Dec 20, 2007

Batwa: Pride Restored

Batwa people, the indigenous people living in the forest of Rwanda, have seen their situation changed with the increase of aid and protection on indigenous minorities, changing from their excluded previous condition.

Batwa people, the indigenous people living in the forest of Rwanda, have seen their situation changed with the increase of aid and protection on indigenous minorities, changing from their excluded previous condition.

Below is an excerpt of an article published by The Independent:


"We thought we had no right to know any other people, or to come close to other people," she said. "We thought we had no right to be treated in any hospital. If people gave us any food, they themselves would not eat from the food they had given us. But nowadays, here, things have changed."

Cecile's people are the Batwa, the forest people of Rwanda, and their situation is unusual, to say the least: they are the victims of wildlife conservation.

Conservation seems like such a self-evident good that it is hard to believe it might produce human casualties; it appears almost a contradiction in terms. Yet if you consider the Batwa's fate, you realise sadly that it is not.

The Batwa are pygmies. The term tends to be avoided now as it is seen as reinforcing a perceived low social status, but to use it briefly for the sake of context, the Batwa are one of a number of related pygmy peoples in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa – the area where Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo come together.

Until very recently, they have been forest dwellers, living as hunter-gatherers, and some still are, but now many live outside the forest and are trying to come to terms with the ways of modern society. It is proving extremely difficult.

It was conservation, it has to be said, that removed them from their traditional home, and, more or less literally, put them on the street. When national parks were set up in the region, such as the Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga massif in Rwanda, home of the celebrated mountain gorillas which are among the world's rarest and most charismatic animals, the Batwa were, to be frank about it, in the way.

They lived as hunters, setting snares for game animals such as antelopes, but sometimes gorillas were caught in the snares and died a lingering death. So once the National Park was set up, their status changed dramatically. They went overnight from being hunters (admirable) to poachers (despicable), although they were only doing what they had always done – and in the 1970s the Rwandan government forcibly removed all the Batwa communities from the park.

At first they frequently returned to hunt – or poach – and for Dian Fossey, the American primatologist who brought the Rwandan mountain gorillas to the notice of a justly delighted world with the book (and subsequent film) Gorillas In The Mist, the Batwa poachers were sworn enemies.


Yet what she was encountering, in this most unfortunate of clashes, was not Evil, but a dispossessed community, and ignoring that community's difficulties will not make them disappear.

In the two decades since Fossey's death people have come to realise that when wildlife and communities clash in Africa, the communities will have to be in some way accommodated, or conservation will not be possible. And that goes for dispossessed communities too.

The Batwa who were forced out of the Volcanoes National Park lived for a long time in utter penury, entirely ill-equipped for a life outside the forest.

They did not know how to grow crops or raise livestock; they could not read or write. All they could do was beg, or at best, gather firewood and sell it. Worse, they had long been seen by many Rwandans from both the country's main ethnic groupings, Hutus and Tutsis, virtually as untouchables, less than human, and prejudice against them was widespread and very strong.

It was a years before help came, but eventually it did, in the shape of AIMPO – the African Indigenous and Minority Peoples Organisation, formed to aide small-scale societies in danger of becoming extinct. Since 2001, AIMPO has been helping the Batwa community that left the Volcanoes National Park, and the results are impressive. Scattered families, once living in make-shift shelters, have been reunited in five villages near the park boundary, and have been taught to farm, growing maize, potatoes, sorghum, beans and mushrooms on land AIMPO has provided. It has allowed them to subsist but it has also generated income.

Just being together and being settled has made an enormous difference to their lives. I visited one settlement of 11 families, Kagano, near the village of Kinigi, which is the headquarters of the national park, and talked to women who contrasted the squalor and misery of their previous lives with the settled existence they have now.

Cecile Bahutu, one of the most outspoken of them, talked with bitterness about the past, but with considerable warmth about the present. I asked her how things had changed, and she said in the country's main language, Kinyarwanda: "Kuba umuntu nkabandi", which means: "I feel that I am a human being like others."

One of the principal supporters of AIMPO is the Gorilla Organization, formerly the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, which is one of the three charities featured in The Independent's Christmas appeal.

It might at first seem strange that a body that came out of Dian Fossey's legacy is now helping the people she considered her mortal enemies, but conservation thinking has moved on from the policing that was at the heart of Fossey's views. She may have been right at the time, but now a broader social approach is seen as essential.

Communities have to be engaged, including dispossessed communities – especially those which have been conservation's victims.