"Sucked Dry" Interview Transcript

The following article is a transcript of the interview with the authors of "Sucked Dry", Annika McGinnis and Fredrick Mugira, conducted by Nayifa Nihad. Please visit our youtube page for the full video interview.

Note: the following is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it is incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Nayifa Nihad: Good evening, we have Frederick Mugira and Annika McGinnis, who are the principal investigators and editors of the article "Sucked Dry: huge swaths of land acquired by Foreign investors in Africa's Nile River Basin, export profits, displace communities." My name is Nayifa Nihad and I am from the University of Oklahoma and OU Center for peace and development as well as Security in context.

My first question for you is, can you discuss how this article came about? So how did you come to research and write about it and what were your main methods? Just tell us what you think are your main findings.

Annika McGinnis: I am Annika McGinnis and I'm the co-founder of InfoNile. So InfoNile is the project of water journalist Africa which was founded by, Fred the network of journalists reporting on water issues in Africa. And in 2017, we co-founded info Nile which is a geo journalism platform, looking specifically at the Nile River. So it reports on issues of water and environment in the 11 countries of the Nile River Basin through Geo journalism methods, which basically means using Maps using data to report stories. So for this particular project, we were really interested to look at how foreign companies are coming into the Nile Basin, extracting land, but also a lot of water resources from the River Basin. I think we had seen a couple of different examples here and there from the network of journalists that we work with but we wanted to look at the issue on a broader scale and see what the extent of it was, what the impacts of these projects were on the local level, National and international. So what our usual approach is at InfoNile is, we first identify a data source of common and cross-border importance. So for this one, we were able to utilize data from the land matrix. It's independent land monitoring initiative that promotes transparency and accountability by capturing and sharing data about large-scale land deals, which it gets from governments, the private sector different organizations and NGOs and also individuals who give them information about different land deals. So we went through and we verified that this data seem to be quite comprehensive and credible and easy to, to download, and analyze on your own terms so we actually downloaded the data for the 11 countries and then we analyzed it by the size of the deals by the different countries that are coming into the Basin. By what were they doing in the Basin? Was it agriculture was a forestry logging. So this was enabled us to really get like a country level and Analysis of the situation. So we are able to find out that 16.9 million hectares of land from 445 Different deals have been concluded in 11 countries and they're also 6.1 hectares of deals that were still in negotiation. So still on their way to being concluded. Most of them are in large-scale, agriculture and others are in forestry, renewable energy, and Mining. So from there, we called four pitches from our network of journalists to actually report stories on the ground about these Land deals, and what were their impacts on the local communities? So we worked with eight journalists from Egypt, Kenya to from South Sudan, Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia. And each of them investigated a particular land deal or a group of land deals that they found interesting within the data set. So one of the main findings at the end of the investigation was that despite so called income that countries are getting from leasing their land to foreign companies. These deals are actually leading to a lot of suffering of local communities. So and then the profits from the deals are going back to the investing companies. They're not really investing in the countries where the companies are situated. Yeah. So so we looked at flower companies in Ethiopia, we looked at Timber companies in Uganda, we looked at the UAE and Saudi Arabia which are coming in to grow, animal feed in Egypt and Sudan, and we looked at a lot of Chinese investors that are coming into South Sudan. All four different regions, different reasons, but many of them were able to actually acquire the land at a much lower rate than the market price, and we also did calculations and found out that through doing that They were actually also able to acquire water at a very, very low rate below the market price. So, one of our main conclusions also from the investigation was that these foreign companies are not just extracting the land and resources, but also water, which of course, is a scarce resource, especially in the Nile and especially in Egypt, and Sudan, which are the Two, most arid countries in the Nile Basin. 

So yeah we can I think we can Go into these findings in detail. But those are the main findings from the investigation and then maybe to just finish the process. So after each journalists reported their story, they publish the story in their local media house in their country. So sometimes it was published in Arabic or so I you the, you know, different languages in the Nile Basin and then we were able to come up with a large scale across border project which brought together their stories and there we were able to create an interactive map showing all the land deals, use satellite imagery and drone images to provide different perspectives to the stories and do other kinds of data visualizations. 



My next question is, what does your research teach us about the balance between environmental conservation and the possible displacement of indigenous tribes or communities?


