Batwa: bridging the conservation and culture divide
This week CTPH is recognizing International Mountain Day (December 11) and this year’s theme, “Mountain Cultures: Celebrating diversity and strengthening identity” with a story from the field about the Batwa people of Uganda.
The treetops of the rainforest meet the clouds before shrouding the mountains of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in mist. Through the dense, mountainous forests you can hear the calls of chimpanzees or see a puddle forming in the footprint left behind by the African elephant. If you are lucky, you will come face to face with the most famous inhabitant, the mountain gorilla of Bwindi.
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered primate with only an estimated 880 alive in the wild today and half of them are found in the mountain forests of Bwindi. Mountains are home to a diverse array of plants and animals—Bwindi is no exception boasting more than 120 mammal species, more than 350 bird species and one of the highest ranges of different types of trees in Uganda. For millennia the Batwa people resided in the mountain forests of Bwindi in harmony with their natural surroundings. It was only recently that the Batwa people were evicted their homes when Bwindi was declared a national park in 1991.
The Batwa—known commonly as pygmies—are the indigenous, forest-dwelling people of the Great Lakes Region in East Africa. They traditionally resided in small dwellings and caves subsisting on wild game, honey, fruits and vegetables. When Bwindi was established as a national park it enabled authorities to permanently remove the Batwa from their homes in the park. Today the Batwa are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of people in Uganda. They suffer from poor health and very few have jobs or own property. Furthermore, they are stigmatized by the Bwindi communities and face pervasive discrimination.
Recognizing the great need to protect the Batwa people and their culture, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) introduced the Village Health and Conservation Team (VHCT) and Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) model to the Batwa in southwestern Uganda. Our goal was to improve Batwa health and sanitation, introduce income-generating projects to break the cycle of poverty in the communities and enable them to fully participate in conservation activities in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We trained 14 Batwa VHCTs in Kanungu and Kisoro Districts in Uganda. The communities now have improved sanitation through building pit latrines and have reduced scabies disease incidence, furthermore the Kayonza Health Centre III trained the Batwa VHCTs on detecting signs and symptoms of tuberculosis. Through the trainings the Batwa VHCTs gained a better understanding of how their health is inextricably linked to the health of their surrounding environment. The communities were eager to work more closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) on park conservation, as the park is an important part of their cultural heritage.
CTPH recognizes that protecting mountain habitats requires a holistic and participatory approach and this is why it is necessary that the Batwa continue to be partners with UWA on protecting and preserving the park. The Batwa people and their cultural heritage are an important piece in the rich and complex tapestry that is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.