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Becoming Caretakers of the Forest
“The Batwa are aware that they are the owners of the park. They know that. Even though there is a director of the park, they know the park belongs to them,” André says.
“But they also know that going back to the park is not easy. All they wish for, is to work in partnership with the park.”
While a complete return to the park is doubtful, there have been some promising developments. Mama Na Bana has been developing a relationship with the park director, who has said he now wants to visit the eco-village.
“He’s open to anything that is good for the project and the Batwa. I’m not just hopeful, I feel like something is going to be arranged with the park,” André says.
André hopes that, like some of the other Batwa in the region, people from the village might be employed as rangers or guards in the park, allowing them to be close to the forest and animals.
The park director has recently made a bold decision. He has agreed that the Batwa have permission to collect flora from the forest, so that they can create their own food forest at the eco-village. Mama Na Bana now wants to take this further, and explore opportunities for legislation that will properly protect their right to access the forest. This could be the start of protecting not only the Batwa, but other Indigenous communities.
This is also good news for Richard Cibulula, a Mama Na Bana team member who is working on the food production plan. Mama Na Bana had always hoped to build a food forest - a system of agroforestry designed to reflect the forest’s natural growth patterns and provide edible crops. Until now, this idea didn’t seem possible, but the park director’s decision has changed everything, and a food forest can finally become part of the plans.
“We want to create a small forest at the village,” he says, as André translates from French. “Once the forest is there, it will be a source of seeds for anyone who would like to plant somewhere else.”
Richard explains that the forest will be composed of four different height levels, where the plants complement each other, and are planted in amongst anything that is already growing. There will not only be food like passionfruit, guava and plum trees, but also plants that act as natural pesticides, and others which can be used for medicine to treat flu and stomach aches. There are already some useful plants growing; some seeds will be bought, and other seeds will be collected from the Batwa’s traditional home - the National Park.
Respecting Batwa Traditions
Last year, The Lush Times reported on the setting up of the eco-village, and the challenges the Batwa were facing. Since then, Mama Na Bana has welcomed Indigenous expert and rural development technician Achille Biffumbu along to train them in Pygmy culture, which has caused them to change some of their plans.
With these hunter gatherers no longer able to live in the forest, Achille explains that the Batwa have no choice but to adapt to agriculture. However, this transition needs to take their culture into consideration, he says. In particular, anyone working with the Batwa needs to understand how they use their time.
Traditionally, he explains, the Batwa travel a lot, and they don’t have time to spend on tending to vegetables. Life in the forest used to produce an abundance of food, and whatever was collected was eaten on that same day. Storage is simply not a factor in Batwa culture, and they share what is available at the time, rather than saving anything for later.
“All this must be kept in the minds of the people working with them,” Achille says.
With Achille’s teachings at the front of their minds, the Mama Na Bana team has taken another look at the plan, with the Batwa, as always, involved in every decision.
Before Achille’s training, the focus was on storing and preserving food in the rainy season. Instead, water will now be made available at all times of the year - even during the dry season - so that the Batwa can water their crops and harvest food every day.
There was a risk that this project could become a source of conflict between local Bantu and the Batwa, but Achille says the relationship has only strengthened since both the project to provide water and a school for the Batwa were implemented. Crucially, these were both designed to also support neighbouring villages, meaning they too benefit. The upcoming food forest will work towards the same goal.
André has had an unexpected personal reaction to Achille’s training, and has found himself reflecting on his own culture. As he watched a Batwa man pick up a guitar and play it - a man who had never learnt to play the guitar, but who simply decided to play - he was reminded of the Batwa’s rich culture, and began thinking about his own.
“Life is pushing me into a more European lifestyle, even in my clothes,” he says. “The Batwa still have something original. The training really helped me to acknowledge those things. But there is a threat, because the Batwa are also tending to change their lifestyle, and become like us.”
Something worth preserving
However, the solutions to this problem must come from the Batwa themselves, he says. But he’s desperate for them to understand that they have something precious worth preserving.
“This is not only about their culture, but any people of any culture, especially African people. We have to be aware that while we need to work to survive, if we keep on losing our culture we don’t have any value,” he says.
With the financial support for the eco-village coming to an end next year, the focus now has to be on how to put the final plans into place, and then for both Mama Na Bana and Lush to be able to step away.
“When we think about the exit strategy, we must think about how to empower the Batwa. If this doesn’t happen it will be seen as a Lush project or a Mama Na Bana project, not a Pygmy project,” Achille says.
André is clear that the time for experimenting is over. Now is the time to make sure the plan is going to work, so that once Lush and Mama Na Bana do step away, they leave behind a thriving Pygmy-led project.
Want to hear about more Re:Fund supported projects? Find out how a group in Uganda is transforming refugee camps
Images courtesy of Mama Na Bana