Frederick Mugira: Yeah, I'll take that are known and I will answer this. Using the example of History we did in Democratic, Republic of Congo and looked at indigenous communities and we mostly focused, only know what was happening to women in there as their land in has grabbed and taken by different investors especially from Asia and Europe to be known to 214 by purposes, you know? So we realized that you know, indigenous tribes are struggling to live because they no longer have the land that has been grabbed by different investors especially from Asia and Europe for timber purposes  we realize indigenous tribes are struggling because they dont have the land today. According to our sources this was taken from them by the government because originally, you know it belongs to the government So they were taken out of this round and then used for timber back for the season, due to cut down trees and timber. 

So these indigenous communities are incapable of defending their homes and sources of livelihood. They are struggling you know. When you talk about indigenous communities and environment, you realize that the indigenous communities depend on, they their environment. They would go into this forest, for example, to hunt and, you know, and grow food crops, but now they are not able to because this land has been grabbed, taken away from them. So let you know, we realize, you know, lack of land, the repression over there when the lack of involvement in the conservation efforts know. All of these are rendering them, landless.
Also, because they cannot be allowed back on to this land to, to pick food, for example, and medicine. They are now living in uncertainty, you know, they don’t know what’s to come Tomorrow. they don't have food, their crops are displaced. 

Another is you probably would look at which was so interesting to us, was that these communities that you originally bought this land? You know, the owners of his hand but they have been turned into casual laborers, on their land, you know, used to belong to them. So what happens now? foreign investors who grab this land now employ this person's originally owned this land, to work on the land, for example, you know, in cutting down the trees in in looking, after stand out of the original owners. another issue and the point that would be sick we think is very is so important. Is that You know, part of the they were the Eastern Democratic, Republic of Congo The whole of that is forest and you know, there's a lot of wildlife there and these communities use it to solve this area. You know, some of the wildlife because they didn't I do looked at race all this as they ask them but now they have that sense you know, overlooking.

What is in there as motivated as which has been taken from them. So now they are tired of have turned into coaches of the resource at the user to protect. So the because now the general value today, you can, mm -. And so they are turning to purchase of the resource that in the user to protect you. Yes. So that's how I can answer is. Thank you so much.


So give us a sense of the perspectives of these local communities that you engaged with specifically in terms of their reactions to the thousands of acres of land contracted, to International companies from investor countries, oceans away from the Nile. 


Annika McGinnis: Most of them that we work with, or that are journalist worked with, they really expressed a lot of

Feelings of being left behind, forgotten and basically discarded by the global economies, and even their own governments, they felt like their rights are being ignored by their governments, which have loaned lands to gain income from for their country. But it doesn't really trickled down to the local people and especially to these communities that are usually in more remote areas or which are kind of vulnerable or disadvantaged in some way. And they're also, as Fred mentioned they're unable to access their traditional lands or water sources, grazing Areas like other natural resources that have been really important to them throughout the years.

So I'll give a couple of examples like in Ethiopia, their floral industry is one of the biggest Investments that the country. The government is making as it tries to get to the next middle income status level. But about 3,000 people are displaced every year by the flower growing Investors, many of which are actually exporting to the Western World. So like some of the people that the journalists that we talked with said that these community members have been reduced to immigrants the land that once belonged to their ancestors and I haven't only lost land but also their water bodies.

So, yeah, in Sudan, similarly, the land grabbing in Sudan pushed over the edge local communities, that were already facing scarcity due to desertification and climate change. So it's kind of compounded environmental issues that they were already facing.

 Yes. Similarly, in Kenya we looked at yellow swamp where an American company came in To grow crops and originally part of the swamp was supposed to be controlled by the government and part of it by the community. But later actually two local County councils leased  the land to Dominion which was the company without the community input. So we see like different ways in which the community actually had their land taken away from them. And Uganda, for example, the community, had lived on a piece of land for decades, which according to Ugandan law, they should actually have the rights to the land by that point, but it was later gazetted into a Forest Reserve and nowadays The government says, people can't live within a Forest Reserve. So regardless of having been there for Generations, they lost their rights or they had no rights to live on the land so they can be displaced at any time. So you see, like a lot of a lot of issues with changing Laws and regulations. But yeah, most of them even when you go into the communities, they never really see the impacts of these companies Coming in. all they see is the loss to their livelihoods, which has impacted them negatively in many ways. So yeah, they really feel like they're the ones who are kind of left behind in this global economy. Yeah. 


