Uganda: Decades of displacement for Batwa, uprooted in the name of conservation

Uganda’s Batwa, an indigenous people who have suffered a long history of discrimination, have been displaced for decades from their ancestral land. Like other indigenous communities across Africa, despite stewarding the forests for many generations, their eviction has been carried out in the name of conservation – and has left the community struggling to survive on the margins of their former home.

The tiny village of Nteko is set atop a 2,000-metre-high hill, with stunning views of distant misty lakes and verdant valleys. Yet for Batwa, this paradise is a living hell.

Batwa (also known as Pygmies, their more common but derogatory name) have lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests of south-west Uganda for millennia, depending on their forest home not only for foods such as honey, but also for medicinal herbs. They have a deep, spiritual and religious connection with the forest, and specific sites are revered and considered central to their existence. However, Batwa now form part of a growing group around the world of so-called conservation refugees, evicted from their ancestral forest home in the 1990s to make way for a national park.

On a daily basis the villagers in Nteko are cruelly reminded of their dispossession: across the gorge lies the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, their former home, divided by a stark line from vertiginous plots of tilled farmland. Here the famous mountain gorillas roam, and tourists pay hundreds of dollars to commune with them. While the gorillas have rightly been saved from extinction, the Batwa community one of Africa’s most ancient peoples and guardians of the forest who have lived alongside the apes for thousands of years are beaten and arrested by rangers if they so much as enter the National Park to gather the herbs so crucial for their health.

More than 20 years on, their eviction from the forest continues to take a heavy toll: with the connection between the community and their land now severed, their culture and livelihoods have been devastated too. Yet the villagers of Nteko could be considered lucky by some warped standards. At least they have land, purchased for them by a Dutch organization. Many Batwa forcibly evicted from the forest in 1992 were never compensated by the government, and the majority now squat on neighbours’ land, and work as virtual bonded labourers on small sugar cane or banana plantations.

One of the worst affected Batwa communities resides in a slum on the outskirts of the town of Kisoro, which lies beneath the fertile slopes of the volcano straddling the borders of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. The injustice they face is made starker by their location directly in front of the town’s courthouse. Here some 140 people live in shacks of ripped plastic bags and rotten cardboard, covered in black dust from the tyres they burn to keep warm at night. Most, including children who have left school by the age of eight, make a living from begging on the streets of Kisoro. Domestic violence and malnutrition are rife.

Just US$20,000 would buy this community enough land to allow them to take the first steps towards self-sufficiency to escape the dire situation they have been forced into. That is just a tiny fraction of the revenue that the Uganda Wildlife Authority earns from tourists visiting the gorillas. Yet, according to Batwa community members, very little of this trickles down to them.

Besides grinding poverty and the continued trauma of being uprooted from their forest homes, Batwa must also contend with their deep-seated social exclusion. Other children do not want to sit next to Batwa at school, for example, and members of more dominant ethnic groups often refuse to share water from the same well or food from the same table. And besides widespread stigmatization, Batwa must also contend with a variety of stereotypes and misconceptions: this includes a popular belief that sex with a Batwa woman can cure various illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, leaving them especially vulnerable to sexual assault.

Their situation highlights how damaging evictions can prove for indigenous communities when every aspect of their existence is based around their land. While Batwa continue to call for the restitution of their land, in the meantime a new generation is growing up in limbo, denied the rich cultural heritage that sustained Batwa for centuries but without the access to health, education or other basic services enjoyed by other communities in Uganda.

Emma Eastwood