Handed down by the Constitutional Court last month, a landmark judgment ordering government to take responsibility for its illegal evictions of the Batwa has been welcomed by the indigenous forest people as the most important stage in their long struggle for recognition of their constitutional rights
Last month, a panel of five judges; Fredrick Egonda-Ntende, Elizabeth Musoke, Cheborion Barishaki, Muzamiru Kibeedi and Irene Mulyagonja unanimously ruled that the Batwa have suffered because of their eviction from their ancestral land which was turned into central forest reserves and national parks in South Western Uganda but were not compensated by government.
Speaking about the verdict, some of the Batwa said this was the beginning of the end to their community’s immense suffering and loss that has threatened the very survival of their culture.
This sentiment is echoed by Dusabe Yeremiah, the chairperson of the Batwa’s own organisation UOBDU, speaking from Kisoro:
“I dearly hope this case serves as a wake-up call for the Government of Uganda to finally recognise that the Batwa are their best friends and allies in the continued conservation of Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuya forests,” said Dusabe Yeremiah, the chairperson of the Batwa’s own United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda(UOBDU).
“The time has come for the Government to enter into partnership with the Batwa, to uphold the court’s judgement, and allow the Batwa home to their ancestral forests, and see that there is a win-win to be found that can protect those forest ecosystems and ensure the survival of the Batwa as a people and a culture, before it is too late.”
According to Dr. Helga Rainer, an expert on environmental conservation and policy with a focus on great ape conservation, government ought to protect the Batwa, other than displacing them without compensation.
“The Batwa are a small community and the socio-economic and cultural costs of displacing them cannot be justified because they were not the threat to the forest in the first place,” said Dr. Rainer.
“In fact, it was their forest home that was getting smaller and smaller, as a result of encroachment by other communities seeking land for farming.”
The Batwa number only few thousand individuals living mostly in the Kanungu, Kisoro and Kabale districts of south-eastern Uganda, as close as possible to their ancestral forests. Evictions and continued attempts to exclude the Batwa principally by officers of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the National Forestry Authority (NFA) – both Respondents in this case – and have caused landlessness, destitution, bonded labour conditions, and heightened the risks of sexual violence for Batwa women and girls.
The petitioners’ lawyer, Onyango Owor too, welcomed the Constitutional Court ruling noting that it is the first step to ensure the Constitutional rights for Batwa prevail.
“While we are happy that the decision of the Constitutional Court was in our favour, it has always been the petitioners’ hope that government would change its approach and engage constructively with them in order to find a lasting solution that both protects the forest and guarantees a sustainable future for the Batwa,”Owor said.