in question.
If the people who are destroying the trees came to us in a peaceful manner and explained that the Afzelia Africana and Shea nut tree species are very valuable for making specific products, our community could explore how to regenerate these tree species and mitigate the environmental impacts of this destruction by planting new trees before a single tree is cut down. But what is happening now is not sustainable and is only benefiting a few people and companies we don’t even know.
As a human rights defender, I am not against development. In a way, human rights defenders have the best understanding of development across the globe because we are so conscious of any negative thing that we do to humanity and the earth. That is the duty of human rights defenders – we are the “monitoring and evaluation” part of this world.
But now the world looks at us like we are people on the wrong side. I think this is a wrong perception. We mean to say, “this is the wrong way of addressing this, but we have a better option to address this, and this option is this.” And yet, you want to kill us, you abuse us every day. We are not against investments, we are not against any company, as long as the company is engaging with us as human beings. I am aware that a tree does grow old and die and become useless. You see, this means that at a certain level, this tree must be used and it is through cutting it down that it can be useful, such as for the production of these chairs and other furniture we see here. I am aware of this. What I am questioning is the sustainability of how these things are done. The way it is done now is not sustainable.