Cultural exchange: working with indigenous communities for conservation

The Albertine region in south-west Uganda hosts a great diversity of animal and plant species, including the famous mountain gorilla. The area is also home to the Batwa, a former hunter-gather people, who once lived in the forests of Bwindi, Semliki and Mgahinga. In the 1990s, however, these forests were designated as national parks, and as a result local communities were denied access to the forest and its resources. Unsurprisingly, this has caused conflicts between the communities living closest to the park and the park managers.

The rapid increase in the number of people in areas surrounding the parks – all of whom depend in some way on natural resources for their livelihoods – makes protection of the rather delicate ecosystem a daunting challenge.

From conflict to concord

Although much effort and a great deal of resources (both human and financial) have been invested, relationships between park management and neighbouring communities – especially the Batwa – continue to be antagonistic.

In order to understand the cultural connections between the Batwa and the forests, and how this could be tapped into to promote biodiversity conservation, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) conducted an assessment of Batwa cultural values and how these link the Batwa people to the forests.

A Mutwa elder savours a wild fruit. Credit: Pamela Wairagala/FFI.

A Mutwa elder savours a wild fruit during one of the forest expeditions. Credit: Pamela Wairagala/FFI.

The assessment took the form of discussions with Batwa elders who had lived in the forests before the eviction, as well as interviews with park managers and Batwa-guided forest walks. The walks were often punctuated by the Batwa with strong nostalgic emotions and breaks into thunderous songs and dances at particular sites, to celebrate their reunion with the forest – home of their ancestors.

Healing waters. Credit: Arthur Mugisha/FFI.

Batwa elders wash in a hot spring during a fact-finding mission in the forest. These springs are valued as a source of healing. Credit: Arthur Mugisha/FFI.

I learnt that to Batwa people, Bwindi, Mgahinga and Semliki are not just forests, but an embodiment of their spiritual and cultural identity.

Dressed in special forest gear made of leaves – which, they said, was in honour of the forest but also a way to be recognised by their ancestors – the elders demonstrated their immense wealth of knowledge on how to sustainably live within the bounty and limits of the forests, based on values and practices passed down generations over thousands of years.

I was amazed at how quickly and easily they moved through the forest, despite their advanced age. Armed with machetes, they cut through thickets to create trails, picked and shared a variety of wild fruits while dispensing information about a wide range of herbal medicines.

It was clear that their traditional practices and belief systems are still closely linked to the forest plants, animals and sacred sites which are of spiritual, aesthetic or material value.

Harnessing indigenous knowledge, values and practices

We know from experience that understanding and respecting the cultural values and practices of the communities we work with can help us to achieve our conservation goals.

We are therefore using the findings from our survey to improve policy formulation and reviews for a number of project sites to integrate Batwa cultural values into park management.

Opportunities to engage Batwa (for example as guides, using their indigenous knowledge) have been identified and access to some of the sacred sites has been successfully negotiated, with further negotiations yet to start.

The Batwa are excited that they can access the forests once more and regain that sense of identity, and will be working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and other partners to conserve and promote conservation-friendly elements of their culture are in the forest of Bwindi, Semliki and Mgahinga National Parks.

Batwa respondents show a Community Conservation Ranger a snare they discovered during the cultural values assessment process in Mgahinga. Credit: Fredrick Ssali.

The park management, on the other hand, is excited that people who were once considered their nemesis and perpetrators of illegal activities such as poaching are now partners in conservation, bringing a deeper understanding of the forest and its values.

If you would like to learn more, you can read an elaborate account of forest beliefs, practices, myths, taboos, totems and folklore as narrated by Batwa in our cultural values assessment report (PDF).