Reading the Land: Present-Day Land Conflict and the Ghosts of Colonial-Era Environmental Engineering in Northern Uganda’s Acholi Region

30 March 2021 → 29 March 2025
Regional and community funding: Special Research Fund
Research disciplines
  • Humanities
    • Landscape and ecological history
  • Social sciences
    • Political and legal anthropology
    • Development studies
    • Security, peace and conflict
    • Political geography
environmental history Political ecology resistance colonisation land conflicts Uganda
Project description

Relying on a combination of extensive archival research and in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, this project traces the root historical causes of two volatile land conflicts currently unfolding in the western portion of Uganda’s Acholi region. By applying a longue durée lens within a political ecology framework, I analyze these contemporary land conflicts as part of the enduring legacy of colonial era environmental engineering through sleeping sickness control and conservation projects in the Acholi region.

The late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw an explosion of academic interest in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict. As the epicenter of this conflict, the Acholi region also became the epicenter of an overwhelming wave of foreign research, much of which has persisted into the post-war period. Yet blinkered by its focus on the LRA era, this research consistently treats Acholiland as though the region’s history began in 1987, with the rise of the LRA. The result is an often-ahistorical reading of contemporary circumstances – such as, for example, the proliferation of land conflict in Acholiland in the years since the end of the LRA war.

Standard readings of land conflict in the region today analyze the phenomenon as a result of the instability produced by the war and the concomitant forced relocation of 90% of the Acholi population into displacement camps, in the period between 1996 and approximately 2008. Such an analysis is useful when examining small-scale land conflicts between neighbors or communities returning from displacement. Yet some of the most violent and volatile contemporary land conflicts in the Acholi region pit Acholi communities not against each other, but rather against the Government of Uganda. I argue that assessing these conflicts exclusively as a legacy of the LRA war is ahistorical and counterproductive, as they in fact also stem from upheavals during the early colonial period.

My contention is that in the Acholi region of northern Uganda, the British colonial administration used first sleeping sickness control, and later conservation, to break down and forcibly reshape local social and political structures, with the aim of molding Acholi society to British administrative and economic goals for the region. These policies not only caused lasting damage to Acholi land use practices and social structures, but also left behind a set of accepted logics and statutory frameworks that empower the present day Government of Uganda (GoU) to seize land from marginalized Acholi communities, thereby sparking off entrenched and volatile land conflicts in the region today.