Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
A pastoralist group traditionally hailing from Kasese in Western Uganda, their traditional way of life has been heavily affected by the civil wars in the area, and the loss of land through conservation measures. Today, the Basongora community number about 15,897 according to the 2014 national census (though previous community estimates have suggested the population could be between 40,000 and 50,000): the area they occupy is less than 2 per cent of their original land and they are living in deplorable conditions.
Basongora have traditionally occupied the plains in the neighborhood of Imaramagambo forest in Western Uganda. After the out-break of sleeping sickness and rinderpest in Busongora in Western Uganda in the 1920s, the Basongora population and that of their herds of cattle were greatly diminished.
Under colonial rule, Basongora lost 90 per cent of their land between 1900 and 1955 to establish the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Basongora were evicted, their animals destroyed and huts torched, and no alternative settlement was provided, all in the name of wildlife protection. This left only limited lands for the pastoralist Basongora.
Post-independence governments did little to address the social injustice suffered by the community. Instead, more Basongora land was parceled out for government development projects and military use, without community consultation. These actions reduced the Basongora to a vulnerable landless group. In 1986, when the current government took power, it promised to address historical injustices and return land to thousands of people displaced by development projects. In the 1990s, the Ugandan government recognized the Basongora as a minority that had to be protected and provided with alternative land.
Yet in 1999, large numbers of the Basongora community began to cross the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and settled in the Virunga National Park. In 2006, the DRC authorities drove the Basongora back into Uganda, where the community tried to return to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Once again, the Uganda Wildlife Authority tried to brutally evict the Basongora from the park, drawing the attention of many human rights groups and the government. Women and children were placed in camps in Nyakatonzi. After claims that excessive force was used, the government eventually offered Basongora evicted from the DRC alternative land outside the park. However, this settlement was also problematic; the government ordered the Basongora pastoralists to share land in Rwaihingo with Bakonjo cultivators. Local politicians in Kasese district have stirred up ethnic tensions over land allocation in the district to delay any meaningful dialogue on resettlement. Ethnic tensions have led to clashes between pastoralists and cultivators, often culminating in the death of animals and the destruction of property and lives.
In April 2012, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni warned the Uganda Wildlife Authority against arbitrarily evicting people from national parks, urging them to instead convince communities of the benefits that wildlife conservation, national parks and tourism can bring. ‘There is no conflict between animals and humans … We need to bring out the linkages, compatibilities and the symbiosis between the parks and the people,’ he said.
Insecurity in the region has driven other ethnic groups – particularly the Bakonjo – from the high lands, to the low lands. This has also increased pressure for land and led to tribal clashes in the area.
After Basongora began to move back into Queen Elizabeth National Park with their herds of cattle, after being driven out by the Congolese authorities from the Virunga mountain range, Uganda’s wildlife authorities were anxious about damage done to the park. The Basongora pointed out that their traditional pastures had been in the territory now protected as the Queen Elizabeth National Park, but that they had been evicted upon its creation in 1954. Wildlife officials once again tried to evict them. But after claims that excessive force was being used, the government eventually offered the Basongora alternative land outside the park. It also stated that it recognized that it had an obligation to address the historical injustices and post-independence marginalization of Basongora. However, this settlement has also proved problematic: there were reports of the forcible removal of small-scale farmers to make way for the Basongora. Basongora claim the land given to them has been insufficient, and that they are living in ‘deplorable’ conditions.
A side effect of the displacement of the community is the erosion of their cultural traditions, including the Koogere oral tradition – part of the collective memory of Kasese’s Basongora, Banyabindi and Batooro communities and an essential part of their folk expression – which is now severely threatened. Storytellers are no longer able to recreate episodes of the Koogere story and gatherings are dominated by other, more modern forms of entertainment. The Koogere oral tradition was transcribed into UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2015.
Updated July 2018
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