What are some efforts by the respective governments then or other actors To support the communities who suffer from these land deals or displacement and the loss of their economic opportunities?


Frederick Mugira: According to the stories we did, And the interviews we held most of these investors that come into the inner Basin and grab land, what they do, as part of the give back to communities, they usually construct schools, hospitals, in the affected communities to give back to these communities.

we saw this in the communities in Ethiopia. I know some schools have been constructed in for the affected communities health centers constructed. Yes, so you find that, investors trying to give back to communities but again they do not give back there and they do, you know benefits again. For example, in Sudan, You find that the investors that you know, came there and grab land and, you know, used it for commercial purposes, They  introduced modern farming Technologies. The communities in our country and in our area, in the areas coming into that tiny body with broad blanket. We find they are now practicing different types of irrigation systems that we're not there before. Yeah, these companies are trying to help the local communities to survive, survive back again.

They are not giving them land,.  you know, you find that we also saw a story in Sudan, where the communities were given funding tools by this investor that, you know, grabbed there. But what what what you need to know is that when, war started in Sudan, the investor had bought land, you know grabbed land, and in the window.Accepted use the South's done the lift it and I do and, you know, part of this time remaining item, and again, he wasn't terrible communities. But you find that there are that has a body local communities. Again, you know, if you think of come governments like in Sudan, the car to one and the government once there was a law, you know, during the past three governance under Bashir, that an investor has to give back 25% of the land to communities that were repressed, but we realize that the investor comes and requests for learned that he wants and add Zone.

That's inspired by saying. So it is 25% extraordinaire and that he needs. So what he does. Then again gives you 25% communities which which kind of makes sense, but it's kind of cheating again as you can see. Yes. And if you want to add one coming. 


Annika McGinnis: yeah, I'll just add on about the Uganda story so we were looking at the red plus scheme probably, you know, it but it where like carbon emitting companies that contribute to climate change, can offset their emissions by buying carbon credits like from tree planting initiatives. So basically this company that we investigated green resources, which owns a temperature company in Uganda. It was actually selling carbon credits on it within this carbon Market, even though it's planting and a non-native like, indigenous tree species, which is shown to not really have great Environmental consequences and they're cutting them down for Timber than their re-growing The trees. 

So the question is really how much carbon is it actually extracting? But anyway as a part of that red plus scheme, all companies are required to invest in Community Development. So that was the same with this company that we looked at. And they have actually tried to put in place a lot of projects to support the local communities. Like constructing water, boreholes and providing medical supplies.

Maintaining roads, increasing HIV/AIDS awareness implementing a cookstoves project and other projects, but then when you go to the communities and talk to them, they really don't see any impact from these projects because to them, it's like they've lost their whole livelihoods by being pushed off of the land. So, these communities like in Uganda are literally living on a stretch of land which is 200 meters wide like between where the forest ends And then there's the lake, and they're not even allowed to be there because that's supposed to be protected, like a wetland area. But this is the only land where they can actually physically like, put their houses. So, to them, they're like, okay, in this project, you know, constructing one water borehole, how is that going to solve the problem that I'm now facing due to the collapse of the loss of my land and the non-recognition of the government that maybe they did have rights to that land since they had been there for so long?

So there's that kind of like disparity.

Yeah, and it's hard to tell I think like who the bad guy is in such a situation. This is also one of the outcomes that we had from the stories that sometimes you want to blame the company but it's not always the company's fault. Like they may have acquired the land in a very legal process and they may be following the rules trying to do as much as they can, but then the communities are impacted due to just this global system. And also the way maybe the government doesn't You know, respect the right to the land, it's a whole system and it's hard to pinpoint. Who is the bad guy? Like a result of these transnational systems and economies


Is it the case that women are the most affected by land grabbing and it's so why do you think women are the most vulnerable in these cases?


Frederick Mugira: Yeah, you know, the setup of the African traditional communities, women are engaged with the land more than men. They actually looked at as the managers of environment as much as men because you know, they are, they are always in agriculture and they need this land to grow food to feed their Community, their homes, their children, while men you know go and what some may work on in agriculture and engaging agricultural jobs.

So women interact with the land with environment, much more than men do. This is why they, you know, the most affected. I’ll give an example: the story we did in Uganda, in eastern Uganda.

