By Chris Lang
A new report by Amnesty International documents a series of forced evictions of the Indigenous Benet people from their ancestral lands in Mount Elgon, Uganda.
The National Forest Authority first evicted the Benet in 1983. At that time Mount Elgon was a forest reserve. In 1993, the Ugandan government declared Mount Elgon a national park. More evictions followed, at the hand of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
In 2008, the Uganda Wildlife Authority forcefully evicted about 200 Benet families. The Uganda Wildlife Authority claimed the Benet were living inside the national park despite the fact that the government had allocated the land to them after previous evictions.
13 years in limbo
Well over a decade later, the Benet are still facing impacts from the evictions and are still at risk of violence at the hands of forest rangers.
Amnesty International’s report is titled “13 Years in Limbo: Forced Evictions of the Benet in the Name of Conservation”. The report is based on interviews with 61 of the Benet who were evicted. Amnesty International documents the impacts of forced evictions in the name of conservation, including their right to health, adequate housing, and education.
In a press release, Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, said,
“Not only were the Benet violently evicted from the forest and robbed of their ancestral home but today, 13 years later, they are still living in temporary settlements made of flimsy huts of mud and stick, deprived of essential services such as clean drinking water and electricity and cut off from healthcare and education.”
The Benet accuse the Uganda Wildlife Authority of killings, unlawful use of force and firearms, including shootings, beatings, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Amnesty International points out that this includes crimes under international law.
In 2006, I co-wrote a report for World Rainforest Movement about a tree planting offset project in the Mount Elgon National Park. The project was set up by a Dutch organisation called the FACE Foundation (since renamed as Face the Future). Villagers living near the park border told of a series of forced evictions and brutal treatment at the hands of UWA’s rangers
Uganda supports 30×30
Amnesty International’s report about the treatment of the Indigenous Benet is a warning about the serious problems of fortress conservation. It is particularly timely given the proposal to protect 30% of earth by 2030 (30×30), which is included in the draft global biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD).
In September 2019, Uganda’s then-prime minister Ruhakana Rugunda announced at the United Nations that Uganda supported the 30×30 proposal:
“Uganda is supporting a proposal at next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity that takes bold steps to create a sustainable planet, including protecting at least 30 percent of our lands and generating significantly more funding from governments and the private sector to protect the nature on which our lives and our economies depend.”
The CBD negotiations have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 30×30 proposal will be discussed as part of the post 2020-global biodiversity framework at the next CBD conference in Kunming from 25 April to 8 May 2022. The CBD has set up an open-ended Intersessional Working Group to handle the negotiations to develop the global biodiversity framework. One of the two co-chairs is Francis Ogwal of Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority.
Uganda’s terrible record of forced evictions
The Benet people are not the only community that has been forcibly evicted in Uganda. These evictions have taken place in the name of conservation and the climate crisis, as well as a result of land tenure disputes. They include the following:
- In May 2018, Ugandan soldiers and rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority evicted communities in the Apaa area in northern Uganda. They burned more than 250 homes, looted property, and attacked community members. The Uganda Wildlife Authority claimed that they had settled in a wildlife reserve.
- A 2014 report by the Oakland Institute documented that somewhere between 8,000 and 40,000 people “face profound disruptions to their livelihoods, including many experiencing forced evictions”. The evictions were to make way for industrial tree plantations in the Bukaleba and Kachung Forest Reserves run by a Norwegian company called Green Resources.
- A 2011 report by Oxfam International documented how more than 22,000 people were evicted to make way for a carbon offset tree plantation established by a UK-based firm called New Forests Company. The evictions were brutally violent. Houses were burned down. People were beaten, and an 8-year-old child was burned to death.
- Between the 1930s and the 1990s, government authorities evicted the Indigenous Batwa people from their ancestral land in Mgahinga forest without prior consent or compensation. The land is now the Echuya Central Forest Reserve, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. In August 2021, Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruled that UWA had illegally evicted the Batwa. The court ruled that “it is necessary that appropriate affirmative action measures be taken in favour of the Batwa to ameliorate the appalling situation in which they find themselves”.
Indigenous Peoples’ rights and 30×30
Proponents of 30×30 argue that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are “essential partners” in the 30×30 proposal. And the draft text of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework mentions the importance of “the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities”.
But the draft text does not even mention safeguards. And it does not refer to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Jonathan Mazower of Survival International recently told China Dialogue that,
“These rights are never properly acknowledged. No country in the world properly recognises them. In many countries, such as Brazil, the whole system of indigenous rights built up over recent decades is under concerted attack. To think that governments will suddenly make a 180 degree turn from the status quo and finally recognise these rights is naive to put it mildly. It’s far more likely that the 30×30 narrative will be used to increase protected areas, most of which exclude human activity or presence.”