Sep 17, 2014

Batwa: Indigenous Environmental Refugees in Uganda

Since 1991, the Batwa people in Uganda have been evicted from their homes in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as a result of environmental conservation. The eviction of the Batwa from their homeland coincided with the forest becoming a national park in 1991 and, later, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The Batwa were evicted to protect the forest environment, despite the fact that the Batwa had lived in harmony with the ecosystem throughout their history in this area. Evicted from their homes and unable to sustain their livelihoods and culture, many Batwa in Uganda now live in abject poverty. 

Below is an article published by The Daily Maverick:


Over five years ago, Simako Amos and Kedres Ntezitchi, two elder members of Uganda’s Batwa tribe, travelled east from the Kabale district to the country’s capital, Kampala, on an eleven-hour bus ride.

Their mission: to see President Yoweri Museveni, and ask him, first hand, when they would be able to return to their home in the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. After 23 years of dispossession from their home, they had grown agitated and desperate with the empty promises of the government and poorly enacted land and constitutional rights. They wanted reparation, and they wanted answers.

The president “was nowhere to be seen”, says Amos of their journey to State House.

Ntezitchi, the tribe’s female leader, nods her head vigorously. “There were only people who kept writing on papers; no one would even look at us,” she adds.

This journey was both redundant and humiliating for a tribe that is identified as the earliest inhabitants of the East African region. The catalyst for this trip into the city had taken place 23 years earlier: an expulsion from the place that had been their home and their hunting ground for centuries. The bamboo-filled Bwindi Impenetrable Forest had became a national park in 1991, triggering their expulsion in the name of conservation and, because of the rare Highland Gorillas, in the name of tourism and business too.

The land rights of the Batwa community are analysed in the 2009 research paper “Land Rights and Forest Peoples of Africa”. It is written by Rose Nakayi, a Law lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda for the Forest Peoples Programme, an organisation that advocates for the rights of indigenous forest-dwelling communities around the world. The Batwa feature as a specific case study, due to their long, murky history around land ownership and rights.

Land contestation began as early as the 19th century, when Kenya and Uganda fell under British colonial rule. The Land Regulations of 1897 replaced customary land ownership with documented, individual ownership, a concept that was quite foreign to the shared communal lifestyle of the Batwa. The Forest Act of 1947 and the National Parks Act of 1952 permitted the Batwa only to have access rights to the forest land in Uganda. These Acts set the foundation for further laws, meaning that at the core, the Batwa’s fundamental, customary land rights were now enigmatic or disregarded.

It was only in 1991 that the Batwa were officially evicted from their home. Some of the community members remember this day with disdain, while the younger ones know only a life of destitution and displacement. When asked about their knowledge of either their customary or constitutional rights, the community members only shake their heads.

Before this, clandestine hunting and dwelling was taking place, sometimes through the use of bribery of the guards at the park borders. In 1994, UNESCO declared the park a World Heritage Site. The irony was that the Batwa’s forest lifestyle had always worked in harmony with the conservation of the environment and of the gorillas.

On paper, things began to change. Under the 1995 Constitution, the fundamental freedoms and rights of all Ugandans were granted as inherent, and their collective and individual rights to land was a constitutional given.

Although the indigenous rights of the Batwa were changing in theory, an estimated more than 1,000 community members had now been displaced from the 4,000 that were found in south-west Uganda. The American doctor, Scott Kellerman, and his wife, Carol, moved to Uganda to dedicate their lives to the empowerment of the now destitute people. Scott and Carol have dedicated their lives to the Batwa, through their organisation The Batwa Experience, an eco-tourism initiative that aims to preserve the rich and at-risk Batwa culture. A survey they conducted in 2000 revealed that the life expectancy of the Batwa was just 28 years.

The Batwa did receive some compensation, according to geographer Anthony Bebbington, a professor at Clarke University, who writes about the handover of cheques to individual community members in his book Institutional Pathways to Equity: Addressing Inequality Traps. This remuneration, he writes, completely disregarded the Batwa’s value of communal living. Having little or no experience of money-use, the Batwa soon parted with this misguided compensation in a few abrupt exchanges.

Their clandestine hunting, government’s empty promises, and meagre compensation could perhaps explain why it had taken so long for the Batwa to take the trip to State House in the first place.

Their community now tells a tale of extreme poverty and apathy. A dilapidated brick school and scattered straw houses overlook the island-filled Lake Bunyoni.

