Community Organising in the Oil Conflict Zone: Friends of the Earth Uganda 'Sustainability School' Advocacy Initiative

Peter Westoby and Kristen Lyons

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia

Friends of the Earth (FoE) Uganda (also known as the National Alliance for Professional Environmentalists, NAPE Uganda, launched its advocacy initiative 'Sustainability Schools' (SS) in 2010, acting as hubs for community organising and training. The SS model of advocacy seeks to support communities to become active participants in driving sustainable local level development.

Sustainability Schools have been established around issues including land use and food security, oil governance, forests and large plantations, large dams and energy, and climate change. Our collaborative work with FoE Uganda has emerged over many years, and is aimed at increasing understandings of the Sustainability Schools as an advocacy model, and their importance in the context of ensuring just and fair development.

We arrived in Uganda late November 2015 to undertake the work we report on here. After some discussions with key FoE Uganda staff – Frank Muramuzi and Allan Kalangi – we were on the road to Hoima District, where a large concentration of Sustainability Schools are located, given the acute issues raised by oil exploration in this area. Hoima is close to the Congo border; a rural town in the biodiverse hot spot of the Albertine Rift Valley, and also a key site in Uganda's expanding oil industry. We met the field staff, including field worker Vincent Nyegenga, and the Community Green Radio team including Precious Naturinda – an offshoot of the SS launched in 2014 to amplify the voices of those affected by the oil industry.

For the next nine days we visited several sustainability villages, including Community Green Radio listeners' clubs (established to enable local communities to provide direct input into the development of content for radio programming.), communities that wanted sustainability villages to start, 'camps' of displaced people who 'wish they'd had a sustainability village' to help avert their displacement, and an annual monitoring and evaluation workshop with many people involved, including a key funding partner, the Rosa Luxemberg Foundation.

During those two weeks we listened, questioned, took notes, were questioned ourselves, went on radio, laughed with many people and even cried occasionally. Here we offer our reflections on the Sustainability School.

Sustainability Schools are having real impacts on the ground

Since its inception in 2010, NAPE's Sustainability Schools have delivered tangible impacts at the local and regional level.  Evidence of this includes the formation of at least 24 sustainability schools that have trained at least 70 activists as sustainability educators. In the Hoima district where we travelled, activities of educators have led to the establishment of a range of local level projects, including tree planting, nurseries and bee hives. While on the one hand, these are livelihood projects that are directly benefiting local communities, they are also an expression of a 'radical' politics of resistance, including reclaiming local resources and landscapes.

There is a strong focus on gender equity across these projects, with both women and men actively involved and benefiting from the outcomes of these initiatives. Importantly too, we saw evidence of growing community resilience; with some community educators we met describing capacity to continue once FoE departed from their communities. As further evidence of this capacity, we also met community educators who had started a new sustainability village, extending on the work of FoE.

There was also evidence of Sustainability Schools making a measurable impact at the regional level. For example, community educators described their contribution in achieving the introduction of district level land ordinances – a mechanism by which recognition of community land rights at the local level might be achieved. Meanwhile, the Butimba Sustainability Village has provided advice to the Jane Goodall Institute on locally sensitive forms of community engagement. Their input has influenced the Jane Goodall Institute approach, enabling them to, in the words of local community members, better match up with local needs.

From adult learning to popular education

In an early Sustainability School Bulletin, Prof. Ephraim Lemmy Nuwagaba explained the philosophy of the school, discussing adult learning, de-schooling society and radical education as per the tradition of thought of Ivan Illich. In our reflections as engaged scholars we observed this philosophy in action, but also saw that the SS is a school using popular education approaches, not just adult education. It takes place 'under the mango tree', as many people described to us, and has two crucial elements that locate it within the popular education tradition – it's political in orientation (challenging the way power is mobilised) and it's collective (not about individuals learning alone). People are learning together through deliberation, asking questions, and posing solutions. People are then acting together and reflecting together on those actions, creating a cycle of action-reflection, known as praxis.

Dialogue and tensions in advocacy approaches and theories of change

This form of popular education is always premised on dialogue and critical questioning. Demonstrating the significance of dialogic processes in shaping the Sustainability School advocacy approach, one FoE staffer explained: "For us the most important thing is that our work is community driven".

Yet in taking this approach, we noticed that the dialogue in learning has to hold some tensions. For example, one tension was awareness that sometimes international and national framing of issues and advocacy approaches were not the same as local positions, including the articulation of both radical and reform theories of change. Most obvious here is the tension between FoE International's "keep oil in the soil" campaign approach (a radical change agenda), and some local community members', for whom there was acceptance of oil extraction (e.g. "oil can be a curse, but we want it to be a blessing"), as long as the benefits associated with the industry are distributed fairly, accountably and transparently (reform).

These two positions live in tension, and require an understanding of dialogue in learning, and compromise between the NGO world and CBOs. As part of effectively managing this tension, NAPE describes their role as facilitating horizontal learning – a process whereby local communities co-learn with other communities in Uganda (and elsewhere) affected by extractive industries. In adopting this approach, rather than 'imposing' a radical theory of change ('keep oil in the soil') on local communities, the Sustainability School model enables local communities to come to their own position, through an informed and detailed dialogic and embodied experience. In the main, it appears, the outcome of this is that local communities take a position that is commensurate with FoE's radical agenda. In taking this approach, FoE is able to avoid being seen as taking a heavy handed approach in imposing a theory of change, but rather can be seen as facilitating local communities' rich learning on the impacts of extractive industries, and the diversity of approaches and theories of change, including the option of saying no to certain forms of development.

In taking this approach, community educators are also able to avoid forms of advocacy that might be seen by the state as 'anti-development', or as 'economic sabotage'; something to which the recently re-elected President Museveni has been very outspoken in clamping down on.

Towards Fanonian practice

Another observation is that the work of the SS can be further understood through the writings of Franz Fanon, an important writer on post-colonial Africa. Some key ideas of his that resonated with what we saw include the need for social change to be informed by a combination of the poor and marginalised sitting with activists – and entering into deep deliberation about the causes of poverty-making. This deep deliberation can then inform community organising and organisation – the organising being about strategy and tactics for change; and the organisation as about forming sustainable structures. This combination of deep deliberation and community organising/organisation helps to avoid 'spontaneous action' – often non-strategic violence (which is easy for the state to then repress), and instead ensures people find ethical and effective strategies.

The gender agenda

One thing that struck us was the gender sensitivity of those involved in the SS program – at all levels, from national to district field staff, through to community educators and village members. People talked about gender sensitivity and 'gender mainstreaming' (meaning all should participate in community and social structures). Community educators talked of 'wanting to hear the voices of women' and others shared about projects benefiting women (energy-efficient stoves). Clearly the SS program is full of women leaders, educators and staff.

Finally – working with love

A final reflection, heard by both of us as we sat with a group of people from one of the villages: one of the community educators opened the meeting by saying, "Vincent loves this village". This statement says so much about how solidarity is experienced, not as something FoE does 'to people', but as a practice 'with people', where people affected by resource issues feel loved. The SS program is an expression of love and solidarity, whilst creating platforms for amplifying people's voices (through the radio), and enabling people to deliberate (under the mango tree) and organise (through their SV structures). People organised have power. People alone are bewildered.