ARUA. Civil society organizations through Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability (UCCA) have tasked Meridian Tobacco company (MTC) to collaborate with the local government in addressing the concerns of the local community.
The locals in Pajulu, Olevu and Bongova villages in Ajia sub county Arua district where the factory sits have for long been complaining of strange disease with signs of severe stomach, head and waist pains that they said started in their area after the establishment of the factory in 2013.
Apart from health complications, the locals said acidic wastes discharged from the factory has had a negative impact on their environment that has in turn affected agriculture, complaints that CSOs said should be addressed for the good of the community surrounding the factory.
“When we are doing our developments, do we observe the rights of those who are ignorant about their rights. We cannot rule out the fact that there are complaints about health risks and finding out the cause is important. Government-community engagement is very critical here” Director of RICE West Nile, Mr Pax Sakari noted.
Representative from UCCA, Mr Dalton Ruhanga added “We were able to get there and we wondered about actions by the company in respecting the rights of these residents”.
The two recommend collaboration between Arua district local government and MTC in order to understand the exact issues the communities are going through.
Locals blamed leaders at village, sub county and district levels for allegedly accepting bribes from the factory management that had made them not respond to their concerns.
“Our people now do not portray the kind of health they used to have in this area. Very many people have already died and there is no one who has come to do a research about it and yet we have our local researchers”, Mr Elisa Akuma Peter, a resident of Bongova village said.
Mr Isaac Onzoma, another resident in the area added “establishment of this factory has increased our vulnerability to diseases which has been deepened. We fetch water from those open sources that are being contaminated by waste from the factory”
Emissions of tobacco dust and smoke, release of industrial wastes into streams of water that they draw water from, air pollution, increased number of house flies that make them not to enjoy food and lack of a clean water source, among others, are issues the two communities have been pushing for to be addressed, but in vain.
Mr Joseph Ochulu, the Human Resource officer of Meridian Tobacco factory said the company installed some clean water sources for the people which were destroyed, a claim that locals refuted.
“We installed some water points for the community but within no time, they were destroyed. This then prompted us to install one water point at Ewa and our plan is to install one borehole every year” Mr Ochulu said.
He confirmed that the factory has mostly been concentrating on the health of the 352 workers it employed, with minimal attention given to the community thinking they are at a lesser risk than the company employees.
Arua district chairman, Mr Alfred Okuonzi however called for transparency in the process of addressing the issue.
Locals have been demanding the tobacco factory to establish a health facility in the area, establish clean water sources, minimize emissions and waste from the factory.
Health experts have recommended for the factory to undertake scientific research on the alleged diseases and impact of the factory on the environment in the area.