Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Batwa Conservation Refugees

The Batwa in Uganda live in 11 settlements in Kanungu and Kisoro districts – and they are mired in extreme poverty.

In Kebiremo, there is no hospital nearby, and many Batwa have been dying prematurely over the past few years. Within the 25 Batwa families that reside here, at least 20 young people have died in the past five years. And they have all died from “simple” diseases such as “malaria, ulcers and even headache.”

 For ages, the Batwa sustained their lives only from the biologically rich forests in which they lived. The forests provided them with food (plants and animals) and medicine (herbs).

But their lives took a dramatic turn in 1991 when the Ugandan government gazetted Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga forests to save the iconic mountain gorillas from extinction and also boost the country’s tourism. The Batwa were forced out of the forests at gunpoint and were not compensated since they never owned permanent structures. They left their ancestral home empty-handed and have since lived with the consequences of being born in the wrong part of the country.

Mark Dowie writes in his book Conservation Refugees, “eviction inevitably forces adults into intractable poverty, alcoholism, and prostitution, leaving their children with malnutrition, disease, and death.”

“Intractable poverty” is evident in Kebiremo as the Batwa lack basics such as adequate food and medical care. They say the land where they live now is infertile and the nearest hospital is about 15 kilometres away – the Bwindi Community Hospital that is located near the entrance to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

 Scott Kellermann, an American medical doctor and an Episcopalian missionary first arrived in Uganda 18 years ago to medically survey the Batwa, he was rattled by the conditions in which they lived and decided to permanently live in Uganda and aid these unfortunate people. But perhaps what he didn’t know at the time was the tough task that awaited him.

Kellermann began by surveying the life expectancy of the Batwa, a people whose plight is rooted in the indifference with which they have been regarded since they were evicted from the Bwindi forest in 1991. His survey yielded saddening results: in 2000, 18 per cent of Batwa children were dying within one month of birth while 40 per cent of them never lived past five years. The adults’ life expectancy was just 28. Yes, 28! Treatable ailments were – and still are – claiming the lives of these misfortunate ‘conservation refugees’ who live in the home district of former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.

Despite the fact that the Batwa were kicked out of the forests to give way for the creation of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, authorities have never done anything about their plight. Yet, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), 10 per cent of the money collected from gorilla permit sales goes to the communities around the two national parks. The Batwa have never received anything from UWA’s revenue sharing scheme. And that the money goes to other people while bypassing the Batwa – the “rightful owners” of these national parks – has been a source of disillusion for the former hunter-gatherers.

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