Biodiversity thrives in the Lake Albert region of Uganda. Stretching over 160 kilometers long, in these waters hippopotamuses bathe, Uganda kob antelopes drink, and Nile crocodiles lurk. It is here that Agenonga Robert grew up and developed a deep connection to both his local community and the surrounding natural world. When returning to his home village after attending university, Agenonga became an environmental activist, community leader, and spokesperson for the region. Witnessing first-hand the industrial development taking place in the region, Agenonga stepped in to fight for proper consideration of human rights and the protection of complex, biodiverse ecosystems.
There is a global rush for ownership of Albertine territories. The French oil company TotalEnergies purchased land to drill near where Agenonga lives, and other businesses began following suit. Oil production pollutes the water supply and makes both people and wildlife sick. These lands do not have the necessary protections in place because the local government’s authority has been giving heavy salaries to administrators, leaving on-the-ground conservation and regulation severely weakened. Furthermore, residents are often misled as to the full consequences when signing their land over to industries. The Ugandan government has been inconsistent in its priorities.
Now, Agenonga and his non-profit Ngetha Media Association for Peace are working to intercede before drillers can purchase land. His goal is to keep the region preserved and protected for both wildlife to roam and locals to cultivate. Agenonga believes that private conservation is essential because the government, its programs, and land management are failing in Uganda. He notes,
In 2020, Agenonga’s organization acquired 54 acres of land near Murchison Falls National Park, in an ecologically significant area of Uganda. This purchase was facilitated by The Quick Response Fund for Nature (QRFN), a philanthropic collaboration focused on protecting some of the world’s most critical sites for endangered species. QRFN focuses on projects that urgently need funding in order to protect habitat for rare and endangered species. Agenonga has seen how other NGOs approach conservation in a colonial way, while they have the vision of how to conserve land, they proceed to acquire areas without any consultation of the surrounding Indigenous and local communities. On the other hand, QRFN understands the need for grassroots Indigenous movements to be funded directly and for the consent and participation of the community to be the essential part of conservation. This method of conservation is another reason why Agenonga is a strong advocate for the Global Deal for Nature and the Global Safety Net, both of which highlight and prioritize Indigenous land rights and community-based management.
One example of top down, government-led “conservation” programs that fail to accurately address the issues is mass planting of non-native tree species such as eucalyptus with the intention of harvesting the trees for timber later on down the road. As a better alternative, Agenonga and his team started a seed bank project in 2017, growing saplings of trees species that are native to the region and supplying them to farmers, churches, and local communities. This strategy ensures long-term success of conservation efforts. Agenonga also trains journalists and activists on digital and physical security as environmental activists are often targeted for harassment by the Ugandan government.
Despite its rich prevalence of biodiversity, conservation work in places like Lake Albert region do not often receive proper media attention. But this work is essential. For smaller community-led organizations, like the Ngetha Media Association for Peace, even small dollar donations can make a world of difference. Funding goes directly to support on-the-ground conservation efforts, rather than overhead or extraneous administrative costs. Despite recent lapses in funding due to the pandemic and an often-unsupportive government, Agenonga is optimistic. He says,