Fredrick Mugira. December 18, 2020

This story was first published by New Vision

In the shadows of giant trees, deep within the Bwindi Impenetrable forest, nature is at its rawest. The maze of green trees, dark and humid undergrowth shrouded in a smoky haze, makes its name: impenetrable forest, very apt.

This is where Kyomukama Jackson, 46, spent the first 17 years of his life. An indigenous Batwa pygmy forest-dweller, Kyomukama lived in caves and tree branches, just like his ancestors.

“We derived our livelihood from the forest,” recounts Kyomukama, whose ancestors were part of the ecosystem for Bwindi Impenetrable, Echuya, and Mgahinga rainforests in Southwestern Uganda.

Also known as the Twa or the Pygmies, Batwa is one of the oldest surviving tribes in central Africa, living mostly within or close to the Congo Basin rainforest, the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world. They are part of about sixty million people living within this tropical rainforest that occupies about two hundred million hectares of land.

A Mutwa lady stands at the door of her house in Karehe, Buhoma, Bwindi

But for the Batwa that lived in Bwindi Impenetrable, Echuya, and Mgahinga rainforests, their nomadic-like lifestyle moving from place to place in search of forest resources, hunting wild animals, and the honey collection was cut short in 1991. The government of Uganda evicted them from these rainforests to pave the way to create conservation areas for the endangered Mountain Gorillas.

“Our lives were divorced from the forests by gorillas; we are struggling to live,” narrates Kyomukama, a father of 10 and chairperson of the Karehe Batwa group in Buhoma, Bwindi.

Just about 1,063 Mountain Gorillas remaining on the planet earth (2018 mountain gorillas survey) live in three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Half of these live within the Bwindi impenetrable rainforest.

A UNESCO world heritage site, Bwindi impenetrable forest was gazetted as a game sanctuary in 1932 purposely to conserve the Mountain Gorillas. The government of Uganda later upgraded it to national park status in 1991. It is home to over 160 species of trees, 100 species of ferns, 120 mammals, and some 350 bird species.

There are over 160 species of trees in Bwindi Impenetrable forest. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Jonathan Baranga, Professor of zoology and wildlife, also a former director of Uganda National Parks (now Uganda Wildlife Authority), is one of the officials who campaigned for raising the conservation status of the Bwindi Impenetrable forest.

He recounts that before the elevation, “people were busy mining gold and wolfram within the area and cutting down trees for timber which was damaging the habitats of gorillas.”

Fortress conservation

The approach used to conserve Bwindi Impenetrable forest and several other forests worldwide has been described by researchers and advocates of indigenous people as “fortress conservation” and criticized for its adverse effects on the indigenous people.

The fortress conservation model involves creating protected areas to enable ecosystems to flourish in isolation from human disturbance.

Conserving Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for gorillas meant human activities in the forest had to be minimized; the reason why the status of the forest changed from multiple uses of the resource to nature conservation.

And in nature conservation, argues Jeconeous Musingwire, an environmental scientist and manager for the national environment watchdog – NEMA in southwestern Uganda, “there is no human activity.”

“Whenever there is an icon of biodiversity, which needs to be conserved, then it means human activities are minimized,” insists Musingwire.

Gorillas needed a quiet environment to flourish and reproduce. Regular contact with humans puts them at significant risk because of their genetic similarity with humans, making them susceptible to diseases that affect humans.

“Humans share with Gorillas over 98 percent genetic materials and can easily make each other sick,” reveals Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a wildlife veterinarian and founder of Conservation Through Public Health.

The eviction from their ancestral lands has caused suffering in all measures not to put it too expansive to all 6,200 Batwa (2014 Uganda Population and Housing Census) in Uganda that now live on donated land in the margins of their ancestral forests, surviving on the charity of sympathizers. For most of them, hopelessness defines their lives.

Removing indigenous people from their land is unfortunately a consequence of so-called fortress conservation whose time is long past

Wendee Nicole, founder and director for Redemption Song Foundation.

Redemption Song Foundation supports Batwa in Bwindi.

“They (Batwa) can’t go in and gather materials to make baskets. They can’t get food like honey and medicinal plants,” laments Wendee.

