Batwa Ethnic Group Faces Extinction
"Many Batwa are dying of hunger because they do not know how to survive outside the forest,"
A study conducted by Rose Mwebaza, the coordinator of Uganda Land Alliance for Coalition of Pastoral Civil Society Organizations (COPASCO), reads in part. The study, titled "Lessons from the Batwa Experience in the Conservation and Management of Bwindi Game Park", states that the loss of access to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which supported the Batwa subsistence has left them in unfamiliar territory, virtually threatening their survival.
"There are reports that some Batwa go for four to five days without eating and they have resorted to eating banana peels from their Bahutu neighbours. Most young children have run to the urban centres to escape from the hunger and now work as porters and many others have turned to begging for survival," Mwebaza notes.
She blamed the Ugandan government for gazetting the Bwindi Impenetrable Game Park without consulting the Batwa, the indigenous community in the vicinity.
"It is clear that the government initiated the process of gazetting Bwindi without involving or considering the participation of the Batwa in the process. Most of the planning was done in the capital city, Kampala, hundreds of miles away from Bwindi," Mwebaza said.
"The Batwa had no knowledge of what was going on and only got to know of the process when Bwindi was already gazetted and they were being asked to vacate the area," she added.
The game park is a world heritage site located in south-western Uganda. Situated on the edge of the western Rift Valley, the park is 32,092 square kilometres and borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The Batwa, who inhabit part of south-western Uganda, are part of a group that is also found in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi. Their population is estimated at 70,000 to 87,000 dispersed over 100,000 square kilometres and make between 0.02% and 0.7% of the total population in the various countries they occupy.
Mwebaza, who is also a lecturer at the Faculty of Law Makerere University, further asserted in her study that as these groups become smaller, their ability to come up with a common stand and demand for participation in the decision making process reduces. She noted that this has resulted in the complete expropriation of their land and source of livelihood.
"As scarcity and the fight for survival intensify among the Batwa, they are breaking up into even smaller groups and sometimes as individuals to try and find a way to continue existing. In addition, the Batwa have slowly lost their identity, which has over the decades been built on Bwindi and their ability to survive in it," Mwebaza observed.
She added: "The Batwa are not only facing a crisis of survival, but also of identity. It is clear that the very existence of the Batwa is under threat. The problem of Batwa identity and survival is made worse by government policies that are now aimed at assimilating the Batwa into the wider community. There is no clear organizational force in Uganda from among the Batwa demanding to retain their way of life or the continued access to their traditional shrines within the Bwindi forest."
However, against all odds and in spite of their phenomenal marginalisation and the threat of extinction facing them because of loss of their source of livelihood, some Batwa have joined the international indigenous rights movement to reinforce their existence.
"International organizations have taken on the Batwa struggle and have formed a 'Twa Support Group' to ensure effective communication and sharing of information between them and to avoid duplicating activities. The Batwa, with the support of international organizations, have embarked on a process that will enable them to represent themselves effectively at local, national and international levels," Mwebaza said.
But despite those efforts illiteracy has blocked the Batwa from articulating their plight in the necessary for a, resulting in their fate being overlooked.
"Batwa are illiterate and so they not only fail to keep up with proposed government changes that affect them but they also cannot effectively participate even when they are aware of the up-coming changes," Mwebaza further indicated. "In a meeting with local and international NGO's working to support the Batwa in Uganda, the chairman of the Batwa in Uganda informed the group that there are only six educated Batwa in Uganda and even then, they are in secondary school and so they cannot be involved in the decision making process."