“This is my home,” says Bizimanu Justice. He is one of the elders of the tribe, dressed in clothing filled with holes and caked with mud. His home is a small, rounded dome, made from dried leaves, straw and sticks. He pulls aside the wooden door from the opening, leaning it against the outside wall. The Batwa are generally very short, but even Justice must bend his head slightly upon entering his home.

Inside lies a rock, a piece of old fabric and an old, leather suitcase. “We are the first inhabitants of East Africa, but we are also the poorest,” he says as we leave his house. “When it is rainy season, we just have to lie in the water.”

For centuries, the Batwa have defined themselves as hunters. Now, to survive, they have been forced to become farmers. With little experience, they often become labourers for the neighbouring Bachinga tribe. Mostly, they are paid with only food.

This story of an indigenous community losing its customary property rights in the name of conservation is not unique to Uganda. Research titled From Refugee to Refugee: the African case was conducted by Charles Geiser and Ragendra de Sousa, sociology academics at Cornell University, in 2009. They estimate that although it is incredibly complex to know the exact number, between 900,000 and 14.4 million African people have been displaced due to conservation.

The huge gap in this estimate is indicative of how little is known and researched on the lost property rights of both African and international indigenous communities. The difficulty in finding a more accurate figure arises from Other Environmental Refugees (OER’s) being very challenging to quantify once they diffuse into society, both formally and informally. Their difficulties are often left unreported, because the very governments that should report on their strife are the ones who created it in the first place.

There are many other tribes that have been victims of conservation, amongst them the Khoisan of Botswana dispossessed by Dutch colonisers; the Ik of northern Uganda, whose previous home is now Kidepo National Park; the Native Indians of Yosemite in California; and the Ogiek of the Mau forest in Kenya, for a start.

But the literature on conservation's ugly side is growing. An example is South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, one of the biggest game reserves in the world. It has been the subject of various studies focusing on the double-edged sword of conservation. The Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Unisa, Jane Carruthers, has written about the history of the Kruger National Park. She writes that the morality of conservation is no longer one-dimensional. The political and historical offshoots of this environmental endeavour need to be taken in context.

South Africa National Parks organisation (SANParks) writes, “There is need to investigate such claims and seek settlement solutions that are mutually beneficial for parks and protected areas.” Such a statement is indicative of the difficulties they have encountered throughout various national parks and the communities surrounding them.

On their site, they also proudly explain their community project called Mayibuye Ndlovu Development Trust, which was formed in the early 90s after conflict arose between the park and the surrounding Nomathamsanqa community. The trust allows for some of the park’s profit to be given to community projects of the Nomathamsanqa, for the community members to sell crafts at the park entrance and for regular meetings to discuss the concerns of the community stakeholders.

Such initiatives are a step in the right direction, and there are more stories of communities taking action.

In 2006, the Khoisan of Botswana won a landmark High Court case to return to the central Kalahari Game Reserve, where they had been unconstitutionally and unlawfully evicted.

The Kenyan African Court ruled in March of this year favour of protecting the Ogiek community's access to the Mau Forest in the Rift Valley of Kenya. The judgment said the Ogiek's eviction from the forest deprived them of their cultural tradition, and hence, their constitutional rights to cultural freedom. Further investigations have been directed by the court to ensure that the National Land Commission (a government commission started in 2012) continue to research past injustices and possible future reparations. Such a model could set a precedent for indigenous communities in similar positions.

Throughout history, the Batwa have proudly defined themselves as hunters. To survive, they must now become farmers, as their previous hunting ground is now out of bounds. According to the Batwa, they now caught in a cycle of poverty.

“Our wish is to be independent,” says Amos. “If this means farming, then we must learn how to farm. Amongst other things, it has been ignorance that has killed us in the past.”

Perhaps a dejected and reluctant acceptance of robbed property rights, geographical heritage, and basic dignities should not be seen as good enough at all.

The debate is ongoing. As more stories of lost, indigenous property rights begin to emerge, perhaps policy makers will understand that the rich history, culture and ongoing survival of these indigenous communities are as much a part of, and of equal importance to, the plants and animals making up these protected areas. Often, as with the Batwa, there are constitutions and land rights that should have protected these communities and ensured better living conditions. However, when the communities are ill-informed and these very laws are not enacted, then their land rights may mean nothing at all.


Photo credit: The Advocacy Project