The Ugandan tribe evicted to make way for a national park has a new home – and tourism has played a part. Lottie Gross meets the community.
High in the trees of Bwindi National Park in Uganda, the Mukiza family were having lunch. We stood beneath them as fruits the size of golf balls rained down from the forest canopy where the troop of mountain gorillas was feeding.
“They’re coming down!” one of the trackers yelled. I looked on, mesmerised, as a month-old baby gorilla was breastfed right in front of me – the kind of encounter that brings tourists flocking to this south-west corner of the country, close to the border with Rwanda.
This is the homeland of the Batwa, one of Africa’s oldest tribes, who lived here as hunter-gatherers for centuries. In the early Nineties, though, their fortunes changed. Bwindi was designated a national park, with the aim of protecting mainly endangered gorillas and elephants, and the Batwa – also referred to as pygmies – were brutally forced out.
It’s a story that has played out the world over as animals have been protected at the expense of human communities. In the case of the Batwa, it is widely acknowledged the tribe was having little or no impact on the species the park was designed to protect. However, locals from nearby towns and villages had begun to hunt small game, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority decided on a zero-tolerance policy of allowing no human presence in the park, apart from tourism.
Revenue from wildlife tourism is important, but it alone cannot lever entire populations out of poverty – and there are negative human impacts to consider, too.
Some of the Batwa people were put up in small settlements around Kisoro, Kabale and Kanungu, while others had to squat on private land. With no practical skills and little knowledge of the languages common in Uganda, many resorted to sex work, or were exploited by farmers and construction companies and forced to work for little or no money in exchange for lodging. (…)
But the story I was here to tell was of the Batwa bouncing back. A few days before I set foot in Bwindi, I visited a small group who were turning their fortunes around – this time with tourism as the solution. In Mgahinga National Park, a six-hour drive from Bwindi, another family of mountain gorillas resides alongside elephants, antelopes and endangered golden monkeys. The Batwa living in these thick forests had been evicted like those in Bwindi – but after nearly 30 years of uncertainty, the improbably named Safari Monday and the families in his village have been permanently relocated.
“We had to squat for a long time,” he explained, as we stood in the shadow of Muhavura Volcano, with the low drystone wall between society and the national park visible in the background. “After the eviction, we were offered no compensation,” he continued. “I understand the reasons for the restrictions, but we always saw the gorillas as a totem – and we never hunted or injured them.”
Almost the entire village had gathered around us as a few sheep grazed on nearby pasture. Before they were cast out of the forest, these resilient people would have hunted small prey, lit fires without matches or gas, foraged for food and slept in caves or huts made from foliage. They would have known what to eat, where to find it and how to move around a disorienting landscape unfathomable to the rest of us. Nomadic and entirely self-sufficient, they had little contact with the rest of the population before the Nineties.
Today, however, things are very different. “Now we have 18 houses and a community centre,” Safari explained as we walked across the grassland to the huge tepee-like structure where the Batwa conduct their village meetings. He showed me the 60,000-litre water tank that collects rainwater for cooking, and pointed out plots of land where the villagers now grow crops such as beans and corn.
This new homeland, which sits right up against the park’s border, was donated by the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, the social enterprise arm of a group of luxury lodges scattered throughout Uganda and Rwanda. Its founder, Praveen Moman, is a Ugandan with a keen interest not only in wildlife conservation, but also in the communities and culture it supports.
Every lodge in the group has its own set of projects, designed to benefit local people as much as the environment. Guests at Mount Gahinga Lodge can visit the Batwa and learn about their former way of life.
“The projects here aren’t designed to be voyeuristic or exploitative,” said Herbert Mfitundinda, communities manager at the lodge. “This is all about supporting people who have been marginalised for a long time and become disadvantaged as a result of gorilla conservation. It’s about interaction, not just watching them.”
Volcanoes Safaris has taught the Batwa new skills, such as farming and construction, so they can once again be self-sufficient and get jobs. Of course, integrating into wider society has had its issues for Safari’s friends and his family. After being thrown out of the forest, they were exposed to new diseases. Without access to the traditional medicine they once used in the jungle, such as giant fern roots, they had to adapt to using pharmaceuticals and visiting mainstream hospitals. Now there is a small clinic inside the community centre for vaccinations and health checks by visiting clinicians, and within the grounds of Mount Gahinga Lodge, there is a garden where people can gather ingredients from native plants to make their own treatments.
Despite all this, the Batwa’s age-old traditions are slowly being eroded by modern life. Hunting and foraging are no longer daily duties, and children born into this new way of life know little of the traditional practices their parents and grandparents used. They are schooled with non-Batwa children, so even the native language – Twa – is dying out with every new generation. While storytelling, singing and dancing are alive and well, many of the historic skills and traditions are lost.
That is why Volcanoes Safaris has launched a Batwa Trail. Just behind the cluster of beautiful bandas at Mount Gahinga Lodge, is a garden with footpaths winding among tall foliage. As I wandered through the greenery, Safari and other members of his village offered demonstrations of their ancient culture, from prayer rituals to hunting with bows and arrows made from tree branches. Guests at Mount Gahinga are encouraged to experience the trail in order to understand the changes the Batwa are facing. As Safari explained, this is a way for the Batwa to educate not just visitors, but also their own children, about the culture that has defined them for centuries.
Before I left the Batwa village en route to Bwindi, Safari had one final message. “It’s important to go and see the gorillas,” he said, “especially if you’ve never seen them before. The money you pay helps conserve them and their environment.”
It’s true the revenue from gorilla tracking is not just preserving the gorilla population, but has boosted their numbers for the first time in decades. What struck me, though, was the humility of Safari’s words. He showed not an ounce of resentment towards the industry that ousted his people from their native land.
What my time with the Batwa in Uganda taught me is there is a valid case for the conservation of humans, too, protecting indigenous communities and their ancient traditions. Tourism can be used to help, rather than hinder.
The human cost of wildlife conservation.
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