By Lalam Gloria

At Kidere Hill stone quarry site, about 20 km out of Gulu town, deafening noise come from the ‘Chinese Camp’ as heavy machinery blast into the rock face, cracking it into a thousand pieces, sending stone dust into the air. The intensity in the ‘Chinese camp’ sharply contrasts with activity in the ‘local camp’ on the other side of the hill. Over there, women work with hand tools; using firewood to burn and soften blocks of rock, then hammers to break those into stone aggregate.

For many of these women, this is the difficult work that has supported their families for years. For the Chinese company, the hill is a two-year rental, during which they blasted a quarter of the rock and turned it into stone aggregate for construction. The company has applied for a two-year renewal to blast another quarter of the rock. The company is building roads in Gulu district.

Margaret Anena is the chairperson of the association of women who work at Kidere stone quarry.  Over 200 women and some few men are working at the stone quarry. About a third of the women are residents of Kidere, while others commute from Akonyi-bedo, Gulu town, Pageya, Omel and other places. Anena says they are all worried that the Chinese, and their heavy machinery are going to knock them out of business.

Anena claims that the Chinese are not restricting themselves to using the harvested aggregate for road construction, but also competing with them by selling gravels to people carrying out house construction works in Gulu town and this has knocked some of them out of business. “Our members are now leaving just because there is no business and our number has gone down to 80 people only”, Anena laments.

Before the coming of the Chinese, Anena says that the group used to sell five or more trips in a day. Each trip goes for 280,000/= for small gravels and 250,000/= for medium-size. Nowadays, she says they can hardly receive customers to buy even a lorry trip of gravels from them since the Chinese even offer free transport to the construction sites.

Gulu district chairperson, Martin Ojara Mapenduzi says that after six rounds of meetings, the district, on 24th July 2017, entered into agreement with CICO. In the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the Chinese company was allowed to rent 10 acres of Kidere hill from local land owners at 90 million shillings. It also agreed to pay 40 million shillings to the women’s group working on the hill, as a disturbance cost and 70-million in form of royalties to the Gulu local government. In addition, the district asked the company to open up one new road (Akonyi-bedo via Mii-tam to Bur-Coro in Awach sub county), upgrade two old roads (in Unyama and Pageya Omel Te-got) and beautify the compound in front of Gulu district headquarters. Ojara values the road works in the MoU at 300 million shillings. The company also agreed to drill water and construct toilets for the community after finishing their work.

The people who appended their signatures were three land owners, two from the women at the stone quarry, the district’s Chief Administrative Officer and the LC 5 chairperson.

Anena acknowledges receipt of 40-million shillings as payment for the disturbances the Chinese company would cause. But, when people in neighborhood got to know about the money, they also came and demanded for some of it. Eventually, each member ended up getting only 50,000/= as benefit.

Stone quarry work is hard and doesn’t pay a lot but 50,000/= was very low compensation for the loss of business that would ensue. Even 200,000, which each of the 200 members would have got, had the residents not asked for some of the 40 million disturbance fee, would have been low.  Jennifer Ajok has been at the stone quarry site for 10 years and was able to send her daughter to senior one this year, with income from the work. She has also bought three cows and is the provider for her family. Similarly, Lilly Akumu, vice chairperson of the group has been at the stone quarry for nearly 10 years. Akumu sent her first child to nursing school with income from the quarry. She also bought some animals and credits the quarry for the happiness in her marriage because she is able to support her family.

The women at it, crushing the stones!

Even the landowners are disgruntled with the amount paid to them for renting the 10-acre-piece of land. Griffin Okot, the chairman for Kidere land owners said they had demanded 35-billion shillings, the amount of money that their lawyer valued that the 10 acres of land would cost on rental. But to their dissatisfaction, the Chinese paid them only 90 million shillings which to him, was not worth the land. He says he wouldn’t have taken it had it not been for pressure the district exerted that their (land owners) intentions were to block development in the district.

Adding insult to injury, Okot says, the Chinese have not yet met some of the agreements made in the MOU, even though the two-year period has now elapsed. He cites upgrade of Pageya-Tegot road where nothing is being done and construction of a modern market for the community. Drilling of underground water for the community was started but it has never been completed. Even Ojara, the district chairperson, admits that the work to beautify the district offices’ compound remains incomplete.

Yet, Ojara says that the district is preparing to grant CICO to sign a second agreement, giving them a second quarter of Kidere rock. According to him, CICO has complained to the district authorities that the first quarter of rock was not enough. The intention to grant CICO more use of the rock is confirmed by a letter dated 30th August 2019. In it, the district CAO, Milton Kato invited the LC 5 chairperson for a meeting on 4th September 2019 at 10 am in the CAO’s boardroom to review the terms of the MOU with CICO for the second quarter of rock requested for.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that the CICO will get the second quarter of the rock. Ojara revealed one of the terms that the district brought out to the attention of CICO for consideration in negotiations for a second quarter of the rock was the construction of Awach Bridge, which was in a deplorable state and needed 340-million shillings from the district to fix. The Chinese firm has since completed work on the bridge, even though the agreement for the second quarter is still under review.

Ojara says that in the second agreement, the district will set a new figure for royalties and retaliate its demand for CICO to beautify the district headquarters’ compound. They intend to maintain the lease period to two years, as in the first agreement.

However, Anena, the landowners and other community members, mostly just want the Chinese to leave.

Anena says that the heavy machinery used by the Chinese, like Barut, have caused several cracks on the rock which she said makes it difficult for them to burn and break the rocks into particles using pieces of wood. “Look over there! That is a mass of rock in our portion and now we cannot break it,” she exclaimed. She adds that, “What we have resorted to, is to dig deeper into the ground in order to get rock beneath, but the land owners are now complaining that our action is destroying their land.”

In addition, the Chinese company sometimes fails to communicate when doing work that will disrupt ordinary community life. They give late information to the community when they intend to explode the rocks with barut, yet their camp is close to a road and the broken rock particles explode high above the ground. During the dry season, a much of stone dust from the Chinese camp rise into the air, causing fear of respiratory problems for locals.

There have also been accusations of sexual exploitation by the Chinese workers. “Our young girls and some married women are being sexually abused by the Chinese employees in the area, and if they are impregnated they are abandoned and the employee involved either runs away, leaves work or they are transferred and they are never found. This is causing breakage in marriage and our girls are dropping out of schools”, says Anena.

What the Chinese are doing!

According to Gulu Municipal Engineer, Terrance Odongo, the Chinese workers have been awarded two contracts for rehabilitating roads in Gulu municipality, totaling to 64 billion shillings, for 14.128 km of road. The first was Uganda Support to Municipal Infrastructure Project (USMID) Phase 1B where they worked on 4.788 kilometers of roads at a cost of 23-billion shilling. The second phase which they completed recently was for 9.34 kilometers of road at a cost of 41-billion shillings and was the time they acquired authority to extract gravels from Kidere Hill.

The Secretary Works and Technical Services at Gulu district council, Patrick Kinyera said when completed, the roads will facilitate business and locally raise revenue for the district.

He explains that property owners will be more willing to pay property tax to the district once they see tangible development like roads. “Some of the vacant plots in the town are now being developed and people are erecting more beautiful houses than before when the roads where not worked on”, he points out.

That may be so, but the district needs to find a way to balance local livelihoods and social concerns with the match towards development. They also need to hold contracted parties accountable for fulfilling the terms of their agreements, before agreeing to doing more business with them. End