Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Dark Side of Ecotourism: The Batwa of Uganda

Mount Muhabura, credit: T. Trenchard
Uganda can now boast of a thriving tourism industry as animal lovers from all over the world flock to the Virunga volcanoes [photo] to catch a glimpse of the iconic mountain gorillas that live there.  The trade amounts to $34 million a year, no small change in a country still recovering from the effects of a devastating genocide and the insanity of Idi Amin.  Of the $800 a foreign tourist pays for the privilege of trekking to the gorillas' home forest, only $8 of that goes to local development, but nothing directly to the Batwa, the famous "pygmy" tribe of the central African rainforest.  An elder interviewed by the BBC said he thinks the Ugandan government cares more about the gorillas than helping his displaced people, forced to abandon their traditional forest homes to make space for the gorillas.  Gorillas, since they are intelligent primates, are extremely sensitive to man's presence, and Uganda wildlife authorities says the Batwa's eviction two decades ago has resulted in increased gorilla population.  Although the Batwa did not hunt the gorillas, their snares and traps posed a danger.

a Batwa hut on the volcanic plains, credit: A. D'Unienville
To the Batwa, first evicted by British colonial authorities from forest reserves they established, the forest is everything.  It provided them with plentiful and various foods--meat, honey, fruits--skins to keep them warm in the cold, rainy climate, and medicines to treat their illnesses and wounds.  The spirits of their ancestors protected them in their forest homes.  That culture has disappeared.

Batwa child lives in squalor, credit A. D'Unienville
The Batwa were moved out without compensation to cleared lands and villages where they feel completely lost.  As hunter-gatherers in a rich ecosystem, Batwas know little about cultivation or stock herding.  They have a deep desire to return to their ancestral forest home.  A UN aid worker says their cultural disruption, has made them completely dependent on the state for aid.  The three to seven thousand remaining Batwa live in abject poverty and their child mortality rate is very high.  Some try to scrape a living from agricultural labor which is poorly paid; others attempt to live off the booming tourist trade by dressing in fake skins and dancing for tourists.  It is a demeaning spectacle that has very little authentic content.  This story line is a familiar path trod by animal species marginalized by man' greed, but now it his happening to his own in Uganda.  The Batwa, their homes taken away for a good purpose, deserve help from their government and they should get it.