Syria Genocide War Crimes

Sunday, November 15, 2009

UGANDA: "Mount Elgon Eviction Has Reduced Us to Beggars"

IPS News
By Wambi Michael

Mary Yeko: "Where we were, the air is fresh, we had water, we had medicinal plants."

Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

MOUNT ELGON, Uganda, Nov 13 (IPS) - "We have been reduced to begging from relatives and to migrate to urban areas where life is not safe. We were living in the mountain for more than 200 years. Transferring us means burying us, completely. We want to stay in our area and develop."

These are the words of Mejje Christopher, a former parish chief who now lives as a squatter in Kisitu, almost 30 km from Kapchorwa district in eastern Uganda. He finds it hard to cope with life in the lowlands after his people, the Benet, were evicted from land apparently earmarked for reforestation in the Mount Elgon National Park.

Controversy has surrounded the reforestation project in the park which is jointly run by the Netherlands-based FACE Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and was started with a view to generating carbon credits. FACE Foundation has denied that the eviction of the Benet is connected to its project with the UWA.

There are over 1,000 evicted Benet living in a temporary settlement at Kisitu. Christopher laments that, "where we are now, even the maize takes a long time to mature. The majority of the people are illiterate, especially the women. To cope with new farming methods is not easy.

"Children are forced to weed gardens in other parts of Kapchorwa to earn a living. Sometimes, women risk going into the park at night to get firewood and bamboo," he reveals. "Even the cows that we used to graze in the mountains are not allowed there. Some have died. We did not have hospitals but we managed to survive because of the cool weather."

Christopher is adamant that the Benet can contribute to conservation. "We can do it. After all, we the indigenous people have indigenous knowledge which, when integrated with the modern knowledge, can conserve the mountain, we are sure."

Moses Kiptala, the treasurer of the Benet Lobby Group, is critical of the kinds of trees being planted. "They talk about conserving the mountain and the water catchment areas but we know that in this mountain there are trees that grow better while conserving water catchment areas. Some of the trees they are planting here have traditionally not grown here."

According to him, the eviction "is seriously affecting us because there is no food and people are not allowed to get firewood, bamboo and medicines to treat ailments. The schools were destroyed. The people have been declared landless; they cannot go back to their original land.

"When we were evicted last year, some of us decided to go and live in bushes and caves and others went to live with relatives. The situation is not good. We were not allowed to flee with our belongings. Our houses and crops were razed. We survived with help from non-governmental organisations but they have since stopped the assistance."

Parents complain that their children cannot go to school. They improvised a temporary tin-roof structure. It has no benches and can only accommodate lower primary pupils. Those children in upper primary school have to relocate or drop out.

Mary Yeko, a mother of seven, tells IPS her children can no longer go to school because they have to walk a long distance to the district headquarters. Speaking through an interpreter, Yeko indicates that she and her husband cannot afford the good schools in the area because they are not government-owned.

She and her children are getting frequent attacks of malaria and other diseases that they did not suffer from before. "When you go up where we were (in Mount Elgon), the air is fresh, we had water, we had medicinal plants which can treat many diseases that cannot be treated by the muzungu (white person).

"Now, we cannot go to get the medicine up there because the rangers will not allow us to pass over the park boundary," she complains.

According to Uganda’s state minister for tourism, Serapio Rukundo, there have been some instances of what he calls "maladministration" but, overall, communities are benefitting from the tree planting because the Uganda Wildlife Authority carries out conservation projects that involves the remuneration of some community members.

A UWA warden in the Mount Elgon Park, Richard Matanda, insists that the tree planting has benefited communities. "People got jobs, uniforms and gumboots. The idea is that most of the labour should come from the areas next to the boundaries of the park."

According to him, communities evicted from the park were due to get a percentage of money made from the tree planting.

But Timothy Byakola, an activist with Uganda’s Climate and Development Initiatives, retorts that there is a lot of hostility between the communities and Uganda Wildlife Authority park rangers. "The jobs they promise people don’t pay enough. We have talked to some of the people who said they are almost giving free labour.

"People complain that that the project has taken away the little that local communities had. For example, women can’t get firewood for cooking."

Byakola believes "no carbon credits" have been sold from the Mount Elgon project because people destroy the trees before they mature in protest to having been evicted. "Because of hostility, people sneak over park boundaries in the night and uproot the newly planted saplings," he argues.

Between Jan and Jul 2009, three national forestry staff members -- Richard Kalemera, Alfred Ezati and Emmanuel Assiimwe – were allegedly murdered by people who had been evicted from forest reserves. In another case, a man, a pregnant woman and their three–year-old son were burn to ash in Buikwe Central Uganda.

A driver working for the National Forestry Authority, Ambrose Tibarimu, was attacked by a mob with machetes who set ablaze his and other vehicles. (END/2009)