The Indigenous Benet; could they still help conserve Mt Elgon habitat

What the environment looks like today among the modern Benet in Kween district

What the environment looks like today among the modern Benet in Kween district

Growing up in Mt Elgon forests in Kween district, Moses Muwanga, a Benet, deeply respects wild animals, Birds, and the flora- and fauna-rich land.

He says for millions of years, the Benet indigenous people lived sustainably with the environment; the trees remained green, the plants blossomed and the earth cherished all forms of life that existed on it.

According to Muwanga the environment at Mt Elgon hinged on indigenous ways of life recognised as a sustainable means to protect the environment.

Mt Elgon forest now a National Park spans an area of 1110 Square kilometers and is home to 300 species of animals, birds, and vegetation, many of which are endangered.

Like other Benet, Muwanga says the forest acts like a natural pharmacy, producing plants with medicinal properties that can treat everything from wounds to snake bites adding that they too respect vegetation.

“There are trees that we could never cut down because they represented certain things in life for example Mukokora-Gutugutu for treating Mumps-there are trees that once cut would lead to clan separation, then there are those that made our totems, we have trees you don’t look at like Mukanya-Hard trees, that is what made us protect them,” said Muwanga.

He adds “-You would never cut a tree until another one was planted and birds like-Naginzole, was never killed because it gave signs of rains coming,”

He explained that according to Bent/Ndorobo tradition, even when grazing, you would graze shifting from one place to another [to allow grass to regenerate], no single time would you graze the grass until the ground is seen, here the animals would die, it was a taboo.

“Forests were protected because they offered places where the dead lived, so you were not supposed to cut down a forest, it was a taboo,’’ Muwanga said further.

He adds that a Benet would only enter the Mt Elgon park for honey, fruits, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots harvesting and would later use the bamboo shoots for making baskets for exchange to get food [Barter trade], We never hurt our habitat, we never destroyed it because we were not farmers and we lived in caves, added Mr Muwanga.

But unfortunately, when one talks about Benet today, many people will straight away think about backward forest dwellers, illegal and primitive human beings.

Benet also known as Ndorobo, is an indigenous tribe that has lived in the Mt Elgon Moorland [Now a National Park] for the last over 200 years.

The 1995 Constitution offers no express protection for indigenous peoples, but Article 32 places a mandatory duty on the state to take affirmative action in favour of groups that have been historically disadvantaged and discriminated against.

-The Land Act of 1998 and the National Environment Statute of 1995 protect customary interests in land and traditional uses of forests.

Chestina Chelimo, an old woman found sowing her baskets said: “Among us, the Benet, nature speaks to us. We have learnt how to live sustainably with nature; we conserved it because it meant so much to us, it was wildlife habitat.”

“The birds would announce the rainy season is coming and everything will be fine. We could even look at the intestines of slaughtered animals to see if a great drought was coming, this was the traditional knowledge that never deceived us,” added Chelimo.

Among the Benet, when land is owned, managed, or occupied in a traditional way, the word “traditional” refers to knowledge that stems from centuries-old observation and interaction with nature.

And for many years, the Benet like other indigenous communities have been caretakers of the environment at Mt Elgon, protecting the land, respecting wildlife and utilizing traditional knowledge passed down through generations.

A Benet woman Chestina Chelimo sits outside her hurt after weaving a basket.

Mr Fredrick Kizza, the Mt Elgon conservation Area Manager says he wants the public to reflect on the importance of forest-based livelihoods to promote forest and forest wildlife management models and practices that accommodate both human well-being and the long-term conservation of forests, forest-dwelling species of wild fauna and flora and the ecosystems they sustain.

He explained that there was a need to promote the value of traditional practices and knowledge that contribute to establishing a more sustainable relationship with these crucial natural systems around Mt Elgon.

“Forests and woodlands play an important environmental role and provide essential services for people, they sustain the resources so many communities rely on for their livelihoods, as well as the broader food security, climate regulation, and economic stability for the entire world,” said Mr Kizza.

Ms Sara Bisikwa, the senior natural resources officer for Manafwa district says forests, forest species, and the livelihoods that depend on them currently find themselves at the crossroads of multiple planetary crises we currently face, from climate change, and deforestation to biodiversity loss and health.

Such centres are key for sustaining people on the planet, which is why we need to ensure that many of these sites are protected from increasing threats.

