Uganda39s Batwa are being marginalized in the name of conservation

Uganda's Batwa are being marginalized in the name of conservation

Geoffrey Inzito says he really likes the forest. For him and all his people. But he also admits that he is the first leader of the Batwa ethnic group who had to rule outside of this group. “Before we hunted and gathered. Now we do other things, especially we sell wood and charcoal,” he explains. Inzito estimates he is 65 years old. He looks a bit disheveled: a shaved head, a worn T-shirt and several missing teeth. It measures no more than 1.55. He has ruled among the Batwa since 1998, after his father's death, and has a wife and eight children. “Life is very difficult. We can't do business like other people. Nothing more than trading firewood and selling things to some tourists. How will we be successful? It’s impossible,” he continues.

The Batwa, also known as the Pygmies, are found throughout the Great Lakes region and other parts of Central Africa. In Rwanda and Burundi they are also called Twa; in the Democratic Republic of Congo they are the Mbuti or Bayanda. Anthropologists believe that they are among the oldest inhabitants of these equatorial forests and estimate their total population to be between 86,000 and 112,000 people, of which around 6,200 are in Uganda. Traditionally, they lived in makeshift huts or caves and subsisted on resources such as honey, fruits, animals, mushrooms and vegetables. They also depended on the forests for medicine, fishing and basket weaving. But in the 1990s, the declaration of Bwindi Impenetrable Park (southwest of Uganda) as a world heritage site meant the displacement of thousands of them.

The same thing happened to the Geoffrey Inzito community, which consists of about 125 people and lives in Bundibugyo in the Western Region of Uganda. They lived in the Semuliki Forest for several centuries, but everything changed in 1993 when they were expelled to protect the place, which was declared a national park. Following reports of forest destruction and poaching allegedly affecting the local community, the people of Bundibugyo were relocated to land a few kilometers away without compensation. “Nobody took into account their context and their way of life. They weren't even used to living in houses; For example, they couldn't stand the sound of the rain. But they had nowhere to go and therefore became dependent on NGOs and social workers,” explains Barbra Babweteera, executive director of CCFU, an organization that advocates for the rights of indigenous minorities in Uganda. “The eviction process was a degradation of their dignity,” complains the expert. “They have not been integrated into nature conservation. They went from living in the forest, as they had always done, to living in a rocky place, without trees and without any means of subsistence. “They used to build their houses in 10 minutes, they were semi-nomadic, they gathered, they were great herbalists… And they were marginalized.”

They no longer lived in the forest, but in a rocky place, without trees and without means. Before they built their houses in 10 minutes, they were semi-nomadic, they gathered, they were great herbalists… And they were marginalized

Barbra Babweteera, executive director of CCFU, an organization defending indigenous minorities in Uganda

The Scourge of Alcoholism

After several relocations, Geoffrey Inzito and his people now live in around twenty houses built for them in a town not far away that they call Kapepepe Village. And the consequences of three decades of expulsions and resettlements are now becoming apparent in all their severity, starting with alcoholism and drug use. “They don’t have enough economic activities to devote to and commit to. They earn very little money and have a lot of time,” says Babweteera.

Furthermore, Inzito explains that he and his neighbors can only enter their ancient forest to collect wood for sale thanks to a special permit from the government. “We can get 5,000 shillings (around 1.25 euros) per day,” he explains. With no land to work on and no place to apply their ancestral knowledge, the Batwa are mired in misery in a country that already has a poverty problem: Some 18 million people, 42% of the population, live on less than two euros per day, according to the World Bank.

Alcoholism is not the only problem facing the Batwa of Bundibugyo. Transitioning from living without communication with the outside world in Semuliki National Park, whose area is about 200 square kilometers, to living with other local communities, they were exposed to many diseases. “In the past, for example, we did not become infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases,” says Inzito. “Now we are worried about the spread; “Mixing with other peoples led to us becoming infected.” About 1.4 million people in Uganda live with the AIDS virus, which kills about 20,000 Ugandans every year.

It is also difficult for most Batwa to go to a medical center. “When they lived in the forests, they relied on their knowledge of herbalism. They knew which plants to use against one disease or another. But when they were taken out of the jungle and banned from entering, it was over. They had to go to hospitals and were discriminated against there,” says Barbra Babweteera. The local communities, not used to seeing diverse people, also did not accept these thin and short new residents who did not speak the language well and could not read or write. “They no longer go to the doctor because of segregation and stigmatization. Moreover, these are the same reasons that make them not take their children to school,” adds Babweteera.

“I pray that the government allows us to live in the forest again. There are fish and rivers and shadows and honey. “Just us, without anyone”

Geoffrey Inzito, leader of the Batwa community in Bundibugyo

Karungi Joyce, a 16-year-old girl, is the first Batwa in Bundibugyo to attend secondary school after successfully completing primary school. She lives with the others in Kapepepe and knows the problems in her community. “Sometimes I have to go to school on an empty stomach after eating just a handful of sugar,” he says. Joyce attends a school about 10 kilometers from her settlement, where she eats at least once a day. “I like math, but when I finish my education I want to be a nurse,” she says. “I want to be a role model for the children in my community. Explain to them that you have to work hard, that sometimes you have to suffer, but that we are just as capable as others.”

“Everything must be aimed at getting Batwa children to go to school. Without losing their identity, their culture or their traditions, but in order to develop and advance, the youngest must go to school,” says Babweteera.

Inzito shares the same opinion, but tempers his enthusiasm. “The future of my people is to be educated, but that cannot always be achieved. “Some of our young people have to work to help their families.” The Batwa leader concludes by recalling the past and expressing a clear wish for the times to come: to return to the jungle, to live among the trees, to build their own houses, to look for food and live the traditions: “I pray.” The government will allow us to return to the forest where my grandparents came from. Where there are shadows and rivers and fish and honey. “We want to live without diseases, without anyone, just us, as before.”

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