The Batwa: Marginalised and Discriminated

Imagine a community of ‘forest dwellers’ in a world of fast trains, buses, boda boda, tuk tuk, jets, yachts, and sky scrapers all in a twitch of an eye. Or a city lad living under a shelter made of grass, sticks, mud and wattle and no door and forced to live with ‘forest dwellers’.

Daunting, right?

This is what happened to many people of Batwa/Twa identity, a people marginalized and discriminated against by the governments that claim to be protecting them from climate change effects, health hazards and other environmental reasons.

The Batwa are a group of people who originally were found in the forested and mountainous areas of southwestern and western Uganda, parts of Rwanda, forested Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

In Uganda, many Batwa now live near the forests or in shanty towns where they survive by begging or doing menial jobs. Some Batwa have embraced education and a fair number (given their small population) lives in the open country alongside other tribes.

The Batwa race co-lived with nature and wildlife for ages and before all the environmental degradation and de-forestation debates, the Batwa conserved the flora and fauna with utmost respect, care and attention because the hub of their livelihoods depended on it. The forests and mountains were their homes just as much as the Sahara, Kalahari and Namib deserts are for the nomads.

Before they were evicted, the Batwa depended solely on forests and were a lively community that participated in social gatherings full of music and dance. The Batwa celebrated their culture with direct link and identity to the forests. The canopies, landscape and numerous hunting and gathering activities described their environment and culture.

It is reported that sometime in 1930 and later on, the Batwa experienced an ‘invasion’ from outsiders who sought land to practice agriculture. These non-Batwa people encroached on and occupied the places the Batwa lived in when the latter moved in search for new settlements, while they lived like nomads.

The Batwa that relocated neither returned nor reclaimed their former settlements in the forests because the non-Batwa then claimed land rights like ‘finders-keepers’.

In 1991, the government of Uganda gazetted a large tract of land in the south western forest, Mgahinga, in favour of gorillas. The Batwa living in the forest were left landless and homeless as some were accused of endangering wildlife.

As a result, many Batwa lost their sense of origin because they had been forcefully taken away from familiar territories and implanted in communities where hunting, gathering and natural wildlife were rare, if not inexistent. Since they were a small community, limited by formal education and advocacy, many decisions made supposedly for them, did not necessarily favour them.

A similar account of a resettlement on the continent occurred in 1999 in Cameroon where the Campo Ma’an National Park was demarcated to compensate for the environmental damage caused by the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. This move made the Bagyeli (Twa natives) landless and homeless.  They neither had access their home nor time to adjust to a different lifestyle.

This background premises the current article.

The Batwa must veil to fit into a community of different norm. Even with talk of compensation, it is difficult to imagine the amount that can befit a home and identity lost in a spate of industrialization and wild conservation, of which the Batwa skillfully and excellently performed the latter to the extent that governments and other international bodies found all flora and fauna intact.

Like in Uganda, the ‘Twa’ (read Batwa) communities have been forcefully evicted from their homes which governments designated forest reserves and parks in Kahuzi-Biega in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  The insecurity and civil unrest in the forested areas of DRC where guerilla and rebel activities in the Ituri province are concentrated have also contributed to the displacement of the Batwa. Those displaced live like refugees in Uganda with only the option of gazing at their once natural and peaceful home from a distance.

For decades, the Batwa of Uganda conserved the natural forests. Their small population did not pose great threat to the wildlife in the areas gazetted as forest reserves and parks. It can be argued that they are the godfathers of forests and wildlife like the forest peoples of the Amazon.

When the government of Uganda resettled the Batwa in unfamiliar territories, the non-Batwa and other private investors sought to ‘conserve’ the forest reserves and parks. The National Forest Authority was formed. This body was given autonomy to oversee and ‘protect’ forest reserves and parks.

Though conserving forests and wildlife has never been more important as at a time like this, sadly the industrialization and farming drive in the country has seen some of the most vital natural forests destroyed. A lot of destruction of natural forests and protected wetlands for expansion in the region still occurs.

Areas in Kisoro in the south western part of Uganda experience flooding and landslides due to the extensive encroachment on forests and other natural wetlands that formerly acted as water catchment areas. This duty of maintaining water catchment areas had been preserved and performed by the forest peoples, the Batwa, for ages!

While some of the Twa peoples in the region have embraced formal education or sought labour in other communities, many are left to tale their origin orally without physically imparting their traditional behaviors and attachment to forests to the next generation.

The discrimination is still evident among the local communities where the Batwa resettled. Few non-Batwa relate with the Batwa, leaving them isolated in newfound lands and environments.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights discourage discrimination of people on grounds of race and identity. Many African countries like Uganda are signatory to these laws. However, the displacement of the Batwa, especially the massive eviction in 1991 from their homes, proves a different account altogether.

Chapter IV of the Constitution of Uganda provides for protection and promotion of fundamental and other human rights and freedoms. It provides that the government and all other organs and agents of the government and persons must respect, uphold and promote rights and freedoms of the individual and groups like the Batwa. It further provides for equality and freedom from discrimination in all spheres of political, economical, social and cultural life.

That same Chapter breathes life into protection of rights of marginalized people like the Batwa.   

 Notably, the non-Batwa settlers who had cleared forested areas for agriculture and large scale farming received land rights when the government of Uganda extended its mandate and gazetted the formerly Batwa forest (read home) into national forests. The Batwa lands were given to non-Batwa!  This directly contravenes the constitutional provision for equality and freedom from discrimination on grounds of identity, origin, race etc and the right to own property!

 Investors and states were compelled to evict natives for larger tracts of land without better and similar alternatives. This transgression against human race, especially the Batwa peoples who inevitably became refugees in their own countries was unfair. Although the government had (and still has) authority to assume ownership of an individual’s or group’s property, it erred in 1991 when it evicted the Batwa without proper alternatives.

As a nomadic people, the Batwa were not accustomed to settling in one place but maintained their movements within the forests where they found their livelihood. Unfortunately, the encroachment of non-Batwa and most government decisions rendered them landless and without claim to the forest land thus no legal obligation to compensate them with fiscal means or alternative settlements favourable to their lifestyle.

Disintegrating an organized people like the Batwa without appropriate and effective rehabilitation and resettlement schemes suitable for their lifestyles was an unfair practice against a community. While their numbers seem too few to comprehend this action at the moment, history will tell the remnant in the near future.

Despite forming their own organisation in 2000, the Batwa under the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), are yet to be allowed access to the forests.

It is therefore important to value the identity of the Batwa race as enshrined in almost all constitutions of countries where the Batwa are natives and correct the injustice made. Further, governments where the Batwa are existent ought to exercise due diligence by consulting with the Batwa directly, to effect wildlife conservation and the consequences of degazetting and gazetting forested areas which are Batwa habitats.


This article appears in our weekly law digital magazine, The Deuteronomy Vol 3 Issue 3 of June 17th, 2016 under the title, The Batwa: A marginalised and Discriminated People.

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