By Alex Gahima
The Batwa, an indigenous group of people that formerly lived in Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuya forests have long been the ‘thorn in the flesh’ of Government due to their unwillingness to conform and positively contribute to the development of the Country.
Several attempts by the Government to support the former forest dwellers to work and live alongside other tribes and groups of people have been met with obstinacy.
The year, 2023 marks 33 years since the Batwa were evicted from the forests by for conservation and ecological purposes, primarily for the protection of endangered mountain gorillas.
Since their eviction in the early 1990s, the Batwa found themselves without land and identity.
For centuries, the indigenous group depended on hunting and fruit gathering from the forests and this was rudely taken away from them.
A handful of Batwa from Kisoro, Kabale, Rubanda and Kanungu have managed to make some meaning of their lives by stepping out of the past and embracing formal education, employment and even marriage among other tribes in the area.
The general view of the Batwa, however remains bleak with many of younger generation hell bent on begging and using the little money obtained from kind passersby to buy cheap alcohol and fuel for sniffing.
The young girls and women are now engaged in prostitution as a way of supporting an easy lifestyle.
Government efforts to sensitize them often fall on deaf ears however one strategy to uplift these communities, rich in traditional knowledge might pay off soon.
Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing (ABS)
Human activities including over exploitation of resources, illegal wildlife trade and ecosystem degradation has resulted in the rapid decline of Biodiversity in Uganda, Africa and the rest of the world.
Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing (ABS) is a four-year, capacity building project funded by Global Environment Facility through United Nations Environment Program to be executed by National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) in collaboration with various state and non- state partners.
The Nagoya Protocol is a multilateral treaty with 193 parties, including Uganda that adopted the convention on Biological Diversity while in Nagoya, Japan in 2010.
Despite being party to the Nagoya Protocol, Uganda still does not have a national policy on access to genetic resources.
Simon Peter Achuu, the Project manager working with NEMA said the project will help support indigenous communities to tap into and benefit from Uganda’s genetic resources, associated traditional knowledge as well access and sharing benefits in an equitable and Sustainable manner.
The project will target the Batwa, and other communities living on the periphery of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Echuya Forest Reserve and will be managed by United Organization for the Development of Batwa in Uganda (UOBDU).
Similarly, the project has also been operationalized in Northeastern Uganda, among the Karimojong communities.
Over 2 million US dollars has been secured to strengthen institutional capacity for effective implementation of the Nagoya Protocol and conduct effective awareness campaigns on ABS in Uganda.
Achuu stressed the importance of developing mechanisms for sharing benefits arising from utilization of traditional knowledge on genetic resources.
“The Batwa will be given access to the National Parks under close supervision from Uganda Wildlife Authority in order for them to access unique plant species that can be used for value addition”, Achuu said.
At least 25 Batwa from Kigezi region will be trained to negotiate for better terms using contracts for benefits of any products extracted from within their localities.
UOBDU director Zannika Peninnah says the project will identify and document traditional knowledge, community values and principles of the Batwa community.
The Organization will also use the funds to identify specific bio- prospecting sites and availability of selected plant species that can be developed for medicinal purposes.
Zannika says, the project will also register any developed bio- products with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau as owned by the Batwa communities where the plant genetic resources originated.
Dr. Grace Nambatya, the director of research at the National Chemotherapeutics Research Institute (NCRI) says developing the traditional knowledge of the Batwa can significantly contribute to Uganda’s capacity to develop medicines that can be marketed locally and internationally.
The Batwa have been known to use traditional resources for medicine to treat ailments such as pneumonia, backache, malaria and swellings among others.
Nambatya explained that the knowledge they possess was passed down from one generation to another following their time and experience living in the forests.
She noted that some of these tree species that are vital for developing medicines can only be identified by indigenous groups such as the Batwa.
“Western medicines are no longer that effective because people have developed drug resistance while other diseases have changed in their evolution which requires different types of medicines to be developed for marketing”, Nambatya explained.
Nambatya called upon Uganda Wildlife Authority, National Forestry Authority and Science, Technology and Innovation Secretariat to work together to ensure the success of the project.