Human Rights Watch has accused three mining companies in Uganda's Karamoja region of exploring for minerals and mining on land there without the consent of the people who own it.
In a 140-page report released on Monday, the New York-based group called on the Ugandan government to make reforms and for the companies to respect indegenous people's rights.
"Uganda's government has promoted private investment in mining in the remote northeastern Karamoja region to bring economic development, but should implement reforms to respect the rights of indigenous people to determine how their lands are used," Human Rights Watch said.
The companies named in the report are East African Mining, Jan Mangal and DAO Uganda.
Human Rights Watch also blamed donors, including the World Bank, for supporting the burgeoning mining sector without addressing indigenous people's rights, including the right to development.
Daniel Bekele, Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said that though mining was a "real boon" to the people of Karamoja, creating jobs and infrastructure, it was not clear how landowners where mining is done would benefit.
Karamoja, a poor and semi-arid region, boasts considerable mineral deposits and appears on the verge of a mining boom.
Goverment not doing enough
Human Rights Watch said several companies had gone to Karamoja in the past two years seeking natural resources, particularly gold and marble.
"The Ugandan government has massively accelerated licensing of companies to carry out exploration and mining operations – a more than 700 percent increase between 2003 and 2011," the group said.
"But the government’s ability to support and educate affected communities and inspect and monitor the companies’ work lags far behind."
Karamoja remains one of Uganda's regions with high levels of illiteracy; a history of conflict; the highest rates of childhood malnutrition and periodic food insecurity.
HRW said its report was based on research in Uganda from May to November 2013. The group coduncted 137 interviews, 61 of them with people living in areas where the three companies are exploring for minerals or actively mining.
Among those interviewed were representatives of the companies, the central and local governments, the army, national and international nongovernmental organisations, and donor governments and agencies, the group said.
Leslie Lefkow, HRW's Africa deputy director, told Al Jazeera that researchers who compiled the report had spoken to people who were "not even aware" what the companies were doing and blamed Uganda's legal framework for the apparent exploitation.
"Most people, whether illiterate or not, have a very strong sense of what is right and wrong. These people have been completely surprised. They do not know what's going on," she said.
Those interviewed described how basic survival remained.
None of the companies named in the report could be reached for comment by press time.