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: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Agather Atuhaire

In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

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