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Batwa welcome Constitutional Court verdict on compensation

Echuya Batwa, commonly known as pygmies, are an endangered group of people around Echuya Forest Reserve in Kisoro and Kabale Districts of South-Western Uganda (PHOTO /Courtesy)

Echuya Batwa, commonly known as pygmies, are an endangered group of people around Echuya Forest Reserve in Kisoro and Kabale Districts of South-Western Uganda (PHOTO /Courtesy)

KAMPALA — The United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda(UOBDU) an NGO together with 11 others represented by Onyango Owor from Onyango & Company Advocates have welcomed a recent landmark judgment of constitutional court, directing a lower court to determine appropriate compensation for the Batwa community for their irregular eviction from ancestral lands in the southwest of the country.

The constitutional court determined that between the 1930s and 1990s, Batwa were, without prior consent, evicted by government authorities from their ancestral lands in Kabale, Kanungu and Kisoro districts to free land for wildlife and forest conservation.

These areas have now been turned into the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Echuya Central Forest Reserve.

“We can live in harmony with the forest, as our fathers, grandfathers and ancestors used to,” said Jovanis Nyiragasigwa, a Batwa elder and one of the petitioners in the case. “We would share [the forest] with the animals as our parents did,” she said.

Dr. Helga Rainer, an expert on environmental conservation and policy with a focus on great ape conservation, gave expert testimony in the case.

“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,” she said.

Finding in favour of the Batwa and ordering the Government to pay the Petitioners’ legal costs, the Constitutional Court tasked the High Court with determining the “measures needed to be taken in favour of the Batwa people to ameliorate the appalling situation in which they find themselves” on the basis that:

“No adequate compensation was paid to the Batwa people by the Government for loss of their land, which left the Batwa unable to acquire alternative land for settlement, and has rendered them landless, destitute people living as squatters on land adjoining the relevant protected areas. This has not only affected the Batwa’s livelihoods but has also destroyed their self-esteem, and their identity as a people.”

In 2013, the United Organisation for the Batwa Development and eleven individuals petitioned court on the plight of the Batwa.

‘As a result and pursuant to Article 32(1) of the Constitution, it is necessary that appropriate affirmative action measures be taken in favour of the Batwa to ameliorate the appalling situation in which they find themselves in,’ Elizabeth Musoke noted in the lead judgment.

Batwa people are a historically marginalised indigenous community in Uganda. Their eviction from ancestral lands has relegated them to the fringes of society in many parts of southwestern Uganda.

The community faces discrimination and exploitation from larger ethnic groups they live amongst. Batwa, often treated as an afterthought in public policy and decision making, also face significant challenges in accessing public goods and services.

A recent study found that they struggle to access equal and quality education and healthcare.

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,” he said.

“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,” said Dusabe.

Uganda Wildlife Authority appeal notice

Activists have, however, expressed dissatisfaction over the decision by the UWA to appeal against the Constitutional Court — saying seeking to overturn the court ruling is threatening the Batwa.

Speaking in light of the notice of appeal received by his office in Kampala, the lawyer for the Petitioners, Onyango Owor, stated:

“While disappointed at UWA’s decision to appeal the judgment we are confident that the Batwa’s Constitutional rights will prevail. While we were happy that the decision of the Constitutional Court was in our favour, it has always been the Petitioners’ hope that the 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. We would appeal to the Government to see that a win-win solution is still within its grasp, which would save valuable time, costs, and avoid further suffering”.

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