World Rainforest Movement

Central Africa: Nowhere to go; land loss and cultural degradation. The Twa of the Great Lakes

The indigenous Twa ‘Pygmy’ people of the Great Lakes region of central Africa are originally a mountain-dwelling hunter-gatherer people, inhabiting the high altitude forests around Lakes Kivu, Albert and Tanganyika – areas that have now become part of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The current Twa population is estimated at between 82,000 and 126,000 people.

The Twa are widely thought to be the prior inhabitants of the forests in the Great Lakes region. The evidence for this includes historical accounts and research as well as the Twas’ own accounts of their origins, which emphasis that the Twa are ‘from here’ whilst the oral histories of neighbouring ethnic groups tell of their arrival from elsewhere through wars, migration and conquest. Local rituals also symbolically affirm the role of the Twa as the first occupants of the land. For example, Twa did, and still do, play a crucial role in the enthronement ceremonies of the customary non-indigenous landowners, the Tutsi kings and chiefs (Mwamis), symbolically ‘licensing’ the land to the incoming ruler. Twa were also indispensable for the annual royal hunting rituals affirming the Mwami’s mystical authority over the land and its fertility. Indeed, the stem –twa is a Bantu term used throughout sub-Saharan Africa for different groups of people of very low status, referring in almost every case to hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers who are recognised as the prior inhabitants of the area, including ‘Pygmy’ people and ‘Bushmen’.

The Twa, like other African forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers, have had contacts with neighbouring farming groups for many centuries, based around reciprocal exchange relationships in which forest products were bartered for starchy foods, metal tools and other products such as salt. For many centuries, the Twa were probably able (as many other African indigenous forest peoples still do) to retreat at will into the forests, and so could control to a large degree the nature and extent of their contacts with the outside world. However, as the forests began to be cleared, the Twa were increasingly forced into contact with farmers and herders, and became caught up in unfavourable trade and labour relationships, in which the scope for negotiation became more and more constrained.

Deforestation in the Great Lakes region started several centuries ago, with the arrival of farmers and herding peoples who began clearing forests for agriculture and pasture. Much of the region lay outside the main slaving routes, and population density increased as other people sought refuge there. Forested areas receded as agriculture expanded on the rich volcanic soils. During the early and middle parts of the 20th century populations increased rapidly, resulting in some of the highest rural population densities in Africa, for example 800 people/sq km in the volcanic region of north-west Rwanda. By the 1980s much of all the available land, apart from areas reserved for wildlife conservation and environmental protection, was under cultivation, particularly in Rwanda and Burundi. Pressures on the forests intensified through production of export crops: half the forests around the volcanoes in the north of Rwanda were cleared for pyrethrum plantations in the 1960s, and areas around Rwanda’s Nyungwe forest were cleared for tea estates. Quinine and coffee production in eastern DRC also reduced forest cover. During the 20th century Rwanda’s forest area was reduced from 30% of the land area to the present 7%; Burundi’s natural forest cover decreased from 6% to 2% of the land area between 1976 and 1997.

As the forests were cleared, the areas left for the Twas’ hunting and gathering activities decreased, heralding a period during which the Twa became progressively more and more landless and their traditional forest-based culture, including their religion and rituals and (according to some sources) their language, was eroded. In several areas the Twa sought to maintain control over their lands through armed defence, for example, the exploits of the renowned Twa Basebya at the end of the 19th century in what is now south-western Uganda. In the Bushivu highlands of eastern DRC Twa also fought long and bloody wars with agricultural peoples attempting to clear Twa forest lands for farms – fighting continued until around 1918. The impact of deforestation on the culture of the Twa was noted by early missionaries, such as Van den Biesen who commented on the future of the Twa of Burundi in 1897: ‘When these forests have been destroyed for whatever reason, our Batwa will not be able to continue their traditional life.’

As forests were cleared, some Twa groups adopted alternative livelihoods based on crafts (pottery, basketry, metalworking) or attached themselves to powerful and rich individuals, thus becoming singers, dancers, messengers, guards, warriors and hunters for kings and princes; others became clients of local landowners. In some cases these services were rewarded with gifts of cattle or land, but most Twa remained without any locally recognised rights to lands.

