The Batwa are a group of pygmy people who have lived in central Africa for millennia. Their homeland spreads across what is now Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shorter in stature than other Africans, they dwell in highland rainforests, where they survive by hunting small game and foraging for plants.

They are among the last Africans to adopt Western customs. Hence they are often unfairly portrayed as primitive and uncultured. Worse, in many of the countries in which they live, in each of which they are a tiny minority, they have been systematically mistreated and underserved by governments.

One wrenching example of such mistreatment is the misery of the Batwa in Uganda. In this country, the Batwa used to live in three large forests in the southwest of the country: Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuuya.

In 1991, nearly all of them were forcefully evicted, often at gunpoint by rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The three forests were designated as national parks to protect the endangered mountain gorillas who shared them with the Batwa. Never mind that the Batwa weren’t a direct threat to the gorillas or other endangered species.

Having never adopted formal systems of land ownership, the Batwa lacked title to their forests. Clearly taking advantage of this, the government of Uganda did not compensate them and abandoned them on the edges of the forests, with neither land nor the skills with which to make a living outside the forest.

In the years that followed, many of the Batwa died, threatening the survival of the tribe itself. Of those that survived, many fell into drug abuse, begging and prostitution. They soon had the highest HIV prevalence rate of any ethnic group in Uganda. This is exacerbated by limited access to healthcare and education. Only 10 percent of Batwa children in Uganda are in formal education.

Alongside these losses must be added the greater loss of contact with the home and legacy of their ancestors, which for most of the younger generation is now alien. The only legal way for a Mtwa (singular for Batwa) to enter the forest now is as a guide, on the so-called Batwa Experience at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, in which they re-enact the ways of their ancestors for curious tourists.

The mountain gorillas of Uganda, on the other hand, have gone on to multiply. They now number over 400, accounting for nearly half of the over 1,000 now living in the wild. The species is no longer listed as critically endangered. The sacrifice of the Batwa people to the cause of great ape conservation has paid off.

The government of Uganda charges tourists up to US$700 to observe the gorillas in their habitat. Practically none of this money ends up in Batwa hands.

The Batwa of Uganda are conservation refugees, silent victims of a global movement to save biodiversity at all costs. So silent is their suffering that it rarely even makes the footnotes when the recovery of the mountain gorilla is celebrated. Betrayed by their government and activists, their only hope now rests in the pity and goodwill of their neighbours and some NGOs.

With such support, the Batwa filed a case against the government in 2011. Ten years later, in August 2021, a five-judge bench of Uganda’s constitutional court unanimously ruled that the evictions had been illegal and that the Batwa had been treated inhumanely. It ordered the government to pay the Batwa “fair and just compensation” within 12 months.

The government intends to appeal the ruling.

This was no small victory. It marked the first substantial recognition of the unjust suffering of the Batwa. However, it is not obvious what “fair and just compensation” would look like for a people evicted from their forest home more than 30 years ago. The only fair and just compensation would be to have never been evicted at all.

So many years later, many of those who were directly wronged no longer live. Even in the best of circumstances, temporal distance from the injustice would complicate any attempt at optimal redress. Further delays, including the appeal by the government, only make things worse. Justice delayed is justice denied.

What’s more, the restoration of the Batwa’s forest home seems to be out of the question. Many older Batwa seem to be reconciled to this. This is not only because of their despair at the intransigence of the government, but also because the younger generations are unlikely to adopt the ways of their ancestors. Their alienation cannot be undone.

In any case, whatever happens from here on, the suffering of the Batwa should be a lesson for the environmental movement. The solutions we propose for the preservation of biodiversity often seem neat and well-considered, but they rarely are.

Unless we realise that future generations aren’t the only ones for whom we should protect the environment, we risk grievously harming present generations in the process.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.