Elgon Wildlife Conservation Organization -(EWCO UGANDA )is working with Indigenous peoples in Uganda including former hunter/gatherer communities, such as the Benet living next to Mount Elgon National park and the Batwa, also known as Twa around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park . The Benet, who number slightly over 8,500, live in the north-eastern part of Uganda around Mount Elgon National Park .The 6,700 or so Batwa, who live primarily in the south-western region, were dispossessed of their ancestral land when Bwindi and Mgahinga forests were gazetted as national parks in 1991.
THE BATWA/BWINDI INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY
The Batwa people are one of the last groups of short structured people know as pygmies living in the mountain slopes of Bwindi National park in Kanungu district in Western Uganda. When the National park was gazetted for the safety of the gorillas they sought refuge in the neighboring communities and have continuously done hard labour to earn a living. The government of Uganda has continuously earned from the forest through tourism and no direct benefit goes to the Batwa people which has left them financially incapacitated and ended up producing very many children that they can’t even afford to look after given the fact that they don’t even have land.
The Batwa have been discriminated and marginalized for a long time and due to the traditional belief that sex with a Mutwa women cures HIV/AIDS and back pain, the women have been victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. According to one of the women, being discriminated in the Bakiga community where they live and at school has resulted in their children performing poorly at school while others have dropped out of school due to constant bullying while others have totally failed to join school. Although the Batwa are traditionally hunters, they have been forced into other forms of Labour where they end up being expoited for very low pay or no pay at all.
THE BENET /MOUNT ELGON INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY
The Benet peoples have had a long-standing dispute with the authorities over their ancestral lands, which was declared a protected area in 1926 without their consent or compensation. In 2005, the Supreme Court ordered the government to return the protected lands to the community of Benet. However, the failure has not yet been implemented. The Benet people are an indigenous community from Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda that have faced numerous human rights abuses as a result of the increased protection of the Mount Elgon National Park.
The Benet people (also known as Ndorobo) are a hunter-gatherer and pastoralist community from Mount Elgon and are divided into three subgroups by geographical location:
1) The Benet in the central part of the moorland, 2) The Yatui in the eastern part, and; 3) The Kwoti in the western part.
Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano on the border between Uganda and Kenya, and the Ugandan Mount Elgon National Park (MENP) covers an area of about 112,385 hectares within the Mbale, Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween districts in eastern Uganda. Since the creation of the park, the dispossession of the Benet has led to numerous conflicts and human rights abuses, including major evictions, scams, rapes, and shootings.
Creation of Mount Elgon National Park
In 1936, while Uganda was ruled by the British, the Mt. Elgon Crown Forest was created and imposed a public protected area on the Benet’s ancestral land. Although the Benet were not initially excluded from their land, the creation of the Crown Forest was done without their consent, and they were subjected to stricter cultivation and animal raising rules. In 1951, the status of Mt. Elgon changed to Forest Reserve and harsher rules restricting hunting were established. Ugandan independence took place in 1962, and the protected status of Mt. Elgon changed from Forest Reserve to Central Forest Reserve in 1968. Finally, after evictions and resettlement of the Benet, the Mount Elgon forest was gazetted as the Mount Elgon National Park and governed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in 1992.
Benet Land Distribution and Resettlement
Since Mt. Elgon’s protected status changed to Forest Reserve in 1951 and harsher restrictions on Benet livelihood options were enforced, many Benet people sent letters to the government requesting alternative land for cultivation (in addition to their forest land and homes). In 1983 these requests were finally responded to, and the Benet were told by the government to come and ask for land. However, this process was done with very little information or prior consultation by the government, and it led to a massive land grab that left more than half of the 2,800 Benet landless. Most Benet were not aware of how much land was due to them, and the people who managed to acquire land often had to pay bribes to receive it. Additionally, the process discriminated against the Benet by requiring that applicants had three tax tickets, which they were unlikely to have.
The land was only given out in the span of three months, and there were many mistakes in the process. The land had not been officially de-gazetted by the Ugandan Parliament, so the land was still part of the Forest Reserve and those living on the land were technically illegal inhabitants. People were also told that they were allowed to settle below a natural cliff ridge and between the Kere and Kaptokwoi Rivers, which resulted in the government giving out more than 7,500 hectares of land instead of the intended 6,000 hectares. The over 1,500 additional hectares became a disputed zone between the park and the people who settled there.
CHALLENGES FACED BY THE BENET & BATWA INDIGENOUS TRIBES
All these communities have a common experience of state-induced landlessness and historical injustices caused by the creation of conservation areas in Uganda. They have experienced various human rights violations, including continued forced evictions and/or exclusions from ancestral lands without community consultation, consent or adequate (or any) compensation; violence and destruction of homes and property, including livestock; denial of their means of subsistence and of their cultural and religious life through their exclusion from ancestral lands and natural resources; and resulting in their continued impoverishment, social and political exploitation and marginalization.
ELGON WILDLIFE CONSERVATION ORGANIZATION INTERVENTIONS FOR INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES IN BWINDI AND ELGON
EWCO UGANDA was established with the need to see the full participation of indigenous community women, youth , men and the community in the fight against economic, educational, and health-related threats and conservation challenges. EWCO develops cost effective programes and scales up many initiatives which is improving gender equality and reducing poverty in the community basing on needs identified by the communities through their leaders (Indigenous governance structure). Our empowerment program uses a strategy that is based on rural poverty alleviation. In order to accomplish its mission, EWCO carefully selects projects based on their potential to create economic engines for impoverished rural communities in areas adjacent to threatened wildlife and by having a multifaceted team positioned to tackle poverty by promoting community health initiatives, Family planning, WASH initiatives ,economic empowerment and entrepreneurship skills for marginalized women, vulnerable youth at household level through self-help projects, apprenticeship trainings and enterprise development for indigenous communities around protected areas in Uganda
Our goal is to Mainstream biodiversity conservation into development policies, plans and projects to deliver the co-benefits of biodiversity conservation, improved local livelihoods and economic development in communities where we work.
Elgon Wildlife Conservation Organization (EWCO) works to ensure the delicate balance between the environments; biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in communities around protected areas in Uganda. EWCO works closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and conservation partners to achieve our mission through integrated programs of
1. Indigenous community/Women empowerment and livelihood project
2.Wildlife health monitoring, research, and conservation
3. Ranger training and Logistical support to combat poaching
4. Community Health and WASH program
EWCO has strategic partnerships with Memorandum of Understanding between Uganda Wildlife Authority, Makerere University Department of Women and Gender Studies, Rubanda, Bududa, Kween Districts Local Governments. EWCO is currently implementing a project in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority ,and Change A Life Bwindi CBO aimed at reducing human related threats to mountain gorillas by engaging reformed poachers , Youth and women in the indigenous Batwa communities in sustainable alternative livelihoods to reduce over dependence on the parks Natural resources .
The COVID-19 pandemic is a harsh reminder that many areas may need to stop relying so heavily on tourism, with its sensitivity to local and global events. It pays to have other alternative projects in motion so that when tourism revenue stops flowing, rural communities have a buffer. The EWCO team since its founding has been encouraging people to engage in alternative livelihood projects like farming something that many in the indigenous communities stopped doing in favor of tourism employment around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mount Elgon National Park .