KAMPALA – A collection of grass-thatched huts with wooden walls, and a few mud-and-wattle structures form the internally displaced people’s camps on a rocky hill.
At a distance, the charred ruins of burned huts tell of long-running tensions in the area surrounding Mt Elgon, an area near Mt Elgon, where families who claim the area as ancestral land are pitted against the government, which declared it a national Park in 1993.
The local residents say park rangers and soldiers repeatedly attacked their homes, stole animals and uprooted crops to drive them from the area and that the harassment has continued to date.
Sitting on a rock in Namangisili village in Bumbo sub-county, Namisindwa district, Ms Maria Kakai, 37, clearly remembers the day in 1994, when a group of Uganda Wildlife Rangers stormed their homes near Mt. Elgon Park in Bumbo.
“This is not your home, you must leave, this is national park land, and you are encroachers on government land. You must leave now,” they ordered us before torching our houses in the village.
It is a humbling moment listening to the mother of five now recite how the Mt Elgon settlers were evicted from their cradle land, they [Bagisu/Bamasaba] consider being the embodiment of their founding father Masaba and referring to the mountain by this name.
This is a moment that leaves you torn between fighting to protect the environment and allowing people to resume their lives in Mt Elgon Park in the Name of Human Rights.
Kakai, a front line community member says that in 1994, the UWA and UPDF evicted more than 600 people [Bagisu/Bamasaba] from Mt Elgon National Park in the areas of Namisindwa and Manafwa district who have now turned into frontline communities of their own land.
It is very important to note that the designation of Mt Elgon into a National Park in 1993 was characterized with a number of changes including the change in management from the Forest Department to Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA], violent physical evictions and displacement of over 100,000 people from their homes, grazing lands and poorly planned resettlement of the communities.
Frontline communities say UWA park rangers and soldiers repeatedly attacked their homes, stole animals and uprooted crops to drive them from the area leaving many landless and homeless.
This is in line with the two recent baseline studies [The status of human rights in the frontline communities in the Mt. Elgon conservation area and Mapping and analysis of Conservation laws] that revealed that the people displaced from Mt Elgon National Park have continued to suffer from gross human rights violations at the hands of the UWA.
The Baseline study was carried out by ACTION FOR DEVELOPMENT (ACFODE), a national women’s rights organisation that advocates for the promotion of women, Girls rights and gender equality in Uganda and currently implements a project titled: Promotion of Equitable, just and Accountable conservation in the Mt. Elgon Conservation Area.
The main objectives of the study were: (1) to collect baseline data upon which to monitor change in the operational communities; (2) to obtain useful background information that will consequently inform planning and review project strategies and interventions; and (3) to develop from the project goal and risk matrix a detailed M&E framework for the project.
The baseline study report reveals that the people also have limited knowledge on human rights and that, as such; continue to be victims of unabated human rights violations from especially conservation authorities, including rape, torture and arrests.
The Baseline report adds that there is a high incidence of human rights violations and abuse, as reported by 70% of the participants in the household survey and that, the majority of members of the frontline communities have limited awareness of human rights because 58% reported not to be aware of their rights.
“The mechanisms for enforcement of their rights are not known to them and 54% of the frontline people felt that such mechanisms did not exist anywhere, there is no access to justice, no fair and effective processes where concerns can be raised, claims made and redress obtained after any human rights violations,” reads the report.
“People have been killed in the land conflicts in what the conservation authorities regard as trespass and the community members are oblivious of conservation laws, the benefits of conservation and how they can harmoniously get involved in guarding against any threats to the environment,” reads the report in part by ACFODE.
To further assess the level of vulnerability of frontline communities, variables like the nature of the house in terms of the walls and the source of lighting in homes were investigated, the reports reveal that 90% of the houses were mud-and-wattle, 2% were made of timber, while only 8% were made of stones and bricks.
The findings from the baseline survey indicate that in terms of the source of light they used in homes, 25% used solar power from personally bought small solar panels, 34% used lanterns, while the majority (42%) used wick lanterns (tadooba).