Other groups of Twa were able to continue using the remaining forest for subsistence activities and trading of forest products, such as skins, vines, essential oils, honey, poles and game, with neighbouring farming communities, and to hunt animals such as elephant, colobus monkeys, wild pig and leopard, selected portions of which were given to local chiefs and sub-chiefs as tribute. These offerings might be repaid in heads of cattle.

The designation of conservation areas, which began in the colonial period, initially did not have much impact on the hunting and gathering activities of the Twa – and was probably beneficial to them in protecting the forests from being cleared by farmers. By the 1960s and 70s however, regulations based on the prevailing conservation ideology, prohibiting human habitation and restricting traditional use rights in protected areas, began to be enforced more vigorously. During the 1970s and 80s Twa were involuntarily resettled out of the Volcano National Park and Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda and the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Virunga National Park in eastern DRC, in some cases by means of armed force. Twa in the Bwindi and Mgahinga forests of Uganda were officially evicted in the 1960s but only finally excluded from using the forests in 1991 when they were gazetted as national parks. No compensation was provided for the displaced Twa, either in cash or as alternative lands. In the Kahuzi-Biega eviction compensation was paid to the local Bantu landholders, but none of this reached the Twa who were not considered to have rights to the land.

The case of the Gishwati forest in Rwanda is another notorious case of expropriation of Twa lands. The last forest-dwelling Twa in Rwanda, the Impunyu, were cleared from the Gishwati forest in the 1980s and 90s to make way for World Bank-financed forestry plantation and dairy projects. These projects were intended to protect the natural forest, but they had the opposite effect: by 1994 two-thirds of the original forest had been converted to pasture, almost all of which was allocated to friends and relations of the President. The World Bank itself concluded that the project had failed, and the treatment of indigenous peoples had been ‘highly unsatisfactory’. Since then refugees have been settled in the remaining forest, resulting in its total destruction, but the Gishwati Twa are still largely landless.

Twa communities throughout the Great Lakes region have been deprived of lands without due legal process, in violation of constitutional provisions and international norms that require resettled communities to be adequately compensated. Some Twa were able to acquire small plots of land, mostly through gifts from royalty and chiefs in times gone by. But since colonial times there has been virtually no land distribution to the Twa: in Rwanda for example, in 1995, 84% of landed Twa were still living on land originally given to them by the Mwamis. A few Twa communities have received land through government schemes in Rwanda and Burundi, and through private purchase by a conservation trust fund and private benefactors in Uganda. Some communities have secured use rights from local landowners in DRC by paying the fees prescribed under Bantu customary law.

However, recent socio-economic surveys show that the land situation of the Twa remains extremely serious. In both Rwanda and Burundi lack of farm land is 3.5 times more common among Twa households than non-Twa. In Rwanda 43% of Twa households lack farm land, in Burundi it is 53%. Of the Twa who do have agricultural land, the sizes of fields are much smaller, and usually of poorer quality than the non-Twa population. In Uganda up to 40% of Batwa households do not even have land on which to build a hut.

The pressure on land in the Great Lakes region continues to intensify with population growth, and the return of refugees who need to be resettled. In DRC, there are still areas of forest (although under the control of traditional land holders) accessible to some of the Twa communities, but in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, landless Twa have no-where left to go. They remain transient squatters constantly looking for somewhere they can lodge until they are moved on.

“These people who let us stay on their land, they call on us to cultivate. If we refuse they say ‘Move away, we no longer want you.’ We are not settled here, because other local people are pressing the landowners saying ‘What do you need Twa for?’ and at any time we may have to shift and settle elsewhere. If the owners are sympathetic, they move us to another bit of land, which we fertilise for them by living on it. The landlords don’t let us put up toilets because they don’t want anything permanent on their land, or holes which could be a problem for cultivation later. But if they catch us defecating in the fields, they are angry. My daughter was caught and was forced to remove the faeces with her hands”. (Middle-aged Twa woman, Nyakabande/Kisoro, Uganda, May 2003)

A large proportion of the Twa are now three or more generations removed from the forest-based livelihoods that underpinned their traditional society and culture, and have lost much of their traditional forest-related knowledge and customary practices. The older generation regards the hunter-gatherer epoch as a golden era when families could easily feed themselves and life was easy. These days, most Twa people eke out a living from marginal subsistence strategies such as casual wage labour on other peoples’ farms, carrying loads, making pottery and other crafts, singing and dancing at festivities and begging. In terms of housing, education, health and incomes, they are one of the poorest groups in a region that is already very poor. They have received very little government assistance to help them manage the difficult adjustment to life outside the forest.

