War, Climate Change and the Batwa of Africa's Great Lakes
By Megham Laws
In Africa’s Great Lakes region, conflict has as much to do with the surrounding landscape as it does with politics. From its open grasslands and verdant hills, to its mosaics of freshwater lakes and rivers, to its dense rainforests teeming with biodiversity, the Great Lakes region is a place of extraordinary natural beauty. Yet its high population density, chronic land shortages, and incredible ethnic and cultural diversity, not to mention a legacy of (neo)colonial rule, has inscribed the potential for conflict directly into the land itself.
"Among the most affected by the violence and climatic shifts are the region’s Batwa communities...the original inhabitants of the Great Lakes of Africa."
In Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, and Uganda more than a half-century of colonial oppression was followed by violence and civil war, which spilled out into neighbouring countries. This culminated most devastatingly in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered in 100 days of violence. Two million Rwandans fled the country, spilling out into Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire (now, the DR Congo) with continental repercussions. Refugee flows, coupled with the absence of a functioning state in Zaire, and shifting regional alliances, transformed domestic civil wars into a regional war in 1996, and a continental one in 1998, which together took the lives of an estimated 4.2 million people. Damage to environments throughout the region has also been dramatic, exacerbated by climate change, resource extraction, and growing social inequalities.
Among the most affected by the violence and climatic shifts are the region’s Batwa communities. Sadly, little is known or reported about this marginalized population, numbering between 70,000 and 87,000 people, and dispersed over an area of 100,000 square kms. But, few historians disagree that the Batwa were the original inhabitants of the Great Lakes of Africa. The equatorial forests were their homelands, providing them with sustenance, shelter, medicine and sacred sites and burial grounds. Their low-impact lifestyle and use of forest resources meant that their way of life as hunter-gatherers was sustainable over several centuries.
"Over the course of several decades, the Batwa were pushed out of the forests as a result of large-scale deforestation..."
Over the course of several decades, however, the Batwa were pushed out of the forests as a result of large-scale deforestation, exploitation and destruction of their forest habitats, conflict leading to violence, and conservation in the name of development. Many Batwa fought tirelessly to defend their homelands against the encroachment of colonizers, but today, virtually all Batwa have seen their lands disappear, and their rights to access traditional territories denied.
The impact of deforestation is not equally distributed across the region. In Eastern DR Congo, a lower population density, greater variety of linguistic groups, and limited state presence means that the Batwa have greater access to the forest, and are better able to resist encroachment. Meanwhile in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, forest-dwelling Batwa were expelled from their lands as recently as 1994 without consultation or remuneration, and forced to adopt a sedentary way of life.
Today, the Batwa face challenges such as high unemployment, poverty and food insecurity, limited access to education and healthcare, social discrimination, and acute political marginalization largely due to these injustices. TGP is currently partnering with the African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization (AIMPO), one of two grassroots organizations in Rwanda that advocates for the rights of Batwa communities, referred to quasi-officially as ‘Historically Marginalized Peoples’ (HMP) in light of government-led attempts to de-emphasize ethnicity in the aftermath of the genocide. Beginning in 2016, TGP partnered with AIMPO to conduct a community outreach program in Twa/HMP villages in Rwanda’s Northern province to identify pressing problems affecting populations at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park. 62% of participants identified landlessness and resource shortages, largely due to migration and climate change, as key issues contributing to food insecurity, child malnutrition, infant mortality, and poverty.
TGP and AIMPO are now conducting a multi-stage research and development project that chronicles the effects of land dislocation on Twa/HMP in Northwestern Rwanda. The results of our research will be used to raise awareness among national policymakers, civil society organizations, and international aid agencies about the land situation of the Twa/HMP, and propose adaption strategies that incorporate Indigenous knowledge. We have already had some success, having planted 79 vegetable gardens and 6 rabbit farms in Gicumbi district. AIMPO has funded the training of Village Health Committees, comprised of community volunteers, on nutrient-rich foods, gardening and livestock keeping, and good healthcare practices.
Follow our weekly commentaries to learn more about our collaboration with AIMPO.
For additional information, we suggest the following resources:
Lewis, J. (2000). ‘The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region.’ London, UK: Minority Rights Groups.
Ndahinda, F.M. (2011). ‘Twa Marginality and Indigenousness in Rwanda.’ Indigenousness in Africa: A Contested Legal Framework for Empowering Marginalized Communities. The Hague: T.M. Asser Press, Springer, 215-255.
Patterson, C. et. al (2017). Seasonal variation of food security among the Batwa of Kanungu, Uganda,’ Public Health Nutrition, 20 (1): p. 1-11.
Also see, ‘AIMPO’s Annual Report, 2017’ for more information on its staff and activities. Please feel welcome to contact AIMPO’s Executive Director, Mr. Richard Ntakirutiama, at email@example.com