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: Sandra Aceng

Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Chantal Mutamuriza

Chantal Mutamuriza does not wait for problems to be solved. When the Burundian woman human rights defender (WHRD) encounters a problem, she will seek a solution there and then. When hundreds of thousands Burundians had to flee from political unrest in 2015, many of them were stranded in refugee camps with little economic opportunity or access to education. In her problem-solving spirit, Chantal felt compelled to act: she quit her job to put her skills and network to use and founded the NGO Light For All.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Foni Joyce

Foni Joyce has engaged in humanitarian work since the age of 20, when she joined a refugee student organisation to amplify the voices of refugees. Originally from South Sudan, Foni grew up as a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, but she makes it clear that ‘refugee’ is merely a legal definition: “I firstly define myself as a human being who has been uprooted.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Meskerem  Geset Techane

Meskerem Geset Techane has fought injustice since she can remember: as a child she was known to stand up for herself and others, whether against bullies, teachers, her parents or church. Fighting injustice and promoting human rights is a common theme in the lawyer’s life. “It’s a passion, promoting human rights is not something you choose to do for a living or as a career opportunity. It’s more of a calling for me.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Andrew Gole

Andrew Gole’s journey to become a human rights defender (HRD) was sparked by a small request: in 2015, a human rights organisation reached out to the trained software engineer about a digital security training. “I didn’t know much about the HRD eco-system or about digital security as an environment on its own,” Andrew says. “So, I did some research, and realised digital security support is just the basic support I used to provide in an internet café.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onesmo Olengurumwa

Protecting human rights is Onesmo Olengurumwa’s passion. When his secondary school lacked access to water and was threatened with closure, Onesmo successfully rallied his fellow students together and protested for their right to education. While at university, he was the human rights association’s president. Becoming a human rights defender was not really a conscious choice, but just the natural course of Onesmo’s life.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Malab Alneel

Malab Alneel was only 20 when Sudan’s revolution started in December 2018, but she knew it was the moment to get involved: “I grew up in a house that was very political. All of my sisters are activists, my parents are very involved. Activism has always been there. But for me it started with the revolution. It just felt like a time for change.”

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