Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Originally forest dwellers, the estimated 6,200 Batwa (2014 Uganda Population and Housing Census) in Uganda make up 0.2 per cent of the population. They have been almost entirely dispossessed of their land by the combined pressures of government departments responsible for conservation, and cultivators, notably Bakiga, claiming land. They live in south-western Uganda in the districts of Bundibugyo, Kabale, Kisoro and Rukungiri. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest of Uganda was the home of the Batwa before they were evicted, causing them to become dependent on the Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust (MBIFCT).
For centuries, the Batwa depended on hunting and gathering from the forest. However, today, only a few Batwa still live in Echuuya Forest Reserve and Semliki National Park; most live on the periphery of their ancestral forest lands. The Batwa’s dispossession and landlessness is due to the environmental conservation and ecological measures of the Ugandan government and international agencies. In the early 1990s, the Ugandan government declared the Semliki National Park a protected area and evicted all those who had entered and settled in the area, including Batwa.
Further, to make way for the famous mountain gorillas in Bwindi and Mgahinga forests, the Batwa were ‘relocated’ by the MBIFCT without their free, prior and informed consent, and without any public hearing. This was the last straw for the Batwa who had gradually been displaced from the forests by settler farming communities and logging companies, which had greatly damaged the forest and imposed private land rights limiting the Batwa’s freedom of movement. While the MBIFCT provided some Batwa families with land leases of a very short duration as a ‘solution’, it was not known what would happen after the leases expire. Only a few families were covered under the scheme and most were now ‘squatters’ on neighbours’ lands.
The drastic change to their lifestyle, along with their small number and despised status, has brought the Ugandan Batwa close to being wiped out: in 2006, the Uganda Land Alliance for Coalition of Pastoral Civil Society Organizations (COPACSO) warned that the few thousand Batwa (Twa) of Uganda were in danger of extinction. The organization’s report warned of starvation and loss of social cohesion among desperate Batwa who lost their homes in the Bwindi Impenetrable Game Park when this became a World Heritage Site for preservation of endangered mountain gorillas in 1992.
The loss of their ancestral forest home has had devastating effects. It has prohibited the access to traditional herbal remedies in the forest, while their access to modern health services is meagre. Batwa have certain spiritual and religious ties with forests. Specific sites are revered and considered central to their existence. Each geographical area, especially those inside forests, has a name that relates to history and the remote past – the world of mythical ancestors. Batwa are poorly represented politically, reinforcing their marginalization. Access to education – as well as other social services – is weak.
A few civil society organizations, international donors, and the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda have been working for the past few years to enhance Batwa inclusion in society through purchasing lands for Batwa settlement, providing targeted health and educational services, and through supporting rights-based advocacy. In 2013, the Batwa filed a constitutional claim seeking restitution of their lands as well as compensation for long-term human rights violations. However, the Batwa are still waiting for a full hearing and determination of the case. According to the Forest Peoples’ Programme, the Ugandan government retaliated against the Batwa by withdrawing from an agreement on benefit-sharing from tourist sites after the community filed suit.
Updated July 2018
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