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Ray of hope as Mount Elgon National Park frontier communities embrace conservation

The decades old battle between the frontier communities surrounding Mount Elgon National Park and Uganda Wildlife Authority has finally been put to rest after the two protagonists buried their differences to conserve the flora and fauna within and around the park.

The two sides have been conflicting since 1993 when the park boundaries were opened and locals who had live in the area for generations were forcefully evicted without compensation and left to wander in search of land for settlements.

For Chesaki Betty, a resident from Wanale in Mbale district, it was years of agony after they were told never to step in the park. She said for generations, they had been part of the land that was declared a national park and with that, evictions started and the situation became unbearable.

“My ancestry is from that place and when we were evicted, there was no compensation, and we lost our livelihoods. We looked at this park as an enemy together with the wildlife officials because if they got anyone in the park, they would either kill you or take you to jail, yet this was our ancestral home,” Chesaki said.

She however said for the last two years, the situation has improved because they were organized and started dialogue with the wildlife officials.

In 2020, Action for Development (ACFODE) launched a baseline survey that informed the need for dialogue between the frontier communities and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The report recommended that for conservation to succeed, there must be a deliberate effort to incorporate the communities into the management and conservation of the park.

The study was done by ACFODE in partnership with the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights (SFHR) and Uganda Wildlife Authority  under the project; “Promoting Equitable, Just, and Accountable Conservation in Mount Elgon Conservation areas,” that aims at advocating for the respect, protection, and fulfillment of rights of front-line communities living around Mount Elgon National Park.

ACFODE and Uganda Wildlife Authority pledged to work together to protect the rights of the people living near conservation areas around Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda particularly in the districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa, and Naminsidwa.

Chesaki said this paved way for both parties to come to a round table for them to talk and agree on a number of issues.

“We were sensitized on how to protect the natural resources. We also participated in tree planting and now we are at peace with the park officials. We are allowed to go the park on agreed days to pick dry fire wood and other medicinal leaves and roots from the park,” she said.

In October 2020 the Benet people achieved a landmark victory when the Uganda government issued a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which granted the Benet people regulated access to various resources within the park, including cultural sites and cattle grazing areas.

Unfortunately, a number of entities that have worked to defend the Bennet community say UWA rangers continued to ignore the MoU. Instead, they continued assaulting indigenous people who enter the park, refusing access to cultural sites, and detaining cattle grazing in the park’s moorlands.

Paul Makabai one of the victims of the evictions says for them, a new hope came when the ACFODE started engaging them, organizing dialogue between the locals and officials from Uganda Wildlife Authority.

“We were not sure what would happen, but here we are. We have finally learnt to live with the park authorities and the wildlife. Though some of the areas around the park still have some issues, slowly we are getting to live in harmony with the wildlife and we hope this good relationship continues to the end,” he says.

Happy Ainomugisha – Project Manager ACFODE sharing the project progress during the stakeholder review meeting at Skyz Hotel, Kampala

How the dialogue for peaceful resolution was conceived.

Happy Ainomugisha, the programmes manager at ACFODE says the programme started in January 2020 in the four districts of Mbale, Sironko, Namisindwa and Manafa, each represented by one Sub County. She says the project had partnerships with UWA, CSOs working in conservation areas, frontier communities, district leaders and other stakeholders.

According to her, they engaged several stakeholders, including the communities during the baseline surveys where they found out that the biggest issues were the question of the boundaries.

“In that baseline survey, there we found out that there was a lot of misconception between the two parties on their different roles and responsibilities. We also undertook a legal audit of conservation laws and policies because we needed to understand that Mount Elgon is protected and that there may be laws and guidelines on how to and when to access some of the resources. So we did audit of these laws to understand them as we embark on resolving the issues between the two parties,” she said.

She says based on the principle of do no harm, they trained 30 members from both the communities and UWA officials on human rights based approach to handling issues.

“We used the principle of do no harm, which emphasizes that while we are protecting the environment, we need to safeguard the rights of the indigenous communities. How do I execute my roles and responsibility without inflicting harm in community that are living nearby, and we also documented how reported cases can better be managed,” she said.

According to her, with increased awareness, the frontier communities have become appreciative of the national park and now see it as their own, which needs to be protected.

Bigala Rachael, a resident from Wanale and also a community lead person in Mbale district says the situation is finally normalising after years of bickering. She says for years, there was no peace because both sides saw each other as enemies that must be annihilated, but eventually now the situation has cooled.

“Before, the fights were there between the community members and UWA and when ACFODE came in to intervene, we realised that community never knew why UWA is in the park because they thought the land was for their ancestors and had complete control over it. They though they should use the land the way they want, not knowing that the national park is a protected area. So when ACFODE came in, they shared a lot of information which led to the mindset change and the community was able to appreciate the importance of the national park,” she says

Moses Magombe, a 54 years old resident and a team leader of community focal persons of Subaali village, Wanale Sub County in Mbale district says prior to the latest interventions, there were issues between UWA and the communities because each side was suspicious of the other, leading to constant conflicts.

“UWA was violating the human rights of the local communities and the communities were also violating the rights of the UWA officials and the ecosystem in the area. So officials of UWA were torturing the local population and the community members were not recognizing the park as their own, so this created a huge conflict between the two sides,” he says.

“After the training, we started sensitizing the communities and good enough the training included the top UWA officials and the local area staff were incorporated. We started a campaign of do no harm and with this we started witnessing behaviour change among the communities. The two sides also engaged in various dialogues and with that local communities were granted user rights to pick a few forest products like fire wood, medicinal plants and a few others on specific given days and this helped to improve relationship between the two sides,” Magombe adds.

He also says ACFODE taught the local communities the benefits of coexisting with nature and conservation which greatly helped in resolving the long standing disputes.

“With that kind of mindset change, we started seeing the park as our own and decided that we must protect it. We also felt that conserving the park will be more beneficial to us than destroying it, so we started planting trees and now we are doing well,” he says.

Ms Regina Bafaki, The Executive Director ACFODE discussing the impact of the project in the Mount Elgon Region during the National Stakeholder Forum

Ms Regina Bafaki, the Executive Director of ACFODE said through the project Promoting Equitable, Just and Accountable Conservation in the Mt Elgon the project registered improved linkages between frontline communities and Uganda Wildlife authorities, strengthened accountability among duty bearers and rights holders for promotion, protection of rights and remedy for human rights violations by 2021 and improved linkages between frontline communities and Uganda Wildlife authorities.

“Despite the disruptions by the COVID 19 and the electoral related activities and the project implemented for only two years, ACFODE was able to get a number of achievements in line with the intended result areas,” she said.

She said since the creation of Mount Elgon in 1993, there had  been numerous conflicts over land and forest resources between frontline communities and the Uganda Wildlife Authority – a body mandated by an Act of Parliament to protect and conserve the park.

She said the conflicts arose from the fact that while drawing the boundary of Mount Elgon National Park, the exercise was not honestly done as coordinates were not properly recorded in some areas with the most affected communities being in the districts of Mbale, Manafwa, Sironko, and Namisindwa in Eastern Uganda.

From 2021, it is evident that although the boundary issues have not been conclusively resolved, there is a slight change in the overall human rights situation for frontline communities whom ACFODE engaged through the project,” she said.

Bafaki said with the strategic engagements and capacity building mainly through the human right based approach and empowerment to conservation for duty bearers,  UWA officials in particular are now said to be more responsive  and their actions towards frontline communities are not confrontational but rather empowering which is a precursor for nurturing accountable relationships.

“Through media especially talk shows organized by ACFODE on local FMs there has been enhanced broad conversation on rights and responsibilities of frontline communities and state obligations towards promoting accountable and just conservation. The frontline community members and women’s voices have been heard regarding conservation and human rights unlike when the latter were excluded and yet they often susceptible to human rights violations due to their gender roles,” she said.

“There is improved access to natural resources in the reported areas due to the resource management guidelines. There is also improved working relationship between frontline communities and UWA. In all the project all sub counties, the community members are now permitted to enter the park, a situation that was not possible before ACFODE’s intervention. What is important is that community members are increasingly becoming accountable and protective of the park resources,” she added.

Currently, there are reported joint conservation efforts between the community and UWA in an effort to promote equitable, just and accountable conservation such as planting trees along the park boundary.

She however said despite the mentioned achievements, there are still challenges that require attention and strengthening. She said the two years project did not cover all the frontline communities and was disrupted by COVID -19 and 2021 general election activities.

“I would like to point out that Gender based violence (GBV) and other injustices against women and girls continue to be a concern in the communities. There is to need to create awareness on existing gender laws and provide information referral pathway and skills necessary for protection of women and girls who continue to face human rights abuses and discrimination resulting from the prevailing socio-cultural barriers,” Bafaki says.

“There is need to continue lobbying government and non-state actors for provision of adequate service delivery in frontline communities neigbouring Mt. Elgon Park. The lack of basic services aggravates violation of human rights since communities feel marginalized and discriminated. The core services that need urgent attention include health care, water and livelihoods,” she added.

She asked government and other actors to integrate youth skilling initiatives in future conservation and human rights programs, which would address the surging youth burden that provokes violent resource based conflicts. Alternative livelihood options for youth and women is vital for their economic empowerment and reduction of human rights violations.

There is need to deepen human rights education, gender dialogues/engagements and conservation awareness for all the frontline community members and UWA in the protected areas.

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