Forest People Return To Their Land ... As Tour Guides In 1991, the Batwa forest people of Uganda were evicted from their land to make way for gorilla conservation. Like other displaced Central African hunter-gatherers, when they lost their forest, they lost much of their identity. A new program is trying to help them earn money and reconnect with their roots.
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Forest People Return To Their Land ... As Tour Guides

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Forest People Return To Their Land ... As Tour Guides

Forest People Return To Their Land ... As Tour Guides

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's go next to Central Africa to check up on an endangered people. There are up to half a million of forest people - pygmies is a more controversial name for them - who inhabit a band of rainforest that stretches from Cameroon to Uganda. They are threatened by encroaching logging, national park evictions, racism and health problems that come with extreme poverty.

NPR's John Burnett traveled to Uganda to report on a new program to help one group of forest people - the Batwa - to stay connected with their traditions and survive a changing world.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The former kingdom of the Batwa forest people is now Mgahinga National Park in southwest Uganda. It's tiny at only 13 square miles, but dense with towering bamboo, braided vines, wild fruit, forest elephants, Cape buffalo, and poignant memories. For the Batwa can no longer live here, they can only visit.

STEVEN BARAHIRWA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Steven Barahirwa is the chief guide.

BARAHIRWA: (Through translator) I live an unhappy life compared to the way we used to live in the forest. Now I am a squatter on other peoples' land. I don't have property of my own, just a tiny thatch hut.

(Through translator) We work for other people. We carry sacks of potatoes on our heads from the fields to the market. The farmer allows us to scavenge food that's left behind. We also beg on the streets of Kisoro.

BURNETT: The Batwa were evicted from this forest in 1991, when Mgahinga and neighboring Bwindi National Parks were created to protect shrinking habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla. Like other hunter-gatherers of Central Africa who've been cast out of their jungle homes, when the Batwa lost their forest, they lost their identity.

That's the starting point for a novel tourism project that tries to re-engage Ugandan pygmies with their culture and earn them a few shillings for clothes, food and soap. For eighty dollars a person, bring your own lunch and raingear, you can trek with the tribesman deep into Mgahinga and encounter the lost world of the Batwa.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: Five Batwa men of small frame, dressed in goatskins, burst into ecstatic song when they reach a clearing that offers a view of a sacred mountain they call the Old Man's Teeth.

Over the course of four hours, they will lead two American journalists and two Ugandan college students into the Batwa's former forest lair. They will show which plants they use for hypertension, ulcers, and tapeworms. They will reveal the root they use as an aphrodisiac and the wild lavender used on the wedding bed.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: They will explain how they strip leathery bark off of thick lianas with which to weave baskets, how they turn sections of bamboo into canteens, and how they make fire.


BURNETT: They smoke bees out of tree hollows so that they can harvest the honey, which is so valuable to the Batwa they use it as a bride price.

BARAHIRWA: The Batwa Trail, now two years old, helps preserve and promote culture, and generates money for the community. Batwa guides and the musicians, who you'll hear in a minute, earn the equivalent of three dollars and a quarter on days when there are tourists. The rest of the money goes to a Batwa tribal trust and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The trail has helped conservation, says park manager Hamza Kaemonges.

HAMZA KAEMONGES: Most of that park was highly what - affected by poaching and lots of illegal activities.

BARAHIRWA: He says since the cultural hikes began, the Batwa don't sneak back into the forest as much as they used to, to poach animals for bush meat and cut trees for firewood. The park is talking with the Batwa to allow them in for occasional forays to harvest - bark for baskets, wild yams, honey and medicinal plants.

BURNETT: It all sounds good, but it's an incomplete solution. What the Batwa people need is land. During the eviction 21 years ago, two other tribes that farmed and raised cattle in Mgahinga received compensation, but the Batwa, who lived nomadically in the rainforest, got nothing. Again, chief guide Steven Barahirwa.

BARAHIRWA: (Through translator) We agree with the conservation goals of the park -protecting wildlife and preserving the watershed. That's why we don't go in for hunting anymore. But we must have compensation, because this used to be our home.

BURNETT: Advocacy groups, such as Forest Peoples Programme and Survival International, both British, say the only real answer is to allow people like the Batwa to return to national park land because their presence protects the forest from further encroachment.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority is adamant: no one lives in Mgahinga National Park.

The Batwa Trail ends inside Garama Cave - a low-ceilinged lava tube beneath the mountain, where the chief used to hold his councils, and where women and children hid during battle.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: A choir in the darkness. What they're singing, Steven the guide explains, is a song of sadness, about how the Batwa were driven from the forest, and how much they miss it.

When the trek is over, the Batwa guides and performers gather up their things and leave the national park where they were once masters. They walk down-mountain to the shantytown, where they are servants to other Ugandans, and where they will dream of a day when they may return to the forest.

John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

INSKEEP: has a photo gallery of the Batwa Trail.

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