So, when the investors came, and they both learned from communities and families, sold land to them. And what men did was to go and use the money they got to marry more women, you realize. And then these the with the women they had, you know, suffered the suffered with their children. And so these men after marrying, they disappeared from their first families and went to the, you know, the, the new families now.


Yeah, so we made need that to grow crops to feed their families, their children. That's why they interact with done much more than you. And that's why you realize they were the most affected because they are kind of right there as men go and look for other wives. That customer will not work in other farms. And some men, for example, in this community that leave their family is to go and work in other Farms, far away from their communities and spend their five six years? No, not knowing what is happening. So, so women are the most affected, that’s true.



Are there any International and local efforts to mitigate this manipulation of the River Nile? 

Annika McGinnis: Yeah I'll just mention like one initiative that we saw in South Sudan where the community actually fought against what they saw as an unfair land grabs. So there was a $25,000 agreement that was supposed to happen between a US firm and the country's government which had given this company rights over Six hundred thousand hectares of land in South Sudan, but it was actually canceled because of protests and Uprising by the community because they knew that it would have displaced about 600 households and that Community was never consulted in actual process of leasing the deal. So that's just one example of like how Grassroots action can actually stop Some of these deals and is one of the reasons we wanted to do this story and create the map so that People can also see where deals are happening and be able to take action against them. 


Frederick Mugira: But again, you realize that initiatives like, this one's ours, like, InfoNile coming in to here and make sure the nile communities there and know everything that is in the Nile business on solving this is why again we started InfoNile as you know, journalism platform that we can bring together journalists in the region so that we can advocate for conservation of the river and you know, all the resources in there. But again it would not be would not be fair if we don't talk about it in the the Nile Basin initiative, the agency that is in charge of the Affairs of the river.  it brings together governments in the region and they are out there making sure that advocate for the conservation of the river to make sure that it stays there for the next generation. 

And there are several others, like, 'you know, then the Nile project that, you know, communicates through music bring together artists and They communicate messages for conservation of the environment to make sure they educate communities about why this River and the people in there and environment and everything in there to be conserved, for the coming generation. Also, there are several others, like the Nile Basin capacity-building Network, that brings together scientists who are doing studies about the river about communities in there to make sure that they come together, link together efforts And advocate for the conservation. But the Nile Basin movement forum and there are several others, you know, the initiatives in different countries. 


And reaching towards my very last two questions: What are the repercussions of illegal lodging by logging, by foreign companies, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, specifically? Or are there any repercussions of it?


Frederick Mugira: Yeah, of course there are. I took it pretty well already brought out in this conversation. Some of these you know one the damaging the habitats of wildlife. Some Wildlife again need quiet, environment to reproduce and then with these trees, you know, are cut down and shipped and when there are several activities going on in those forests. Yeah. So you find that the wildlife may not reproduce, may not stay there. They you know kind of move to other parts and others involved. It means you know some may not flourish. 

Again, Deforestation, those trees are cut down and they are Big Trees mahogany trees. It's, you know, cut down. These are Big ones for several years and they are cut down. Know it means a lot. It means, you know, climate change to means, you know, global warming. It means a lot in the area and if for example you did study probably as a result of this, you would find that there has been a change in the microclimate the area Especially along Those communities where trees are cut,  you know, changing the microclimates again. You know, its adversely affected know, the indigenous people people who live in there because they are have Nolan. The means they are living around. I would say but die, if you don't have like, you don't grow food. If you don't grow, food means you no longer sits in family.

Yeah, so again, these communities are available again to have a source of income to educate their children. Take their children to school because they are not able to grow anything in there, but also because these families have been displaced, they are living in almost look like camps saturated areas and we find cases of domestic Violence is increasing in those areas because in our mind you know, honestly I started working at a woman is right there but they have nothing to do which is bound to get through this because his own domestic violence.



So my final question is, do you have anything else that we might have missed or you would like to add?


Frederick Mugira: You realize Annika and I are journalists. We do journalistic work so probably there are some questions that you may not have answered where, because we are not activists, some information because would want to balance, you know. Yeah. Because, you know, professionally, just go out there and write the story. So, some things we might have missed because we are journalists not activists. 

But we will continue to look into these cases and more is coming. 

And recently we've been looking at wildlife in East Africa and how Wildlife Conservation was affected by the lockdown as a result of Corona. 


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