She said the Benet/Ndorobo indigenous community today continues to safeguard some of the most biodiversity areas on the Mt Elgon in a traditional way.

She adds that among the Benet, this knowledge is often embedded in a cosmology that reveres the one-ness of life, considers nature as sacred and acknowledges humanity as a part of it.

“And it encompasses practical ways to ensure the balance of the environment and the habitat in which they live, so it may continue to provide services such as water, fertile soil, food, shelter and medicines, said Ms Bisikwa.

According to, almost 50% of the world’s land mass (minus Antarctica) is occupied, owned or managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities, with roughly 40% of those landscapes labeled as protected or ecologically sound.

And that although Indigenous peoples comprise only around 6% of the global population, they protect 80% of the biodiversity in the world which is key to turning around the climate crisis, as these areas are major carbon sinks.

“So we need to appreciate that climate depends on the survival of our cultures and our habitats we live in.” said Mr Kizza.

While the Benet/Ndorobo, Indigenous communities continue to step up for the preservation of nature, they can’t do it alone. “We must all be in this together. And we want the world to recognise the role being played by indigenous people by living sustainably with the environment,” says Muwanga.

“This isn’t about Indigenous peoples fighting to protect mother earth and risking lives to protect the land. This is about us all joining together across cultures, races and classes to change the way we work in conserving our land and everything that lives in it.”

The IPCC Assessment (AR4, published in 2007) noted that indigenous knowledge is “an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change”.

Benet women weaving baskets for thier economic sustainance but also for cultural festivals. David Mafabi
Benet women weaving baskets for thier economic sustainance but also for cultural festivals. (IMAGE: David Mafabi | theKR Media)

This was reaffirmed at the 32nd Session of the IPCC in 2010: “Indigenous or traditional knowledge may prove useful for understanding the potential of certain adaptation strategies that are cost-effective, participatory and sustainable”.

Mr Bob Natifu, the acting Commissioner, Minister of Water and Environment says

Indigenous knowledge thus makes an important contribution to climate change policy and Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate action; by observing changing climates, adapting to impacts, and contributing to global mitigation efforts.

He revealed that indigenous groups like the Benet are often better placed than scientists to provide information on local biodiversity and environmental change, and are important contributors to the governance of biodiversity at local and global levels.

“Indigenous knowledge like that of the Benet is the basis for local level decision-making in food security, human and animal health, education, and other vital economic and social activities and this knowledgege would be integrated in modern science knowledgege in the successful fight against climate change, said Mr Natifu.

Ms Rhoda Nyaribi, Mbale City environment officer says the very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation

She added that with the collective knowledge of the land, sky, and sea, the Indigenous people are excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment.

She explained further that, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions that sustain resilience of social-ecological systems at the interconnected local, regional and world scales.

Some artfacts of the Benet made from Bamboo shoots
Some artfacts of the Benet made from Bamboo shoots

Dr James Watuwa CEO EWCO [Endangered Wildlife Conservation Organisation] a Ugandan Wildlife Veterinarian and conservationist says communities are the true owners of nature and play a fundamental role in the conservation of biological diversity and the protection of forests and other natural resources; their traditional knowledge on climate variability can also enrich substantively scientific knowledge and adaptation activities of others.

He revealed that the frontline communities like the Benet have instead damaged the environment and continue doing so without reason and adds that like UWA anybody who advises them on the importance of conserving the Park for future generations is an enemy.

He said modern Benet has even not conserved their own environment in the communities and because they have adapted to cultivation and building modern shelters for themselves, trees have been cut, vegetation cover is grazed, the land is bare, and former wetlands are all gone.

Reports from UWA indicate that the encroachment and farming in the park has caused severe environmental degradation and affected the livelihoods of communities in Mt Elgon and killed the habitat for all living organisms.

A habitat is an environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time to find a mate. The habitat contains all an animal needs to survive such as food and shelter – forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, polar regions, and aquatic habitats.

Habitat is important because a species or a group of organisms including animals, birds, and plants depend on their habitat for their air, food, water, shelter, and all other essential requirements for their survival. Hence, organisms slowly adapt to their habitats to survive.

“Many trees have died, and animals and other ground organisms have lost their habitat – some species might disappear from the area entirely. This could also be a disaster to man because insects like bees that pollinate will die and there will be no food for us,” said Mr Kizza.

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