Discrimination and the 'Pygmy'
Survival submission to the United Nations' Committee for the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination – 'Discrimination and the 'Pygmy'
peoples of Uganda'
Uganda is signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms or Racial Discrimination and the African Charter on Human
and Peoples' Rights. Article 20 of the Ugandan Constitution states:
'… no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any
person acting… in the performance of any public office or any public
authority.' In spite of this, discrimination does exist in Uganda,
against peoples who pursue a lifestyle different from the dominant one.
These include pastoralists, and also the so-called 'Pygmy' minority.
There are an estimated 3,000 – 3,700 Pygmies in Uganda. This is 0.02 of the total population.
The majority of the 'Pygmy' people in Uganda belong to the Batwa
people, who live mainly in the mountainous Kabale, Kisoro and Rukungiri
Districts of the southwest. In 1996 there were a total of 1,771 Batwa
in 403 households (Kabananukye and Wily 1996).
The Batwa were once recognised as the owners of the high mountain
forest. The men used to hunt and collect honey and other forest
products, which were exchanged for village goods, while the women
gathered vegetables, mushrooms and fruits as well as work for local
farming peoples. At the end of the 19th century, when what is now
southwest Uganda was part of the Kingdom of Rwanda, the Batwa, like
their counterparts in Rwanda, Kivu and Burundi, were valued as court
entertainers and soldiers. At the beginning of the 20th century some
Batwa leaders became powerful enough to claim tribute from their
Since then however, as the forest has been cut down by local farmers,
the Batwa have become destitute and despised. Most are entirely
landless; they live as tenants or squatters on farmers', church or
state land, and pay the landlord with their labour: collecting firewood
and water and doing farm work. Those who do manage to get a little land
are liable to be evicted by more powerful neighbours, and find it
almost impossible to get redress.
The National Parks of Mgahinga, Bwindi (the 'Impenetrable Forest' ) and
Echuya are in this area, and much of the park land is actually the
original territory of the Batwa. The parks were originally set up in
the 1930s, but it was only when they were gazetted in 1991 that the
Batwa were finally evicted. Non-Batwa farmers who had destroyed the
forest to make farms received recognition of their land rights, and
compensation, while the Batwa 'who had lived for generations before
and after 1930 without destroying the forest or its wildlife, and even
had historical claims to land rights, only received compensation if
they had acted like farmers, and destroyed part of the forest to make
fields.' (Lewis 2000 p 20).
Despite legal provision for Batwa to use and even live within the
national parks (Ugandan Wildlife Statute, No. 14, 1996, sections 23-6)
they remain excluded from them. Access to the parks is controlled by
the Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Trust, the NGO CARE and the
Uganda Wildlife Trust; it is negotiated through 'multiple use
committees' which include almost no Batwa representation. In 2000 the
Batwa set up their own organisation UOBDU (United Organisation for
Batwa Development in Uganda) since which time the attitude of these official
bodies has become rather more open, but to date they have taken no
actual steps to allow Batwa legal access to the forests.
This exclusion is encouraged by the stereotype which represents the
Batwa as destroyers of the gorillas. In fact, however, Batwa do not eat
gorillas, and they have coexisted with them for centuries. Any
gorilla-hunting they may engage in is done at the instigation of
others. Nevertheless, the Batwa are stigmatised as gorilla-slayers and
poachers, and get the blame for any poaching that occurs.
The ban on hunting and collecting forest produce has affected the Batwa
economy disastrously. Deprived of forest resources and not yet entitled
to land, they now only have their labour to sell to farmers; but these
maintain the old established custom of rewarding them only with food, a
vicious circle that perpetuates their domination.
Prejudice against the Batwa is deep-rooted. The dominant local groups
refuse to intermarry with the Batwa or even eat with them.
Discrimination and poverty prevent the Batwa from sending their
children to school or taking them to local dispensaries for treatment.
There is random violence and harassment of the Batwa. For instance, in
1999 a Batwa man was murdered in Mgahinga forest while collecting
firewood. Those responsible were three local men who killed him for no
apparent reason. When (in response to demands by an outside NGO) the
murderers were arrested, their relatives threatened the family of the
dead man, saying 'If those in prison are to die, we will kill you all.'
The Basua or Bambuti
The other, and much smaller, group of 'Pygmies' in Uganda are the Basua
or Bambuti, who live in the Semliki Valley, Bundibugyo district, in
western Uganda near the DRC border. There were only approximately 72 of
them at the latest count. They were apparently brought across the
Semliki river from the then Belgian Congo in about 1920 by their local
farmer patrons. The people among whom they live, the Baamba and
Bakonzo, have themselves been marginalised and oppressed during the
last century. Hence the Basua have been described as 'the marginalised within the marginalised, the disinherited of the disinherited.' (Frankland 1999, p 67)
The Semliki Forest became a National Park in 1993. The Basua have
suffered from this in a similar way to the Batwa; they have to to
request permission from park officials for fishing and fuelwood and
herbal medicine collection, and hunting is forbidden.
In the 1960s -1980s the Basua became well known as tourist attraction,
and this became their major source of livelihood; however with the
political unrest of the 1990s the tourists stopped arriving. The
violence spilling over the border from the nearby DRC has affected the
Basua disastrously. They have found themselves in the middle of
constant border raids, are easily terrorised into service to act as
trackers, and are subject to reprisals. In 1999, seven Basua men were
arrested and imprisoned without trial on the charge of
helping the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), who operate from
bases in the Rwenzori mountains and across the border in the Democratic
Republic of Congo. After international protest they were freed.
There is little government concern in Uganda for the Batwa or Basua.
Several NGOs and church groups are trying to remedy the situation by
running relief or housing projects. However many of these, particular
the church projects, are extremely 'top down' and do not involve real
participation by the Batwa or Basua themselves.
In the last few years some of the Batwa have set up an organisation to
attempt to defend their rights; however this is still very small and
under-resourced. In 2001 the Basua reportedly did the same.
Emanzi Food and Peace Development Centre, 1993: A Socio-Economic Community Survey of Batwa in Kisoro district. Typescript.
Frankland, Stan, 1999: Turnbull's Syndrome: Romantic Fascination in
the Rainforest, in 'Challenging Elusiveness; Central African
Hunter-Gatherers in a Multidisciplinary Perspective', University of Leiden.
Kabananukye, K. & Wily, E, 1996: Report on a Study of the
Abayanda Pygmies of South-Western Uganda for the Mgahinga and Bwindi
Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust, Kampala.
Lewis, J. 2000: The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region, Minority Rights Group.
Luling, V. and Kenrick, J. 1998: Forest foragers of Tropical Africa. Survival International