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: Alex Njenga John

Alex Njenga has always believed in egalitarianism both as a principle and as a tool for justice. As a result, he has always been suspicious of, and at times hostile to social prejudices that treat some people as “more equal than others,” – to use a line from George Orwell’s famed political fable, Animal Farm.

Some of the experiences that have shaped his social and political outlook have been personal. As an adolescent in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County, Alex was stigmatised and denied healthcare after he identified himself as belonging to Kenya’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim

Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim is one of his country’s leading advocates for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

Born 34 years ago into a family of Eight, in Kajokeji County, East of Juba, the Capital of South Sudan, Abacha ’s passion for human rights was born out of grim personal experience. At birth, he was immediately neglected by his father on discovering that the little infant was visually impaired.

“My own father denied me access to education because he considered my disability a kind of misfortune brought to him by my mother,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Fadia Khalaf

Fadia Khalaf was not meant to be an activist. By her own admission, she was born into a conservative Muslim family – the first of six siblings. In Saudi Arabia where she was born and raised, the ruling ideology in the Kingdom was wahabbism – a puritanical version of Islam in which women are strictly expected to stay in the background and not play any public role. Yet even in that conservative setting, she managed to nurture a political consciousness:

“I think reading at young age helped build my awareness on concepts like justice and rights in general. I was exposed to concepts around human freedom, and that nurtured the rebel in me,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mugisha Jelousy

As the rest of Uganda readies itself to finally get its oil out of the ground with the conclusion of the Final Investment Decision (FID), Mugisha Jealousy, 50, is one of those following the events with a mournful resignation.

A resident of Kasenyi village, Nile Parish in Buliisa district, Mugisha is one of those affected by the Tilenga project, a multipronged project by Total E&P. The project involves reservation and development of land in districts of Buliisa and Nwoya for oil exploration, setting up of a crude oil processing plant and related infrastructure to support Uganda’s oil production activities.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Anny Kapenga

As a young student, Anny Kapenga used to cringe at the cult-like worship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the then Zaire’s President. By then, in the early 1990s, Zaire was still under one party rule, and calls were increasing for Mobutu to open political space to allow other parties to operate. In the meantime, however, all Zairians were expected to show affection for Mobutu wherever they gathered in public.

Students across Zaire’s schools were required to sing and dance adoringly before his (Mobutu)’s portrait every morning before they went to class, and all school scholastic materials were emblemed with his portrait. A young Anny never really appreciated the obsession:

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Fadwo Hassan Jimale

Women in Somalia are not supposed to be ‘loud.’ Historically, conservative religious traditions combined with a resilient patriarchal system ensured that women in the coastal nation remain veiled and meek, always in the shadow of their husbands.

Not so for Fadwo Hassan Jimale, Somalia’s crusading human rights defender. As a ranking member of Somalia’s Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Fadwo and her colleagues host regular capacity building sessions for current and emerging women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Oliver Rubama

As a lone girl in a traditionally patriarchal & heteronormative Muslim family in Tanzania, Oliver Rubama grew up with so much pressure to conform. She was expected to conform to socially expected patterns of female behavior and dress, and to aspire to get married to a man approved by her family.

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