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BMCT’s strides in biodiversity conservation & wellbeing of the Batwa (’94-2019)

The Batwa people
The Batwa people of the Great Lakes Region of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo are part of a wider group of equatorial forest-dwelling peoples in Africa sometimes termed ‘Pygmies’. In the past four decades, the creation of national parks and protected forest areas in Uganda has resulted in the final expulsion of the Batwa communities from the forests which had been their home for centuries. The Batwa were never consulted or compensated for their loss of land and livelihoods. For many Batwa, the forcible expulsion into societies where their forest lifestyle is at extreme odds with the mainstream and where there is no opportunity to use the skills which served them so well in the forest, has meant marginalization, exploitation, physical and verbal abuse, and in some areas near-slavery.

In Uganda, there are a total of 6,700 Batwa and 3,500 of these are in the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area[1]. The Batwa score extremely high on all poverty indicators. Chronic food shortage characterizes most Batwa households and Batwa often experience difficulty in finding permanent, well-paid employment due to their marginalized status and lack of literacy. Batwa women often become sex workers in towns to supplement their low income and are paid very little – often a plate of food. Access to food, water, fuel wood, work, and services such as education and health care are limited because of poverty, discrimination and/or remoteness.

BMCT was established in 1994 to foster the conservation of biodiversity of the Mgahinga and Bwindi National Parks. The Trust therefore, works with the surrounding communities, Including Batwa communities, to integrate conservation and development outcomes. Since 1994, BMCT has been working with the Batwa communities in south-western Uganda based on priorities identified by the Batwa themselves. Interventions have included animal husbandry, food security, advocacy for improved service delivery, access to land and education, informal micro finance (Village Loans and Savings Associations) and small-scale enterprises among others.

Batwa land Purchase and resettlement
Experience from BMCT work indicated, that land ownership was an area which needed immediate attention and priority in order to ensure sustainable solutions to the problems of marginalization and poverty among the Batwa. Resettling the Batwa has therefore, been a common intervention by a number of organizations concerned with their plight. These have met with mixed success, but the experience of Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust (BMCT) appears to have been particularly effective[2].

BMCT procured 406 acres of land, resettled 303 Batwa households and provided them with start-up kits (seeds, household items and other inputs) in Rubanda, Kisoro and Kanungu Districts. The BMCT’s strategy is based on the belief that providing displaced Batwa with assets is an important way to foster their sense of self, since it is by owning productive assets such as land, a house and livestock that the Batwa became valued in the eyes of the local communities. BMCT encourages the Batwa to identify a piece of land in the neighborhood of their choice to ensure that they appreciate the proposed land to be acquired. This must also be where they co-exist peacefully with the sellers. The Batwa lead on the price negotiation process without the involvement of the Trust, thus often securing a lower price than the sellers might agree on for an NGO. To qualify for such land, and as agreed by both Batwa and BMCT, one must be an existing squatter, have a family with children, be socially accepted with in the community and be able and willing to participate in building a house on the allocated land. community acceptance is measured for instance by acceptance to participate in the monthly stretcher group meetings (engozi), in community savings and loans association (although this can be challenging because the Batwa may not have the necessary income to contribute to groups’ rotational saving scheme) and by the land owners ‘ willingness to sell to the Mutwa concerned[3].

Recognizing the need to support the Batwa that have been resettled with other basic amenities ,the land to be purchased is preferred not to be in some distant location ,but within a reasonable distance from health facilities , a church (‘’to foster moral values’’) and a school where the beneficiary family will be encouraged and supported to educate their children .These conditions are meant to foster inter-ethnic linkage, mutual recognition and incentives to embrace development .To promote acceptance ,BMCT encourage the local community to embrace the Batwa in their midst and to sell land to them.

Unlike other organizations, BMCT processes the land agreements in the names of the Mutwa for whom land has been purchased. This provides the latter with a sense of ownership and security to utilize the land productively without re-selling it. BMCT signs the purchase agreement as a witness with the local council leaders. The leaders’ involvement provides support in the event of dispute between the purchaser’s family and the seller.
The beneficiary Mutwa also participates in the construction of his/her home by either providing labor or financial contribution for the purchase of law materials. BMCT supports the construction of a main house (3 bedrooms), a kitchen, a latrine and provides a water tank to maintain hygiene and to encourage agricultural activities.
One of this year’s beneficiaries, 59 years old George Kakongozo is exceptionally thankful and excited by BMCT’s intervention, after years of living in a small hut with a leaking roof which he says he constructed when he was still had energy. Together with his wife Jane, the couple were stranded when their longtime home collapsed last year due to the heavy rains forcing them to move into a very tiny makeshift hut that only had space for a single bed made on the floor. The couple have no children since they lost all of them during their childhood most probably due to such terrible housing conditions. The couple now hope for improved health in their new homestead. Another beneficiary, Jane Kinyangamba was quoted saying “I had to look for old mats to cover myself in case it rained at night. I am now living in this beautiful house which I constructed with BMCT’s help. We have planned to maintain it and keep it in good condition because….…it is our house” she said and described the idea of owning a home as an overwhelming experience to her and the entire family”

The approach is however, not without trials: some Batwa do not cultivate their land and rent it out, sell donated seeds to purchase alcohol and some have attempted to sell the land. BMCT is in the process of developing land administration guidelines

Batwa Education sponsorship program
BMCT IS currently sponsoring 127 (57 males and 63 females) pupils in primary schools,11 (8 males & 3 females) in a vocational institute,3 (2 males & 1 female) in secondary school (Comboni College) and one female has completed University. However, majority of Batwa Children don’t take education seriously and some drop out of school along the way and a sizeable number of girls get pregnant before completing school.

These approaches have yielded results including promoting a sense of ownership of land, economic empowerment and a sense of belonging to the Batwa community. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Batwa now appreciate the importance of the forest and no Mutwa has been caught participating in illegal activities in the last 5 years.

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