Conservation triumphs

After almost 30 years of fortress conservation, more plants, mammals, and birds are returning to the Bwindi impenetrable forest. And the Mountain Gorillas are no longer critically endangered.

In 2018, the then critically endangered Mountain Gorillas were down-listed on the IUCN Red List to endangered species after their population increased from 680 in 2008 to 1004 in 2018. And more are being born.

“Ten Gorilla babies were born in COVID-19 lockdown (March to June 2020),” narrates Bashir Hangi, the Communications Manager for Uganda Wildlife Authority, noting that “protection of Gorillas is a matter of imperative.”

Haven’t the Mountain Gorillas made Bwindi impenetrable forest, which in turn made them, at the expense of the indigenous Batwa? Did the Gorillas steal the guardianship of Bwindi impenetrable forest from Batwa? And have they maintained it?

Stuart Maniraguha, the director for plantations development at National Forestry Authority, knows the answers. He says the approach taken by the government of Uganda facilitated the creation of an environment for the gorillas to flourish, reproduce, and contribute to the restoration of the Bwindi impenetrable forest.

“Conserving gorillas in a way contributes to the conservation of the forest,” notes Maniraguha. He elaborates that “when trees are missing, the gorillas will not be there because you have deprived them of their home…, their food sources…, and their privacy, therefore they will not mate, and their reproduction will go down.”

He further states, “there are some tree species whose seeds may not germinate unless they have gone through the alimentary canal of animals (gorillas).”

About half of the world’s Mountain Gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable forest. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

But Maniraguha acknowledges that apart from the Gorillas, several other factors have helped preserve Bwindi Impenetrable forest and mitigate the impacts of forest loss. These include afforestation in neighboring communities, benefits sharing, and stakeholder engagement.

In Uganda, like in many tropical countries, rainforests are subject to increased changes. Increased population, industrialization, road construction, urbanization, commercial agriculture, and changing climate are shrinking the once-blooming forests.

For example, in the Hoima district, a sugar factory has been blamed for deforesting part of the Bugoma central forest reserve to grow sugarcane to produce sugar.

However, Bwindi impenetrable forest and some other protected forests have continued to bloom amidst such threats, according to Maniraguha.

He states that in 1990, Uganda had a 24% forest cover, with protected forests accounting for 30% and the remaining 70% outside protected areas. And by 2015, Uganda’s forest cover had reduced to 9%.

But, “of the 9%, (in 2015) the area where we had 70 % (in 1991) had lost up to 35% (in 2015). Where we had 30% in the protected areas (in 1991) now the forest cover goes to 65% (in 2015),” notes Maniraguha.

Forest cover change in Uganda (1990 compared to 2015). Source: Stuart Maniraguha, the director for plantations development at National Forestry Authority.

Some rainforests and indigenous people’s researchers believe that the Bwindi impenetrable national park’s value is the presence of the Mountain Gorillas and its general biodiversity. And this has contributed to the maintenance, and the care conservationists bestow to the park, according to Eliode Bakole, a Batwa and rainforests researcher and DR Congo Country program manager for IDEAS For Us (IDEAS)

“Gorillas were not evicted from the park, but the Batwa were,” notes Bakole, emphasizing that this shows the “importance accorded to the animals (gorillas) which has been positive on the one hand for the forest conservation and for generating revenues, but on the other hand, it has impacted on the Batwa.”

What if the forest’s status wasn’t upgraded?

Prof. Jonathan Baranga, the architect of the move to upgrade Bwindi impenetrable forest to a national park status, shudders at thinking about what would have happened if Bwindi Impenetrable forest’s position had not been upgraded.

“I know very many government officials and businessmen were not only selectively cutting Mahogany (trees) from Bwindi and other areas, but there was a lot of encroachment. There was a lot of gold mining,” notes Prof. Baranga.

Men cutting timber in a private forest in Kanungu district. Photo by Fredrick Mugra

This is corroborated by a study that looked at regeneration in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and found that before 1991, many large trees were cut for timber by pit-sawyers.

