The Politics of Land Access, Conservation, and Education: Competing visions of development among the Batwa of Uganda
Southwestern Uganda has a large area of forest land occupied with national parks and game reserves such as Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP - 48 Km2), Echuya Forest Reserve (ERF) and Bwindi impenetrable National Park (BINP) - the largest natural forest covering 331 Km2; with a vast wealth of 330 birds and 120 animal species. The vast flora and fauna incited the conservationists to gazette MGNP and BINP claiming that there was illegal logging, and poaching of wild life. This became a threat to the survival of indigenous communities (ICs). The Batwa are ICs living around the great lakes of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, and were hunter – gatherers and forest dwellers originally. The Batwa of Uganda were evicted from the forests by 1991 so as to boost gorilla tourism seen as Uganda’s top tourism attraction. This was financially supported by donors such as the World Bank with ‘US $4.3 million in 1991, and further by USAID with US$ 900,000 from 1995 to 1997.
Consequently, the Batwa were evicted from the forest without informed consent or compensation which violated their traditional land ownership right and has partly shaped their present predicament. Attention is focused on the strains between practices and debates of the development actors among the Batwa because this is key in understanding how their paradigms, ideas and power politics have affected them and how their capabilities can be enhanced to access land since it is the foremost vision of development among them.
However, Batwa’s vision of development has been challenged due to the fact that land is commonly associated with non-Batwa settled agricultural societies with a customary land claim albeit claiming land by such means would require the Batwa to re-invent their identity and history yet there are minimum prospects of doing that. Batwa’s vision neither fits the government standard process of land allocation to enable the Batwa to (re)gain access to their ancestral (forest) land; nor does it fit into the general stereotype of Batwa’s access to agricultural land outside of the forest. On the one hand, the government does not support the Batwa to become legal land owners and settled agriculturalists. On the other hand, the NGOs focus on more technocratic - palliative solutions by making less politically contentious interventions since access to land is more political, yet they claim to possess less authority over settling land issues of the Batwa.
Whereas conservation was believed to promote tourism and environmental sustainability through effective integration of Batwa into wildlife programs (such as making them tourist guides); education is believed to be a strategic area for long-term investment and a more individualized notion of development through access to formal employment albeit with an implicit civilizing agenda. But much as conservation and education are important, they do not totally address key structural problems and core needs of the Batwa.
In this case, continuous research to enhance Batwa’s capabilities through public discussions is important in operationalizing the web of development interventions in which the Batwa are caught. This influences what Batwa are “able to do and be, while considering the quality of their lives, and removing the obstacles in their lives so that they have more freedom to live the kind of life that upon reflection, they have reason to value”. As a result, it reduces the clashes in ideologies and practices between the Batwa and the state, NGOs, and of other indigenous communities in Uganda who stereotype them in many ways.
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