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Pygmies of Southwestern Uganda: Reaching the End of the Road - and the Beginning


Pygmies of Southwestern Uganda: Reaching the End of the Road-and the. Beginning

Ethnically, Abayanda represent the most eastern range of Pygmoid Africans on the eastern edge of the great tropical rain forests of Africa. Pygmies, by various, and may number up to 300,000 persons. The majority live in close association with remaining forests. Abayanda, like other Pygmies, are a hunter-gatherer forest people and share a history on the continent that may go back 50,000 years or more.

The Abayanda have a long association with the natural forests of southwestern Uganda known as Echuya, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Mgahinga are of special conservation importance today because they are the home to approximately half of the world's surviving gorilla population. In addition, Bwindi represents a probable Pleistocene refuge, retaining plant species from possibly 20,000 years past.

Although the Bwindi and Mgahinga forests have been officially protested as Forests Reserves for more than 50 years, in 1991 they were rezoned as National Parks and enjoy maximum levels of protection. In the process, Pygmy forest people who have long regarded the forests as their main source of food, shelter, and income, have found themselves forcibly prevented from living in, or using the forest resources. Already a tiny and impoverished minority in the area, this action has pushed the Abayanda Pygmies into the final throes of destitution and exploitation as they try to balance their new position as squatters with the need to survive. This has also crystallized their evolving plight as a seriously disadvantaged minority that has been slowly but surely dispossessed. Seeds of resistance and seeds of support have been sown.

New Regime of Management Support for Bwindi and Mgahinga

An important innovation in the protection of Bwindi and Mgahinga has been the establishment of a supporting Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust. Not only is the Bwindi Trust one of the first such institutions in Africa conversation, it is unusual in that Park-adjacent communities are represented on the Trust's Management Board. This trust is intended to provide a sustainable flow of funds for research, park management, and community development in the settled areas bordering the Parks. The funds are provided from interest on a capital endowment provided the World Bank.

The communities participating on the Trust's management board are predominantly Bufumbira and Bakiga cultivators, numbering nearly a quarter of million people and live in what is now one of the most densely populated areas of East Africa. Their antagonism towards the scattered Pygmies who squat on their farms is legend. An early task of the Bwindi Trust after its establishment in 1995 was to commission a study of the despised Pygmy minority.

The study was conducted by the authors over the last half of 1995. Abayanda were shown to number less than 2,000 persons in round 400 households within the three districts of southwestern Uganda. Around half live in association with Echuya Forest, and around half in the sphere of Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks. Numerically, they represent an insignificant group of less than 1% of the local forest populations. The majority, 82%, are entirely landless, living insecurely on land owned by private farmers or as provided by government or churches. The 18% who own land, share a meager 4.5 hectares, or less than 0.04 hectares per household. Only 10% of Abayanda own a chicken, a goat or a sheep. No household owns cattle. At least half do not even own a hoe, the most basic tool in Africa and without which, the Abayanda find it difficult to hire themselves out as labor. Only three adults among 500 have steady employment. The remainder earn food or small amounts of cash in return for laboring long hours on farms, transporting crops and building materials, providing singing and dancing entertainment for their `owners.' Whilst most are permitted to cultivate a few square meters of garden wherever they live, this does not provide enough food to survive.

Until the closure of Bwindi and Mgahinga to the Abayanda, life was bearable through collecting honey, wild vegetables, small game, and supplying building for the settled agriculturists. A small number of Abayanda were also employed in gold mining ventures in Bwindi Forest. As these sources of survival have disappeared, the Abayanda have both become less useful to the forest-adjacent community, and more burdensome in their acute poverty. The study found evidence of a marked increase in exploitation of Abayanda labor, including a steep decline in the amount of food paid for each day's work and an increase in incidences of physical abuse.

Challenge and Change

Redress is not easy. As times have become harder, land is scarcer, and employment opportunities are fewer, the attitude towards Batwa, as Abayanda are referred to, has hardened from one of tolerance of their backwardness and strange ways to one of outright contempt. Those Abayanda who try to better themselves are viewed suspiciously. Occasions where Abayanda have sought redress of exploitation have raised the ire of the landowning community who have seen themselves as the patrons of the helpless, ignorant and now ungrateful Batwa.

Local government has paid little attention to the situation. Churches represent the only channel of assistance and their help is confined to assisting Abayanda children attend school. Ironically, nearly 90% of Abayanda children still do not attend school, Abayanda access and use government health services is limited partly because of cost, but mainly because they are unwelcome in clinics and are doubtful of the advantages. Rates of morbidity and mortality among Abayanda are statistically higher than the rest of the local population.

Abayanda have virtually no role in the political structure at the village, parish, district, or national levels, and they fear local leaders and police. They have had unsalutary experiences in local courts. Records show that fines are used liberally to keep Abayanda in order and in their place. Beating and threats are common and seven murders which have taken place since 1990 remain `unsolved'. As land pressure everywhere increases, even those few Abayanda with plots of their own endure encroachment and sometimes theft to the authorities have yielded no result.

