Six NGOs said Wednesday that they had filed a lawsuit against the French energy giant Total over an oil field project in Uganda, accusing it of failing to avert "disastrous impacts" for local residents and biodiversity.
The groups hope the court in Nanterre, outside Paris, will force Total to conform with a 2017 law requiring it to elaborate a "vigilance plan" to prevent "serious infringements" of health and human rights as well as environmental damage.
The French law was passed in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, when more than a thousand people were killed in the collapse of poorly maintained building housing garment companies working for Western brands.
Total plans to drill 419 wells near Lake Albert in western Uganda for the Tilenga project, which could produce some 200,000 barrels of crude a day.
Many of the wells will be in the Murchison Falls national park, and already many communities have been displaced from their lands
"The disastrous impacts of this project are already being felt by thousands of people whose lands and homes have been confiscated," said Thomas Bart of the French NGO Survie ("Survival").
"Many communities survive on rearing animals, growing food, and these areas are where we have most of our national parks... the activities of Total have been really in conflict and in violation of most of those activities," added Dickens Kamugisha, head of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance based in Kampala.
"We believe that the justice system in France is much more strong and independent" than Ugandan courts, he said.
In total, four French NGOs and two based in Uganda filed the suit.
The Tilenga project was launched after the 2006 discovery of a field that could hold over 1.5 billion barrels of crude, a boon for Uganda, which hopes to export oil via a pipeline to Tanzania.
Asked for comment on the lawsuit, a Total spokesman referred to a company statement from September saying the Tilenga impact studies "were carried out with respect to national and international standards."
It acknowledged that 622 people had been displaced in a first phase, but said all received either land or money as compensation.
"Total is fully aware of the potential impacts on local communities. Ongoing transparent dialogue ensures that any concerns expressed are handled appropriately," it said.