Batwa are originally hunter-gatherers who lived in the forests of southwest Uganda. These pygmies are Indigenous Peoples of short stature who settled, lived and protected the Echuya and Mugahinga forests before the creation of national protected areas. In 2002, the Batwa were about 6,700 in number (according to the National Census). They originally lived in Echuya forest, which today is the Bwindi National Park, created mainly to protect the mountain gorillas found at the southwestern edge of Uganda.
The eviction of Batwa from their forest dwelling places was initiated by colonial administration in the early 1930s and was concluded in early 1990s when their home was declared a protected area and commissioned into a National Park. The Batwa were forced out to the fringes of the forest and nearby internal settlement camps in the districts of Kisoro, Kabale and Kanungu. Through this relocation process, the Batwa people lost their physical, ancestral, emotional and traditional attachment to their home in the thick equatorial forests.
Today, hundreds of the surviving Batwa Pygmies make their livelihood directly in the settlement camps. “We miss our ancestral land and life, but now as a community we are trying to cope with life here. We are learning how to farm fruits, potatoes, vegetables and beans. As a tradition, we keep bees for honey, which we eat or sell to neighboring areas, and collect firewood, both for little income and food,” explained Mr Elias Habyarimana, one of the Batwa pygmy leaders.
Due to low levels of formal education levels, the Batwa Pygmies can find it hard to find jobs. Many have ended up carrying heavy loads to the markets; others are paraded as tourist attractions. Some have now formed cultural dance troupes to entertain hotel guests.
Honey is the most important food and product for the Batwa, in addition to wild fruits and herbs. In the past the Batwa used to gather wild honey from caves, stones and large trees, as well as setting up locally made bee hives from bamboo and other materials like hollow tree trunks. Stingless bee honey was always considered a delicacy, as well as a medicine that makes people immune to several illnesses. This tradition is just one of the slowly disappearing cultures and activities of the Batwa in their new settlements.
The Batwa communities are still struggling to reintroduce the production of honey, despite the several challenges attached to the current way of life they are being forced to live. Groups of Batwa people together with other supportive partner organizations are working tirelessly to lobby the National Forestry Authority and the Uganda Wildlife Authority to periodically allow some communities to raise their traditional bee hives at the fringes of the forests and national parks. The old Batwa men also spend time teaching the children how to detect wild honey, as well as demonstrating the construction of traditional bee hives, while women mostly deal with collection of tubers and fruits as well as foraging.
Two of the Batwa pygmies will be one of the communities taking part in the Indigenous Terra Madre meeting taking place this November in India.