July 15, 2017

Fog of Bwindi Screening Sheds Light on Struggles of Evicted Batwa Communities in Uganda

 

Thanks to the generous support of the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) held a screening and discussion of the short documentary “Fog of Bwindi” on 10 July 2017 at Cinema Aventure in Brussels. UNPO extends its gratitude to director Anna Bohlmark for coming to Brussels from Stockholm to be present at the screening and to offer further insights into the case of the Batwa in Uganda. UNPO also thanks Cinema Aventure for providing a convivial space for the event. The documentary screening was followed by a dynamic discussion, wherein questions from the audience were fielded by Ms Anna Bohlmark and Mr Lukas van Diermen, UNPO Project Officer.

“Fog of Bwindi” tells the story of the Batwa, who for thousands of years lived peacefully as hunter-gatherers in the Bwindi forest within the southwestern region of Uganda. In 1991, the Bwindi forest became a UNESCO world heritage site and was designated as a protected nature reserve. Batwa communities were forcefully evacuated from the forest upon its reclassification for alleged reasons of protecting biodiversity and the endangered mountain gorillas. Bwindi’s mountain gorillas have now become one of Uganda’s main tourist attractions, but the protection of these gorillas has overtaken the protection of human lives as the Batwa are evicted from their homes and left without sources for food or income. This documentary exemplified the willingness of the Ugandan government to place economic interests above the human rights of the Batwa, who are seen as subhuman within the country that now comprises their ancestral lands.

The Batwa have long survived as hunter-gatherers in small groups across Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Congo, and Uganda. Following their eviction from their ancestral lands in Uganda, many Batwa live as tenants or squatters in nearby villages and farms. As is the case in Rwanda, they do not own land and do not generate enough income to move to central areas, and thus live in harsh poverty in both countries. The socioeconomic livelihoods of the Batwa depend on the forest. As indigenous forest-dwellers, Batwa people subsist on hunting and gathering, but their cultural and spiritual traditions are also deeply connected to the forest. When their ancestral homeland was cordoned off as a national park and they were evicted, their livelihoods were permanently affected well beyond the eradication of their food source. Eviction has had a devastating effect on the survival of the Batwa, as communities and families are fragmented and often homeless.

Despite being designated as a protected environment, the majority of implemented procedures do not extend to the protection of the Batwa, who are part and parcel of that environment. “Fog of Bwindi” took a closer look at several different Batwa communities to see how they survive outside of their ancestral forest home. Many live in devastating poverty, and are forced to perform their culture for tourists to generate enough income to buy food. Some receive provisions from small, local charities, but most do not see any of the funds that are poured into larger bodies based in the region.

Following the screening, director Anna Bohlmark offered insightful answers to a wide range of questions from the audience. One participant inquired about the relationship between Ugandan nationals and the Batwa living within Ugandan borders, to which Anna clarified that the Batwa are truly dehumanised by most of the Ugandan population. The ethnic and class divides further exacerbate the difficulties faced by Batwa communities when it comes to supporting themselves, finding food sources, and seeking education. Another participant sought more information on what is being done to support the Batwa, and Anna divulged that large-scale charitable operations in Uganda essentially sidestep the Batwa altogether. Though some smaller organisations recognise the worsening circumstances for the Batwa, there is a lack of awareness and therefore a lack of funding to address the problem. In their ancestral forest lands, food was not a scarcity, so Batwa populations could thrive and coexist. Now, Anna explained, the Batwa are evicted from their homes but simultaneously precluded from integrating into Ugandan society, leaving them suffering on the margins while Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is on the receiving end of major inflows of international conservation funding.