“Most of the villages surveyed were found to generally have poor living standards in terms of housing (poor), lack basic assets like radios, lack clean water, are predominantly
illiterate, and have crude sources of fuel and lighting. They mainly depended on agriculture for their subsistence and income and their roads were bad and impassable, which affected the transportation of their produce,” reads the report.
The report further adds that the frontline communities are also not allowed to use the better roads that go through the M Elgon National park apart from those who pay a toll.
While releasing the results of the baseline survey by ACFODE, Mr Ahmed Kibirege, the lead researcher said although the park generates money from tourism, revenue-sharing agreements are not clear and are not fulfilled in some communities, while in others; they have never made the members feel that they are part of a system that must co-exist
He added that community members do not participate in making decisions that relate to them, and have no trust in the available conflict resolution mechanisms as well as the justice system.
The report further says that the members of frontline communities still complain about the improperly drawn park boundaries and demand an amicable resolution to the problem.
The report explains how the community profiling drawn up (first section of the household survey tool) indicated that frontline communities were very poor and lacked basic amenities like clean water, medical care, schools, good roads among others.
According to the report, women and girls remain the most seriously affected category in these communities and that this is because men do not allow them much say and room for participation in community development work, which is evidenced by the prohibition by their husbands/fathers from participating in the interviews conducted during the survey and the feedback from those who were able to participate.
The report adds that the livelihood of the frontline communities was fragile as only 45% reported having access to a sustainable livelihood amidst the conservation measures and that this is exacerbated by limited access to their ancestral land for resources such as bamboo for food, firewood and herbs.
The report further reveals that the frontline communities when asked about the rights they felt were most violated; 135 respondents [63.1%] never attempted to answer the question while the rest [36.9%] pointed out land evictions and grabbing, lack of clean water, poor quality education, delayed and manipulated justice, denial of access to their ancestral land, illegal and false arrests, prohibition from being part of the decision making process.
The report names others to be lack of access to information; poor roads that impede the mobility of people and produce; poor health care services; denial of freedom of movement and access to resources in or close to the park; police intimidation; inadequate land for agriculture; confiscation of property; the right to vote; insecurity and theft of property and food.
The Baseline study report also adds that Forty-eight per cent [40%] of the respondents to the household survey indicated that there was an adversarial relationship between the members of the frontline communities and UWA operatives enforcing respect for the boundaries of the conservation area.
ACFODE survey report also launched the same day sub-titled Mapping and analysis of forestry conservation laws says the National legal framework that is enshrined with providing for the observance, protection and promotion of these rights is also curtailed with loopholes.
Ms. Jeanie Namugga, a lawyer while presenting the analysis report revealed that although Uganda is a signatory to many treaties like the international and Regional Human Rights Treaties, through its hand of UWA, it has not lived to these in respect of the frontline communities in Mt Elgon.
The data from the baseline survey done in October, 2020 is from a cross section of stakeholders from randomly sampled areas of the Mt. Elgon Conservation Region within the districts of Mbale (villages: Bushuyo Upper and Bufooto in Wanale sub-county), Sironko (villages: Kibaya, Namubaba and Talagami in Bugitimwa sub-county), Namisindwa (villages: Buwanzala, Chewoli, Namangisili and Tsekeloi in Bumbo sub-county) and Manafwa (villages: Nakistalala, Nalumansi in Butooto sub-county).
“The Government did not consider the historical boundaries of the frontline communities while drawing the boundary of the National Park and unfortunately, the benefits from the tourism sector has also not yielded much to the expectations of the frontline communities as earlier projected,”Ms Namugga, read the report in part..
The report reveals that indigenous and tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) that recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to land and their associated natural resources which also prohibits the removal of people from land except in exceptional measures and with free and informed consent was never respected by government.
The report says that although most of the rights stated above have been infringed on in the conservation of Park Authorities (Pas) in Mt Elgon National Park [MENP], the most violated human rights of front line communities include the right to participate in decision making, the right to property, right to access environmental information and the right to sustainable development and equitable benefit sharing.
“For this, the front line communities in Mount Elgon National Park have since faced with a number of human rights violations which include the right to property, right to a clean and healthy environment, right to culture, right to property, right to a livelihood, right to environmental information and the right to participate in decision makings.
