The Batwa of South West Uganda The Broad Situation of Central African Forest People

The Batwa of South West Uganda The Broad Situation of Central African Forest People

The Batwa of south west Uganda number only a few thousand people and are one of the hunter-gatherer and ex-hunter-gatherer peoples collectively known as the forest peoples (or ‘Pygmies’) of the Central African rainforests. The situation of the different forest peoples who live throughout Central Africa varies tremendously, and they probably collectively number between 250,000 and 300,000 people [1] .

Forest peoples tend to suffer severe discrimination at the hands of their farming neighbours and others; but they also to a greater or lesser extent, manage to maintain a resilient egalitarian social system. Severe discrimination is most evident for those groups, such as the Batwa of south west Uganda, who no longer have access to their forest resource base, but it is also a powerful enduring theme, and often a dominant one, for forest-based groups in relationship to neighbouring farmers.

The three largest groups of forest peoples who still, to a great extent, retain their forest resource base are: the Mbuti (and Efe) of the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Baka of south eastern Cameroon and north western Congo Brazzaville, and the Aka (and Mbendjelle) of northern Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic. For many of these groups the forest continues to provide them with an independent resource base, and it also provides the context for the beliefs and experiences which underpin an economy of sharing and a political system which is essentially fluid and egalitarian. In these contexts, forestpeoples are, to varying degrees, able to exert some or great autonomy in determining the nature of their interaction with their farming neighbours and with the more recent incomers to the forest.

The recent political upheavals and civil war in the region has had an especially severe impact on the Batwa of Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern DR Congo; and has accelerated the ongoing marginalisation of these groups who are mostly former rather than present-day hunter-gatherers. The ongoing logging in south west Cameroon and the construction of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline may have a similarly devastating impact on the Bakola there.

For many of the Batwa of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo, their resource base has either been destroyed or denied them, through deforestation, through the control exerted over them by neighbouring farmers, or more recently through conservation projects restricting or denying their access to the forest. As a result, groups such as the Batwa of south west Uganda have been reduced to virtual serfdom and poverty. Both the infrastructure for logging concessions and other agents of deforestation in the western part of the Congo Basin, and the financial backing for conservation projects throughout the Congo Basin, have often been funded or supported by the World Bank (for example through the Global Environment Facility) and other international agencies. Where Central African governments tend to see such Forest Peoples as needing to be sedentarised – both for tax and control purposes, and in order to ensure that the rest of the country is not stigmatised as backward by association with such people – the actual work of sedentarisation is often carried out by Western/Northern NGOs and missionaries, and indirectly facilitated by the destruction or protection of the forest.

Throughout the Congo Basin region, farmers have historically had an ambivalent attitude towards these hunter-gatherers: sometimes viewing them as slaves and barely human, and sometimes as equals or even as the original civilising beings. Where, in the past, these hunter-gatherers have been crucial to farmers, enabling them to benefit from forest produce, protecting them from forest spirits, and ritually ensuring the fertility of their fields, today in many parts of Central Africa, including south west Uganda, the forests have dwindled in importance and as a result hunter-gatherers and ex-hunter-gatherers such as the Batwa have become marginalised and severely discriminated against. Where their universally acknowledged status as the original inhabitants of the forest and the region once served to underwrite their autonomous forest life and their ability to relate to others as equals, that status is often now seen as a symbol of their backwardness. Any prior rights to resources which they may have had have been over-ridden, first by colonial and then by national governments who ignore their traditional systems of land ownership.


[1] See the recent research into the situation of the Batwa in eastern DRC (Barume & Jackson: 2000), and of the Batwa throughout the Great Lakes region (Lewis: 2000). See also a recent survey of different forest peoples' situations throughout Central Africa (Luling & Kenrick: 1998).