Human Rights Defender of the Month: William Leslie Amanzuru

William Leslie Amanzuru is a Ugandan human rights defender from Northern Uganda whose work focuses on environmental protection and climate justice. He is the founder of Friends of Zoka, an organisation aimed at stopping illegal logging in Zoka Forest.

Amanzuru grew up around this forest, the only natural rainforest in Adjumani District, West Nile sub-region, which forms part of the East Moyo Wildlife Reserve. However, it is the smell of freshly cut timber that welcomes today’s visitors at the edge of the forest, where mounds of felled trees become part of a flourishing illegal trading network.

In 2015, Amanzuru learned about the devastating effects of climate change and the dangerous consequences of the decrease in forest cover for the local population, such as soil erosion and changes in the water cycle that significantly affect agriculture. Since then, protecting the forest has become his vocation, monitoring and exposing illegal logging activities in the area through the Friends of Zoka organisation.

“Illegal logging not only threatens the environment. It also threatens the livelihoods of local communities. So local communities become poorer and poorer, and illegal traders become richer and richer.”

“Illegal logging not only threatens the environment,” says Amanzuru, “it also threatens the livelihoods of local communities. So local communities become poorer and poorer, and illegal traders become richer and richer.”

Uganda’s forest cover now barely reaches 8 percent, a rapid and steady decline from the 24 percent of the 1990s. Illicit logging is one of the main causes of this widespread deforestation. Communities living around plundered forests are often forcibly displaced as a consequence of deforestation, as they struggle to continue farming in the face of deadly landslides.

Amanzuru’s activism led him to discover that the illegal trade of Zoka’s logs went far beyond the local level, contributing to a larger criminal cartel that feeds the illicit global lumber industry ripe with corruption. His findings were exposed in a television program produced by NTV, unveiling the underground trade with its roots in the Zoka Forest. The video shows trucks loaded with logs seamlessly passing roadblocks, as well as district police accepting a bribe from an NTV crew member posing as an illegal logger. More importantly, the report mentions the names of some of the people involved in the illegal trade.

“This illegal traders have money, and the problem is that powerful people in society have infiltrated every step of the system,” explains Amanzuru, who largely facilitated the NTV investigation.

“This illegal traders have money, and the problem is that powerful people in society have infiltrated every step of the system."

Amanzuru has received threats since the reportage was aired. He claims that his movements are under surveillance and that members of his family have also been threatened in order to silence his criticism of corruption and environmental degradation. He was thus forced to temporarily relocate his family from the area with the help of DefendDefenders. Yet, his motivation remains unyielding.

“Each tree we can protect is a victory,” he says, excusing himself as local villagers call on him to investigate a trail of broken trees somewhere in the forest.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onyango Owor

In March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified the Public Order Management Act, 2013, a law that made arbitrary restrictions on freedom of assembly possible. One of the people behind the successful petition of POMA is Onyango Owor, a Ugandan lawyer with 15 years of experience in representing human rights defenders.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Kadar Abdi Ibrahim

Kadar Abdi Ibrahim is an outspoken human rights activist and journalist from Djibouti – a country where journalists are frequently harassed, subjected to government-orchestrated intimidation and reprisals, and prevented from pursuing their work independently. Yet, Kadar continues to use his voice and pen as tools to promote justice.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Aluel Atem

Aluel Atem is an ambitious woman activist from South Sudan who plays a vital role in the promotion of women’s rights in the country. However, life as an outspoken feminist in a patriarchal country is not a walk in the park. “It’s not only about being a female, but a young female. You get undermined for being a woman in all-man spaces, and for being young in older spaces,” Aluel explains.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Faiza Abdi Mohamed

The Somali activist Faiza Abdi Mohamed has promoted human rights in her home country for a decade, which has made her a target of verbal abuse, threats, and arbitrary arrest, forcing her to flee Somalia and seek exile in Uganda. Yet, she remains extremely vocal about human rights violations in her country. “I’ve lost so many of my friends due to cruelties, so I can’t keep quiet,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Brenda Kugonza

Brenda Kugonza has fought for women’s rights in Uganda for more than 13 years, and is currently the Executive Director of Women Human Rights Defenders Network-Uganda (WHRDN-U). “As a defender, you lose friends and family members – they don’t want to be associated with someone who brings them shame. We are viewed as women with bad manners and I struggle daily with discrimination,” she affirms.

Human Rights Defender of the Month:  Gladness Hemedi Munuo 

Gladness Hemedi Munuo is a journalist and an award-winning gender activist from Tanzania, with more than 20 years of human rights and media experience. “Shrinking space and crackdown on media causes huge problems in Tanzania – to me it’s a thing that needs serious and immediate action,” she stresses.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Moses Kabaseke

Moses Kabaseke, a talented hip-hop artist and activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was forced to flee to Uganda in 2013 – at only 16 years old. Kabaseke, known by his stage name Belidor, has produced music since he was a child. “I use music as a weapon – music has power. I use music to promote human rights.”

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