By the Christian Aid Angola team
Huila province in southern Angola includes some of the most remote and impoverished areas of the country. It already faces regular droughts, and climate change means that the problem is set to get worse.
‘There isn’t enough water here for people or cattle,’ explains local priest Padre Pio, ‘and drought means that hunger is endemic.’
In Gambos county, where Padre Pio is based, most people are farmers or semi-nomadic pastoralists. Water is a scarce and precious resource. Fourteen communities in Padre Pio’s parish, comprising 600 families, depend on a single spring for water for drinking, irrigation and livestock.
Water conflict: the front line
Two years ago, that spring came under threat. In April 2017, the provincial government announced plans to take it over for a government water project, mainly benefiting large private farms nearby.
Government officials were among the landowners set to profit from the scheme, and the communities who relied on the spring were not consulted.
‘They want to take the water so they can divert it to their farms, and hand out a few crumbs to a few individuals, claiming that it’s a project for the people – which it isn’t,’ explained Padre Pio at the time.
Padre Pio heads up the Chiange Gambos Network (CGN), a Christian Aid partner currently funded by Irish Aid. The Network is made up of three local organisations working together: the Ovatumbi Association of Pastoralists, PROMAICA – a Catholic women’s group, and the Parish Youth Group
Working through these groups, Padre Pio and his colleagues supported the communities to co-ordinate their resistance. Initial efforts focused on legal challenges and local advocacy, but to no avail.
Eventually, in early 2018, local residents decided to take direct action, blocking the road to the spring with rocks and branches so that the landowners’ lorries could not pass. CGN provided logistical and media support, seeking maximum publicity.
The communities’ protest received widespread coverage, soon followed by a visit by senior church representatives, including the Catholic Archbishop of Lubango.
Just weeks after the roadblock and subsequent advocacy by church leaders, the provincial government backed down, announcing that they would source the water for their project elsewhere. For now, the communities’ spring is safe.
Allies add weight
Angola is an authoritarian country. Despite increasing tolerance of critical voices in recent months, protest remains uncommon in rural areas*. It is very unusual for poor communities to take on powerful officials and win.
The key to this success was that CGN was able to amplify the communities’ voices, adding considerable weight to their media, advocacy and litigation efforts by linking with national and international allies – including influential figures within the Church.
They want to take the water so they can divert it to their farms, and hand out a few crumbs to a few individuals, claiming that it’s a project for the people – which it isn’t.’
This kind of coordinated collective action typifies Christian Aid’s approach in Angola. Other Christian Aid partners AJPD, SOS Habitat and Omunga – all also funded by Irish Aid – provided important legal, advocacy and visibility support for CGN. Another partner, Radio Ecclesia was one of the news outlets to feature the story.
In November 2018, Padre Pio, whose full name is Jacinto Pio Wakussanga, was named Human Rights Defender of the Year by the Southern African Network of Human Rights Defenders. He dedicated his award to Angola’s poorest citizens.
*Angolan human rights organisations have campaigned for years to promote and protect the rights of Angola’s poorest citizens, and have successfully forced human rights issues onto the agenda. Under President João Lourenço – Angola’s first new president in almost 40 years – freedom of expression has improved.
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