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International Law News

International Law News, Fall 2022

The Beleaguered Batwas: Conservation Refugees

Elizabeth Barad


  • Over the past fifty years, the lives of the Batwa, among the oldest surviving indigenous tribes in Africa, have changed irreparably because they were evicted from their habitats for purported conservation reasons.
  • The Batwas never had title to land they occupied and were given no compensation for their removal. They became conservation refugees in an unfamiliar, unforested world.
  • Despite the non-binding United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples and financial support from the UN Human Rights Office Slavery Fund, further steps must be taken to ameliorate the persecution inflicted on the Batwa in the name of conservation.
The Beleaguered Batwas: Conservation Refugees
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Dispossessed from their ancestral homes, the Batwa (pejoratively known as pygmies) suffer increased discrimination. They were evicted for alleged conservation purposes, i.e., to protect wildlife, primarily mountain gorillas, although the Batwa have coexisted with wildlife and gorillas for centuries.

The Batwas are among the oldest surviving indigenous tribes in Africa. Anthropologists estimate they have existed in equatorial forests for 60,000 years or more. They lived as hunter-gatherers, depending on their forest home not only for foods such as honey, sorghum and meat but also for medicinal herbs. They have a deep spiritual and religious connection to the forest and specific sites are revered and considered central for their existence.

But over the past fifty years, the lives of the Batwa have changed irreparably because they were evicted from their habitats for purported conservation reasons. The Batwa of the Great Lakes region of Central Africa live in Uganda, Rwanda, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC) and Burundi. They never had title to land they occupied and were given no compensation for their removal. They became conservation refugees in an unfamiliar, unforested world. It is now a social taboo to share food, occupy the same bench or socialize with Batwa people in public places. As their forested territories were destroyed, the Batwa became squatters on the edge of society lacking access to health services, clean water, proper shelter and food. Some were able to develop new means of survival as potters, dancers and entertainers. However, an estimated 80% of Batwa can only earn money from begging.

The plight of the evicted Batwa in the countries of Central Africa due to alleged conservation efforts is described below. They were estimated to consist of a population of 86,000 to 112,000 as of 2016..


The Batwa lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests of south-west Uganda for millennia. But in the 1990’s, they were evicted from the Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echyua forests to create wildlife parks, primarily for the protection of the mountain gorillas which tourists can now pay up to $1500 a day to visit. This expulsion was pursued by the Ugandan Government despite the fact that the original inhabitants and custodians of these forests—the Batwa—were not a threat to the forest, the gorillas or other endangered wildlife.

Jovanis Nyiragasigwa, a Batwa elder, said “We can live in harmony with the forest… and with the animals as our fathers, grandfathers and ancestors used to.” In 2011, a group of Batwa with support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) took the government to court over the evictions. The Constitutional Court in a landmark judgement ruled in their favor on August 19, 2021. The court stated that “No adequate compensation was paid to the Batwa by the Government for loss of their land, which left them unable to acquire alternate land…., and has rendered them landless, destitute people living as squatters…This has not only affected the Batwa’s livelihoods, but has also destroyed their self-esteem, and their identity as a people.” The Court remanded the case to a lower court to decide on compensation. But, to date there have been no reparations for the dispossessed Batwas, as verified by Agnes Kabajuni, the African Regional Manager of Minority Rights Group International. The Batwa have, however, formed the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda. Its aim is to support Batwa in southwest Uganda to address their land problems and help them develop sustainable alternative livelihoods.


The Batwa are known as Twa in Rwanda since the prefix “Ba” is only used to indicate ethnic origin. They were the first inhabitants of Rwanda, having settled there for centuries. But in the late 1980s all forest-dwelling Twa were evicted from the Volcanoes National Park to protect the gorillas, although Twa traditionally do not hunt gorillas, but live peacefully alongside them. Now the park is open for tourists who pay $1500 for a permit to visit the gorillas for an hour.

In 1998 the Rwandan government also removed the Twa from the Nyungwe forest reserve where they used to hunt for buffalo and elephants. It is now one of the biggest national parks for tourists, generating millions annually. The Twa were also evicted from the Gishwarti Forest which Wilderness Safari now manages as a tourist attraction. The former hunter-gatherers are now marginalized without access to health care, employment or education. Their suffering during the genocide in which a third of their population was killed has gone largely unrecognized. In 2004 the Justice Ministry refused to grant legal status to a Twa-rights NGO unless it stopped identifying the Twa as Rwanda’s first inhabitants.

My visit to a Twa community in Rwanda was not in any of the high-altitude forests where they used to live, but in a low-lying swamp area where they remain isolated from the general population, eking out a living, their homes having been denied them.

The Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC)

Most of the national parks in the DRC receive few tourists because of the ongoing violence and prevalence of armed groups. Many of the parks are only partially open. But the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, sometimes visited by tourists, is in the news because of the egregious persecution of the Batwa. They were forcibly expelled from their ancestral land in 1970 for to make way for an expanded national park which became a tourist attraction known for its gorillas. They were forced to live on the outskirts of the park as squatters in inhumane conditions. But in 2018 segments of Batwa communities, after four decades of broken promises of resettlement, reparations and justice, returned to the park as the only way to escape their unbearable conditions living outside. Their return was met with devastating violence by park authorities and the Congolese Army (the FARDC), as was documented in the report titled “To Purge the Forest by Force: Organized violence against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.”

Entire villages were burned to the ground; unarmed Batwa were killed, maimed and burned alive, their bodies mutilated; sometimes their appendages were taken as trophies. Women were subjected to group-rape by park guards and FARDC soldiers, several dying after the rapes, and Batwa children were intentionally burned alive in their homes. These attacks were state sponsored and funded by international backers who believed financing was for conservation purposes. These human rights violations were part of an institutional policy sanctioned by the park leadership and the FARDC. The report stated “The events detailed in this report have been made possible by a culture of impunity that devalues indigenous life…..designed to maintain an unpeopled wilderness, to be..enjoyed by foreign toursists….to the exclusion of the land’s original inhabitants.”


The Batwa in Burundi were evicted from their forest{s} 50 years ago so the government could establish national parks mainly for the protection of wildlife and mountain gorillas, although as stated, the Batwa do not harm wildlife. A large reason that the Batwa have no legal rights is that their births are not recorded in the country’s population register. Denied their traditional habitats, they had to adapt to a new society with unforeseen barriers. A Batwa man said it’s impossible to envision a future without their own land. He bemoaned this fact saying: “The public …treat us like dogs.”

However, Burundi is one of the few countries in Central Africa where the Batwa sees emerging hope. Three members in each of its two chambers currently represent this community in Parliament, i.e. six members as is stipulated in the Burundian Constitution. But this representation is not guaranteed in other sectors of national life, particularly the economy and public services such as health and education. Although Batwa representatives can express their opinions in a setting meant to enable change, they lack access to land, their children drop out of school due to lack of food, and they have almost no health care. Petronie, a Batwa mother of six says she has “no means to wear clean clothes or buy sufficient food. Like many Batwa, we are forced to rely on begging.”


The Batwas’ rights to their homes and livelihood have been eradicated because of their eviction from the forests. Their removal was for the alleged purpose of protecting wildlife, mainly mountain gorillas. In reality, the gorillas’ habitat has been a boon for governments to get tourists’ money from permits to observe the gorillas. Governments should ensure that their conservation efforts do not destroy the rights of indigenous peoples; they should incorporate the Batwa’s rights with these purported efforts. The discrimination experienced by the Batwa was eloquently expressed by a Mutwa (singular for Batwa) during a meeting in Kalonge, Kivu. “We are treated like animals. Our whole life has been distorted. We cannot even claim our rights before the courts. We do not have access to land; we cannot because we are {Batwa}”.

The Batwa are unable to enjoy most aspects of society: education, health care, justice and property-holding. They are probably the most vulnerable group in the Great Lakes Region. It is time to rethink conservation to take into account the human rights of indigenous populations such as the Batwa. To do this it will require committed government, international and popular support.


Despite the non-binding United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples (from which Burundi abstained) and financial support from the U.N. Human Rights Office Slavery Fund, further steps must be taken to ameliorate the persecution inflicted on the Batwa in the name of conservation. Following are my suggestions:


As no adequate compensation was paid to the Batwa people for their lost land, each Batwa so evicted should be paid a minimum of $5,000 USD.

Access to land, health care and education:

The Batwa should be returned to their ancestral lands if they wish. If impossible, they should be allowed an arable plot to cultivate food. Regardless of lacking birth certificates or official documentation, proper health care should be offered to the Batwa, and communities advised where free health protection is available. Access to education for Batwa children and mandated teaching of nondiscrimination in the schools should be ensured. Coordinated strategies are needed to address material requirements such as fees, uniforms and food. Employment-geared classes also should be provided.

Political Representation:

The Batwa should have political representation. Although this may not make them better off economically, culturally or socially, it will at a minimum allow them to express their opinions in a setting meant to enable change.

Government laws and policy:

Governments should adopt a formal policy and legal instruments to recognize and uphold individual and collective rights in accordance with the U.N. Declaration on Minority Rights and the Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention. These instruments mandate support for the Batwa to claim their human rights as citizens, including access to courts and legal representation.


Teachers and employers should be provided with training on the equal rights of Batwa people. Skill training and ‘know your rights’ clinics should also be afforded to the Batwa.