Community in Rwanda identified as “historically marginalised”, but previously called “Batwa” want to go back to the life they live for centuries; the forest.
At a gathering in Kigali, their representatives are meeting to prepare for the inaugural Africa Protected Areas Congress convened convened by the Government of Rwanda, UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), due to take place July 18-23.
Delegates representing indigenous communities from 20 African countries have already arrived for preparatory sessions. Other delegates include Batwa and Benet communities of Uganda, the Ogiek of Mau and Mt Elgon, Aweer of coastal Kenya, Sengwer of Embobut (Kenya), Maasai of Simanjiro in Tanzania and Yaaku of Laikipia (Kenya).
In Rwanda, there is a community which became known as “Batwa” as a result of the ethnicisation of people living in Rwanda during the colonial period. They have a distinct small and short stature. They also lived by hunting in forests and doing pottery.
Few went to school. The political class kept the community away from meaningful economic activity, which left nearly all in abject poverty.
Following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, ethnic identifications were outlawed by the new administration. The word “Batwa” was removed from the national vocabulary, replaced with “historically marginalised Community”.
Various government initiatives have been put in place to change the lives of this community including free housing, land for cultivation, and mandatory schooling.
In both Houses of Parliament, there are lawmakers who are there as part of the community’s redevelopment agenda.
The forests where the ‘Batwa’ roamed freely are out of bounds due to the government’s strict environment conservation programs.
COPORWA, their umbrella association, released findings last year which showed that they were 36,000 in total across Rwanda, from a population of about 13m.
In 2018, a Senate Committee report found that some districts had diverted government funding meant for this community’s welfare, to other things. It had led to many still living in poverty and illiteracy.
But 28 years later, it appears the community would rather be let to live their former livelihoods.
Speaking this Thursday on the sidelines of ongoing preparation for the conference of African indigenous communities, the Rwandans want their concerns adopted on the final recommendations.
They want government to allow them to go back to the forests, and instead initiate programs that will help them survive without impacting on conservation schemes.
The head of Hope for Communty Development Organisation, Niyomugabo Ildephonse, which has been campaigning for the rights of the community, said they don’t have land rights.
Speaking to journalists, Ildephonse said the community supports government’s conservation schemes that protect forests from encroachment but that their rights also need to be safeguarded as people who lived in forests.
Ildephonse cited the case of the Masai in Kenya and Batwa in Cameroon whom he said still successfully live the life they had centuries ago.
“For us in Rwanda and Burundi, our livelihoods have been changed completely from our original way of life,” he said.
The IUCN congress is intended to further enhance the status of conservation in Africa by engaging governments, the private sector, civil society, indigenous peoples and local communities, academia to shape Africa’s Protected and Conserved Areas Agenda to better deliver benefits for people and nature.
Other indigenous communities from Kenya and other countries are also pushing for similar rights. They are working on a new model which they say protects environment using indigenous knowledge.