In important ways, Abayanda culture is antithetical to their self-determination. Their own culture resists individual prominence and operates leveling mechanisms of material and food-sharing that is not conducive to competition for jobs and material advancement. Arguably, they follow modes found frequently among dispossessed hunter-gatherers; they fear to leave the little security they have as squatters, invest in patronage with submissive behavior, and accept the exploitation, contempt, and abuse meted out to them.

However, the situation is slowly changing, if in small ways. Two communities of Abayanda have organized groups to more forcefully hire themselves out to farmers, to purchase hoes, and to solicit assistance from churches. One Abayanda has recently begun to travel in the region to encourage Abayanda to join together in bringing their plight to officials. Two prominent Abayanda herbalists who count several influential officals among their clients, now openly use these contacts to request help for the Abayanda. The Abayanda are focusing upon the need for places to live and the right to use the forest parks. Some district officals are also emerging as sympathetic regard to Abayanda conditions.

Tradition as a Basis for the Future

The most important finding of the World Bank/Bwindi Trust survey is that the seemingly randomly-scattered nature of Abayanda settlements as squatters on several hundred farms around the parks conceal a socio-spatial formation of hundreds of years standing. Although new people have entered the area and established farms over the past century and a half, Abayanda have remained firmly within the areas which their forefathers considered to be umwanya waacu, (the place of ours). If they move modern farm to farm in search of work, they also remain largely within the boundaries of their territories. This contrasts sharply with conventional local wisdom that Abayanda are nomadic and therefore have no roots in the area or a basis for claiming land.

Through reviewing relationship, the authors found that the total Abayanda Pygmy population of the area fall socio-spatially into distinct communities. The consistent factor binding members of a community are shared origins in one amago, (social group), and nahaacu, (one territory). Eight of these communities are directly associated with Bwindi Forest, and six locations look to Mgahinga as their traditional home.

The Way Forward

Helping Abayanda children attend primary school and receive health care services and job training are helpful interventions, but they do not address the core conditions of Abayanda landlessness and loss of forest access. Abayanda have argued that the critical issues to be resolved lie firmly within the sphere of land rights-first and foremost by helping Abayanda households find secure and lasting to settle and farm. A second requirement is to accessing certain areas, certain sits, and certain resources of the National Parks and Echuya Forest Reserve on a sustainable basis. Abayanda themselves place the right to harvest honey, tubers, and medicinal plants uppermost in this regard. For all Abayanda Pygmies, the principle recognition of the forests as their ancestral lands and the right to enter them freely for socio-ritual purposes is not negotiable.

While the Abayanda increasingly insist upon restoring their access to certain forest resources, many now say they will accept settlement outside Park boundaries if land can be found in their traditional areas-which fall both inside and outside the Parks - and in adequate amounts to enable them to live in their preferred communities. The authors have recommended to the Bwindi Trust that the requirements of settlement, forest access, and forest use may be met in conjunction with each other through the allocation of a limited number of peripheral Park areas to the appropriate forest-adjacent Abayanda community. In terms of speed, cost-effectiveness, and simplicity of resolution, this will be the most workable strategy. This recommendation has the added advantage of conforming to existing social and settlement patterns of each group of Abayanda.

In reality, this strategy is unlikely to be acceptable to conservationists or the wider local community - at least initially. The former, who place total protection of the environs of the gorilla population uppermost and secure much support to this end, may regard the allocation of even small plots on the edge of the forest as dangerous encroachment. The wider, local population as a whole already argue against preferential treatment of the despised Batwa while some of their own tribesmen are without land. Achievement of this end will also be hampered by the closely settled nature of the Park-adjacent areas. But when Abayanda settlement requirements are considered on the basis of one acre per household, only 403 acres would be required, less than 0.2 percent of the total Echuya estate. This is a small cost to resolve the issue, and resolves it in a manner which genuinely responds and respects the rights of forest people.

At the time of writing, September 1996, both the government and the Bwindi Trust are reviewing their options in regard to the small but thorny problem of the Abayanda. These authors can only hope that the commitment to positive action will not be appropriated by more will not appropriated by more privileged groups of the local society who might not approve. To not challenge such attitudes will hold development agencies ransom to an unsatisfactory status quo, perpetuate the `problem,' and prompt its growth into an issue of international human rights.

As importantly, conservationists need to look more closely at the guardianship role forest people play in protecting valuable flora and fauna. Up until the present, the gorillas of Bwindi and Mgahinga remain under threat, a threat which peripheral Abayanda could do much to reduce in return for residential and sustainable use rights. Such strategies are no longer unusual in natural forest co-management programs and indeed are showing much greater functional success than the traditional exclusion and policing strategies conventionally pursued. Involving the Abayanda in the management of forest resources is more conducive to the conservation of the forests as a whole.

For their own part, Abayanda can no longer afford to await change passively. In the immediate future perhaps the most important need is for action which directly assists them to plan and articulate their own way forward in the detail required. Until they do so, they remain unfortunate pawns of development, without land, resources, education, jobs, respect and dignity. They will remain beggars or exploited labor on the farms of people who tend to despise them. This is not a basis upon which their future may be secured.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.