The report recommends that the government and its hand of UWA should guarantee and ensure that in practice there is a safe and enabling environment for front line communities in protected areas.
And adds that in order to achieve this, the state should promote the rule of law and ensure that there is no impunity for violations committed against front line communities in protected areas.
The report recommends further that government needs to establish an independent institution for the protection of front line communities; in addition to the implementation of the specific law on the protection of front line communities and that the mandate of UWA should include the promotion and protection of the rights of front line communities in protected areas.
The baseline survey report also recommends that there should sensitization of national authorities (NEMA, UWA and National Forestry Authority) private businesses (tourism industries) and other non-state actors involved in the conservation of protected areas on the constitutional human rights obligations.
The reports recommend further that government/UWA involve the affected front line communities in decision making and management of the protected areas urging that public participation in the management of the protected areas encourages transparency and accountability.
Mr Chemonges Sabilla, the Director legal and corporate affairs said UWA has signed a lot of agreements with the frontline communities and that most of them have got some resources to start alternative work outside the National Park.
He said further that UWA has no restriction on collecting firewood, building and construction poles, mushrooms, honey, grass for thatching and mulching, medicinal plants and bamboo shoots which is a delicacy from the Park but has redesignated the park access to only Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“UWA saw the need to develop links between conservation of the Park and sustainable development of communities living around the Park, so we encouraged local communities to sign agreements with us to access the National Park for resources, we have done these and we have over 150 local agreements with frontline communities,” said Mr Sabilla who represented the Executive Director UWA at the launch of the Baseline survey at Protea Hotel.
He revealed that UWA rangers have also lived dangerously with Mt. Elgon frontline communities, poachers and settlers for close to four decades and that the protection of wildlife has become a life-threatening mission since poaching has become the fastest growing crimes in the national parks.
“We have lost many rangers to frontline communities, yes we agree among the UWA staff there are those bad ones who must be reported for the law to take its course but I want to say that UWA is mandated by government to protect the national resource, it is not there on its own,” added Mr Sabilla.
The Baseline report added that Forty-eight per cent [40%] of the respondents to the household survey indicated that there was an adversarial relationship between the members of the frontline communities and UWA operatives enforcing respect for the boundaries of the conservation area.
And significantly, the reports also established that the design of the proposed ACFODE intervention project was relevant in the light of the state obligations under the different international, regional and national legal and policy commitments, on the one hand, and the local context in the conservation areas of Namisindwa, Mbale, Sironko and Manafwa, on the other hand.
The Baseline report recommends further that based on the findings of the baseline study, there is need to raise the level of human rights awareness among the members of the frontline communities in the protected areas through human rights education and sensitisation, to develop, popularise and operationalise a referral pathway for the frontline communities in protected areas to access justice for the violations and abuses suffered.
The baseline survey report also recommends that there is need to empower the law enforcement officers to undertake rights-based policing of protected areas, offer legal assistance for the frontline communities in protected areas and lobby the government to support the community members living in the frontline communities to initiate sustainable livelihood projects. And that the local communities should be equipped with entrepreneurial and saving skills to enable them benefit optimally from any savings or revolving fund introduced for their empowerment.
The report says that for community conservation efforts to be successful, government authorities must be convinced that the local people can use resources sustainably and the local people need to be assured that government will protect their rights and interests.
The ACFODE reports also urges UWA to expedite the conclusion of access agreements with the affected communities in the protected areas, districts to develop and implement action plans for better public-private collaboration to improve farmers’ access to inputs, technical support and markets and that UWA should fully implement the collaborative resource use agreements and should ensure that the rights of the members of the frontline communities are respected.
The Baseline survey reports by AFCODE also recommends that government should consider restoring and managing buffer zones as an alternative resource utilisation zone as well as imposing an allowable resource use limit on the protected areas which would allow for a balance between conservation and livelihood
And that government should expeditiously resolves the outstanding legal dispute with members of the frontline communities in respect of protected area boundaries, especially the Namisindwa Landowners’ Association.