The loss of a forest-based way of life seems to be associated with social and cultural changes. Originally the Twa enjoyed a certain status as forest specialists, involved in reciprocal relationships with farmers, supplying them with useful forest products from an environment that farmers did not understand, or even feared. This was reinforced by their role as hunters and trophy-bearers to the kings. As the Twa lost their forests and became an impoverished group on the fringes of society, they were increasingly regarded as pariahs, and discrimination and prejudice against them intensified. This took the form of negative stereotyping, enforced segregation and denial of their rights; Twa communities suffered high levels of abuse and physical violence from neighbouring groups, including cases of rape and murder. Caught between the vanishing forest world, and settled agrarian society where it was made clear they did not belong, the Twa came to feel irrelevant, unvalued and excluded – a ‘forgotten people’ – and acutely aware of their deprivation. Many Twa communities are highly stressed through unremitting, severe poverty, prejudice and conflicts from their neighbours and internal frictions between households, as well as the devastating impacts of the frequent and ongoing wars in the region, in which Twa have often been targeted by armed belligerents of all sides.

Traditionally, forest-based “Pygmy” peoples have egalitarian and fluid social institutions, in which no-one has authority over the others, and resources are fairly distributed among group members. Women access forest resources in their own right and not as a consequence of their relationship with men. Twa societies are still relatively egalitarian, with women playing a prominent role in community decision-making. However, as the Twa have settled and taken up farming, they are absorbing the patriarchal norms of neighbouring farming groups, including polygamy and tenure systems in which men own the land and women can only obtain use rights via their husbands.

Women are now the main economic providers in many Twa families, as well as continuing to be the main carers of children and older people. They generally can decide how to spend the money they have earned. However, where men have cleared farm land, their initial high investment of labour tends to make them feel entitled to control the spending of money earned by the crop, despite the fact that women did the planting, weeding and harvesting. The increased reliance on farming among the Twa may therefore reduce the economic independence of Twa women. Many Twa women also have to contend with domestic violence and family neglect as a result of Twa men’s alcohol abuse. Alcoholism occurs in many indigenous communities that are facing cultural collapse, and where men are no longer able to carry out their traditional roles as hunters and respected provider for the family.

Faced with the loss of their ancestral forest lands, and the need to find a means of survival under changed circumstances, Twa in the Great Lakes region have expressed a range of different aspirations. Particularly among communities living near forest areas from which their forefathers were expelled, the Twa want to have secure access and use rights to forests, and to maintain their close links with the forest, but not all wish to resume the hunter-gatherer way of life. Communities near national parks want a larger share of the revenues from tourism. Throughout the region, Twa also want to have their own land for farming as part of their mix of survival strategies.

To press their claims, Twa communities are having to organise themselves in new ways and develop new forms of representative institutions, that can advocate and negotiate effectively with government structures and influential agencies. The new Twa NGOs and community-based associations, and their support groups in the region, are campaigning for governments to develop specific policies to address the particular disadvantages that the Twa face as a result of their ethic identity. In the absence of laws and policies addressing land rights of indigenous peoples, Twa organisations are calling for affirmative action in land allocation for Twa and recognition by governments of the immense historical injustice through which Twa were deprived of their forest lands and traditional means of livelihood, forcing them into severe poverty.

The Twa want to be respected and valued as members of society, and to freely enjoy their human rights and have equal access to services like other people. In the process of surviving as a forest people driven from their forests, and adapting to the harsh social and physical environment they now find themselves in, some groups and individuals want to retain their cultural distinctiveness; others want to integrate with mainstream society. It is their right to freely choose how they wish to relate to and participate in national society and to make their own choices about their future.

By: Dorothy Jackson, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: