May 12, 2008

Batwa: Conservation Refugees

Sample ImageThe removal of the Batwa people from their land by conservation groups and the Ugandan Government has left the Batwa people living in unsanitary poverty and is eroding their culture.


Below is an article published by BBC: 

Just after dawn, as the fog slowly leaves the slopes of the Muhabura volcano, some Batwa people make their way to the neighbouring farms hoping to get a job for the day.

The Nyarusisa community is landless. Families are squatting on other people's land or live in shabby camps with no sanitation. 

The Muhabura volcano is one of the three inactive volcanoes that make the south-west Ugandan border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Right next to the Mgahinga National Park's boundaries, the slopes of these mountains are intensively cultivated and settled by dominant Bufumbira and Hutu people. 

Nearly two decades ago, the Batwa lived in the mountain forest of Mgahinga as well as in the deep forest of Bwindi, called the Impenetrable Forest.

In these two places, where a small area of forest is surrounded by large numbers of poor rural farmers trying to scrape by and live off the land, conservation is a tricky issue. 

"It is a question of trying to balance the protection of the forest with the needs of the local communities," says Alastair McNeilage, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, who works at Bwindi.

When the area was divided into three forest reserves - Mgahinga, Echuya and Bwindi - in the early 1930s, the Batwa stayed where they had been living for generations. 

However, when the Ugandan government decided to reinforce the protection of the mountain gorilla habitat, the Batwa were moved from their lands to make way for national parks.

They have become conservation refugees. Anthropologist Chris Sandbrook explains that in the early days of conservation "local people were excluded from protected areas and kept out with some kind of law enforcement, which has been called fortress conservation". 

Up on a hill, between the Echuya forest and the Bwindi Park, community leader Sembagare Francis recalls: "One day, we were in the forest when we saw people coming with machine guns and they told us to get out of the forest. We were very scared so we started to run not knowing where to go and some of us disappeared. They either died or went somewhere we didn't know. As a result of the eviction, everybody is now scattered."

Conservationists, back then, saw local communities as a major threat to wildlife. John Makombo from the Uganda Wildlife Authority says that they aimed to achieve "sustainable conservation". 

"Originally, when the Batwa were living in the forest they were hunting down all the fauna and that was eradicating almost all the animals: the gorillas were in danger, the chimps were in danger," Mr Makombo said.

"So, it was not wise to leave [the Batwa] inside the forest. I think it was better to manage them when they are outside the forest." 

Conservation outcasts

It seems that the Batwa have suffered more than other people from the creation of the parks because they were the people whose livelihoods were most closely related to the forest. 

Even now, they tend to be the poorest and most marginalised people who have fewer opportunities to benefit from tourism and other development programmes that have come along with the parks.

They live in unsanitary housing conditions, typically mud huts where the rain comes through. 

According to the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), most are unable to invest in permanent structures as they fear being removed by the owner of the land on which they are squatting.

UOBDU co-ordinator Penninah Zaninka says that the government "should really think of resettling the Batwa and give them better shelters so that they could benefit from development projects that the government is doing for other citizens of Uganda". 

The government seems to have handed over its responsibility to the few organisations and church groups looking at the plight of the Batwa people.

Minister of State for Tourism Serapio Rukundo told the BBC that it is for "their future that the government told them to leave the forest". 

He added: "The question is also: what is the quality of life you would like the Batwa to live? And what rights are you going to guarantee for the animals?"

However, the quality of life of the Batwa does not seem to be taken into account by conservation programmes. 

UWA's John Makombo defended their approach: "Their conditions of living are not our responsibility. Questions of poverty are not our responsibility."

Eroding culture 

Targeted worldwide by the many tribes evicted from protected areas, big conservation NGOs have now made it clear that they do not support the creation of protected areas that displace indigenous people.

WWF International director general James Leape says mistakes have been made in the past. 

"I think that we have, over the last 20 years, learnt case after case that it's a mistake to see conservation and development as opposed to each other.

"It's clear that we will only be successful in conservation if it works for local communities." 

Nevertheless, hardly any of the staff working for the parks is from the Batwa communities.

"They don't give us a chance to work for the park, when they select people they forget the Batwa," a member of the Batwa community said. 

The Batwa also complain that they cannot access the forest to practice their traditional culture. Most of them fear the park rangers.

"They told us that if anybody goes in the forest to carry out any activities they would be killed," says Bernard, an elder. 

"We have all our traditional equipment here like things to help us collect honey, bows and arrows for hunting - but we haven't taught our children.

"Even if we wanted to teach them, we can't in this community as we would need to practice in the forest. I'm really not happy that our children cannot learn our culture." 

While their forest-based culture is eroded, the United Nations passed a declaration at the end of last year on the rights of indigenous peoples. It says they cannot be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.

Margaret Lokawua, board member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, says the Batwa have a case for compensation but it will take some time. 

"The Batwa can use this declaration to defend their case and I think they will win; the government will give them a piece of land," she explained.

"But looking at the governments that we have in Africa, it takes time. Meanwhile the Batwa will continue to be squatters on other people's land." 

There may be some hope, but this declaration is non-binding and Uganda was absent when it was adopted.