One of the persons that have lived close to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for over 80 years is Eliphaz Ahimbisibwe. He is aged 85 and lives in Buhoma, Bwindi. He says as part of the program for upgrading the status of Bwindi impenetrable forest, neighboring communities were in the 1990s taught to plant their trees, and now they do not need to cross into the woods for firewood and timber.

Without this option, Ahimbisibwe believes, “the forest would be no more because people would have cut it down and the gorillas would not be there because people had by the 1960s started hunting them for various products.”

But Amos Ngambeki, a father of four and a Mutwa of Buhoma in Bwindi, disagrees. He insists that amidst increased intrusion of the outside world into indigenous people’s communities and lives, Batwa people would still be guardians of the Bwindi Impenetrable forest.

Ngambeki notes that with their “rich indigenous knowledge of conserving forests,” coupled with “government empowerment,” Batwa would have been able to preserve Bwindi impenetrable forest for years to come.

The weight of the knowledge indigenous people possess is enough to maintain the ecosystems more naturally and sustainably, according to Bakole, who insists that Batwa have experience in park management in their traditional ways. “For instance, during my pilot study conducted in Nkuringo in Bwindi, a Mutwa man declared that they are not allowed to hunt or trap pregnant animals and/or babies. Whenever they fall into our traps, we have to release them,” notes Bakole.

According to Bakole, this idea is backed up by another Mutwa he interviewed in the Mikeno sector in DR Congo as he collected data for his MA dissertation on Batwa.

Citing what he was told, Bakole reveals that “he said according to our culture, we cannot kill a gorilla because it resembles a human being, it resembles us.” Based on this statement and several others he got in the field, Bakole concludes that “the presence of Batwa in conservation matters because they understand well the dos and don’ts in biodiversity conservation.”

According to studies by the World Resources Institute, deforestation levels are “2.8 times lower in tenure-secure” indigenous people’s communities.

Batwa children in Karehe, Bwindi. Almost all Batwa in Uganda live in poverty on donated land in the margins of their ancestral forests. Photo By Fredrick Mugira

Dispossessed and damned lives

Although there may be increasing numbers of mammals, birds, and tree species in the Bwindi impenetrable forest — as indeed there are several — the Batwa people, that were once part of this ecosystem, haven’t recovered from the effects of the loss of their lands. They are concerned they still own no land, are slowly losing their culture and knowledge systems, and living in abject poverty.

“We have no proof that the land we live on now is ours. We can be evicted again anytime,” narrates Gad Shemanjeeri, a Mutwa pygmy and executive director of Batwa development organisation in Echuya, Rubanda district.

And for Jackeline Musiime, a Mutwa and mother of four, all she wants is unrestricted access to the forest to pick medicinal herbs for her children. “We have no money to take them to hospital,” she argues.

Several Batwa in Uganda are losing the value of being called guardians of the rainforests. It is easy to understand why: modern society is imposing many hardships on them.

Take an example of Bakole’s latest research conducted on Batwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo: one of the questions in this study wanted to determine whether the current socio-economic conditions could pull Batwa to support the conservation efforts.

“Out of 87 Batwa interviewed, 60 and above showed that they would never support conservation efforts because they are abandoned, marginalized, and sometimes arrested by rangers,” notes Bakole. He further quotes one of the interviewees, having said, “we are poor, we keep on begging and picking leftovers in other communities’ gardens, and then how will I conserve the biodiversity?”

The results of this study are still being analyzed.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is among the most diverse forests in East Africa. Photo by Fredrick Mugira
Trees species in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Photo by Fredrick Mugira
Bwindi Impenetrable rainforest is a home to almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

Building effective partnerships

It is evident that the impoverished Batwa people in Uganda may turn into poachers of the resources they once protected unless issues such as lack of land, their repression over them, and the lack of involvement in the conservation efforts are fixed.

They are incapable of defending the forest — that was once their home and source of livelihood against illegal encroachments and damaging exploitation.

Although they know they cannot be allowed back into the rainforests, the Batwa people demand “resettlement; benefits from the presence of gorillas and the park and active involvement” to facilitate the conservation of the Bwindi Impenetrable forest.

This can then be coupled with tapping and preserving their traditional ecological knowledge, marrying it with the modern experience for the management of rainforests.

Reporting for this article was funded by Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund (RJF).

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