TotalEnergies has been operating in Africa for decades. Photo: Reuters

Human Rights Watch has urged a halt to a major East African oil project led by French giant TotalEnergies, warning of dire consequences for the environment and local communities.

TotalEnergies and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation signed a $10-billion agreement last year to develop Ugandan oilfields and ship the crude through a 1,445-kilometre (900-mile) pipeline to Tanzania's Indian Ocean port of Tanga.

The East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) has run into strong opposition from rights activists and environmental groups, and faced legal action in France and criticism in the European Parliament.

The mega-project will irreparably harm fragile ecosystems and some of the 100,000 people expected to be displaced by its development have been poorly treated, HRW said on Monday.

But TotalEnergies says those displaced by the project have been fairly compensated for their land, while measures have been taken to protect the environment.

Families affected

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted over 90 interviews in March and April this year, including with 75 displaced families, many of whom said they had received delayed or inadequate compensation. Others told HRW they were pressured into selling their land.

"EACOP has been a disaster for the tens of thousands who have lost the land that provided food for their families and an income to send their children to school, and who received too little compensation from TotalEnergies," said Felix Horne, senior environment researcher at HRW.

Farmers told HRW they went into debt waiting years for compensation, with campaigners documenting 37 cases where children were allegedly forced to drop out of school because their families could not pay fees.

Some signed compensation agreements in English, a language they couldn't read, while others told researchers "the presence of government and security officials at public meetings contributed to an aura of intimidation", HRW said.