Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"the government cares more about animals than it does about us."

Following on from our earlier blog on conservation refugees, this story was featured on the BBC website

Two decades ago Batwa pygmies were thrown out of their native forests in Uganda to make way for the country's mountain gorilla tourism. They have lived here in abject poverty since being expelled from the forests they lived in as part of a much lauded conservation programme in the 1990s.

Since the days when Uganda's wildlife was hunted down and slaughtered in great numbers, the country has earned a reputation as a conservation success story. Elephant numbers have sky-rocketed and the population of wild mountain gorillas has been steadily increasing. Uganda's national parks now attract tourists from around the world and provide a significant boost to the country's economy.

Yet for the country's estimated 3,000 to 7,000 Batwa it has come at a great cost. The evicted Batwa were never compensated with land by the government and most now live as squatters or vassals to local landowners. A survey in 2000 found the life expectancy of the Batwa to be just 28, with almost 40% dying before the age of five. According to Penninah Zaninka, coordinator for the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), being landless has left them extremely vulnerable.

"They're completely dependent now," she says, sitting at her desk at UOBDU's headquarters in the nearby town of Kisoro. You can't have a voice if you don't have land. They [the town's non-Batwa residents] see them as inferior; they abuse them and mock them. In some places you'll see the Batwa shaking with fear when people talk to them."

Anette Ntakirutimana, 20, makes her meagre living working as a farm hand, and has to choose between food and money for her payment. If she chooses money, she gets less than $0.90 (£0.70) for a full day's labour, barely enough to keep her and her two young children alive. If she chooses food, then there is no chance of ever saving enough to change the way she is living. Occasionally she makes a little extra money by dressing in fake animal skins and dancing for tourists. She finds it demeaning. Like most of the Batwa, she has faced extreme discrimination. At school she was raped, then, two years ago, she almost died when a local landowner doused her in kerosene and set her alight after he caught her foraging for food in his garden.

To the Batwa the forest was everything. It provided them with meat, honey and fruits to eat, animal skins to keep them warm, herbs to treat their illnesses and, they believe, spirits of their ancestors to protect them. Jossy Muhangi, spokesman for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), says that the pygmies' presence in the forest was damaging to the gorillas and that their eviction has played a part in significant increases in gorilla populations.
"The Batwa were always friends of the gorillas," he says. "They did not eat them, but their snares and traps were dangerous. And they could spread respiratory diseases".

In the 1930s the British colonial government declared vast swathes of the south-west to be forest reserves, forcing out some of the Batwa there and then. Others managed to avoid eviction until 1991 when Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni with support from the World Bank, officially gazetted the land into a series of national parks.

Mahuk Isaac remembers the day it happened as if it were yesterday. He was hunting in the Bwindi forest when the armed men arrived and told his family they had to leave.
"We could not imagine any other life," he says, sitting hunched over on a wooden bench in a dirt-encrusted suit many times his size. "But we could not argue. We were afraid of the guns." Isaac's family collected some personal items; spears, bows, cooking pots, animal skins and pets and walked out of the forest for the last time. In the following years five of his seven children died of disease. It is not the poverty that angers Mr Isaac, it is the humiliation of being dependent on others for everything. "In the forest what we had was ours," he says. "We are not happy here. Our survival depends on begging and working for others.

The Batwa feel they should be entitled to a cut of the country's lucrative mountain gorilla tourism industry, which earns up to $34m (£26m) each year, according to the International Gorilla Conservation Program. From each $600 fee paid by a tourist for a gorilla trek, $8 is allocated to local communities but nothing goes directly to the Batwa.

"If we had even a small part it would help with my childrens' education," says 22-year-old Robert Kaaben, who searches for food in garbage piles to supplement the little he earns from his hairdressing work. "But the government cares more about animals than it does about us."

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