We visited the Batwa indigenous community in Kitaliro camp, Kanungu district. We learned a lot about their way of life before their eviction from the Bwindi forest and the challenges they have faced since then. This is their story. Over the years, many indigenous communities in Uganda that lived in forests have been evicted without any form of compensation and resettlement. Worse still, those in charge of protecting land that has been gazetted have inflicted torture on the indigenous people. According to documents from the Constitutional Court, the Batwa have customarily owned Echuya Forest, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park for many years prior to the proclamation of the British Protectorate on Uganda.
Uganda’s Batwa, an indigenous people who have suffered a long history of discrimination, have been displaced for decades from their ancestral land. Like other indigenous communities across Africa, despite stewarding the forests for many generations, their eviction has been carried out in the name of conservation – and has left the community struggling to survive on the margins of their former home.
Batwa lived peacefully in the forest where they hunted and gathered fruits and honey as food. They also gathered different herbs to treat different kinds of diseases and illnesses. All was well. During marriage ceremonies, a young man was expected to bring Pigs’ meat, locally made porridge, honey, fruits to the bride’s family. These would be eaten in celebration on the day of the traditional ceremony. These ceremonies were also characterized by loud drumming and dancing. Life was beautiful. These functions were conducted in a place called Nyakabungo within the forest. They were happy living undisrupted lives until the first eviction in the 1970s during Amin’s regime. They were forcibly evicted and given no option of where they could go. The forests had been gazetted as national parks and no one was allowed to live or even go to the national park lest they be killed.
It’s been over 30 years since the first group of the Batwa became landless from the eviction and have been living as squatters on other people’s land. They have been completely neglected by the government and mostly received support from local and international charities and donors. Rukungiri Kinyashano Diocese set up a camp of 56acres for over 1200 indigenous Batwa outside the park under temporary management. As the Batwa live in this camp which neighbours the Bwindi Impenetrable forest, they are daily reminded of their dispossession. They look at their former home which is now forbidden land. They risk being arrested or even killed should they try to go back.
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is greatly known for Gorilla trekking which brings in heavy revenue from tourists visiting the forest. While the Gorillas have been taken care of and saved from extinction, the Batwa community – one of Africa’s most ancient peoples and guardians of the forest who have lived alongside the apes for thousands of years – are beaten and arrested by rangers if they so much as enter the National Park to gather the herbs so crucial for their health.
It’s also been more than thirty years since the Batwa were evicted from the forest. The effects this has had on them are devastating. There have been gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers who have stigmatised, killed and beaten up the Batwa who try to access dry firewood and honey in the forest. Their culture and way of life has been significantly eroded while many of them continue to be scattered in different parts of the country like Kitaliro camp which hosts over 120 Batwa indigenous people who were illegally evicted by the government between 1990 and 1994, Kayonza, Kihanda and others in Rubanda and Kisoro districts.
Many Batwa who were forcibly evicted from the forest have never been compensated by the government, and the majority now squat on neighbours’ land, and work as casual labourers on small farms. A few lucky ones have undertaken subsistence agriculture to support their families within the camp although Gorillas often destroy their crops leaving them with nothing.
Even though UWA remits some money back to communities nearing the park to support their livelihoods, the Batwa have never received a penny yet they are now part of the neighbouring communities. The government has deliberately eliminated the Batwa in crucial spaces of leadership and representation which could amplify their voices and demands.
While the Batwa grapple with abject poverty and the trauma of losing their home and all impunity associated with it, they also must cope with their deep- seated social exclusion. The more dominant ethnic groups consider it taboo to marry from or within the Batwa. They do not share food or sit together even at social gatherings like traditional weddings. They are served with leftover food and drinks after such ceremonies are concluded. Some believe that having sex with Batwa cures some diseases like backache and HIV/AIDs. Beliefs that are totally stereotypical and fallacious. This has Left many Batwa especially women and young girls vulnerable to sexual assault.
In 2018, the Batwa opened a case against the government for failure to resettle or compensate them but it has taken years to come to its judgement. In August, 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Government, NFA and UWA evicted the Batwa illegally from their ancestral land and ordered the High Court to determine appropriate compensation measures to the Batwa. This has not happened and there are no signs it will happen soon.
Whereas the Batwa community in Kitaliro camp wish to return to their forest home, they understand its complexity since the gazettement of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as a conservation area. Their demand now is fair compensation and resettlement so that they stop living as squatters in their country. They also demand decent recognition in the communities they live in and the country at large. They want to have their own people represent them at different local and national decision-making levels to foster inclusion.