KWEEN, UGANDA — One morning in May, Sangura Masai was washing his face at home in Kokwotorokwo, a village on the outskirts of a vast national park in eastern Uganda, when his two teenage sons rushed toward him in fear. His sons told him they had heard voices shouting “toka hapa,” Swahili for “leave here.” Rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, a government agency that manages and protects wildlife in and outside protected areas, had arrived.
Masai and his sons could already predict what would happen next; they had experienced this many times before. The three ran and hid to evade arrest. From their distant hiding spot, they watched as rangers torched three houses on their homestead.
“They first burned down the grass-thatched house my sons lived in,” Masai says.
The rangers then turned to the two other houses and punctured the iron roofs. The ambush took about three hours. Afterward, the family of 16 — Masai, his wife and their 14 children — were left with only two rooms in separate buildings with damaged roofs. They felt unsafe in the houses. And when it rained, they could barely sleep beneath the leaking roofs.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Masai, who has lived on the land with his family for about 15 years, belongs to the Benet community, a minority group of about 11,300 people. The Benet were the original inhabitants of the Mount Elgon region but have faced a decadeslong struggle for land, spanning multiple generations.
The problem started after the colonial British government in Uganda established the Mount Elgon Forest Reserve in 1936. The move displaced many members of the Benet community, and with nowhere to go they settled along the boundaries of the forest reserve.
The British colonial government establishes the Mount Elgon Crown Forest, imposing a public protected area on Benet ancestral land.
After independence, the Ugandan government surveys the Mount Elgon Crown Forest, sets new boundaries and renames the area to Mount Elgon Forest Reserve.
In a bid to address land issues, the government establishes a committee to allocate 6,000 hectares (over 14,800 acres) to 200 Benet families. The process, according to later reports, is marred by land grabs by local leaders, leaving more than half of the Benet population landless.
The government reclassifies the forest reserve as Mount Elgon National Park.
Uganda Wildlife Authority surveyors find an erroneous boundary created by the 1983 allocation committee, which allocated 7,500 hectares (more than 18,500 acres) to the Benet instead of the 6,000 hectares the government directed.
UWA begins a process of evicting people living in the national park.
The government establishes a task force to reexamine the Benet land acquisition problem. Among the recommendations is the adoption of the 1983 boundary line established by the land allocation committee.
UWA evicts hundreds of people from Mount Elgon, some of whom had lived there over 40 years.
The Uganda Land Alliance files a legal suit in the High Court of Uganda on behalf of the Benet community to enforce their right to use their forest land.
In a judgment, the High Court recognizes the Benet as the historical and indigenous inhabitants of the forest later classified as a national park.
UWA discovers that people, including the Benet, now occupy almost 8,500 hectares of land (over 21,000 acres), putting 2,500 hectares under dispute.
UWA evicts 178 Benet families in Bukwo and Kween districts, followed by other sporadic evictions of individuals and their households.
The government starts resettling displaced Benet. The resettlement is marred by land grabs.
President Yoweri Museveni directs UWA to allow the Benet to settle in the park temporarily until the matter of land is resolved.
Museveni designates a commission to investigate land-related conflicts in Uganda. The commission’s report has not yet been made public.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an organ of the African Union, releases a statement urging the Ugandan government to stop all forms of harassment against the Benet community, investigate past violations against the community, and implement the 2005 High Court judgment.
The prime minister orders the UWA to stop evictions until his office visits the area.
Indigenous leaders claim UWA evicts about 70 Benet people from Kokwotorokwo village, in eastern Uganda.
This set off a series of resettlement efforts and evictions that continue to plague the community despite numerous court rulings, agreements with local leaders and government policies, all meant to allow the Benet access to the park.
The most significant resettlement, which served as a catalyst to the current land conflict, is within a disputed 2,500 hectare-piece of land (over 6,100 acres) on which Masai and other members of the Benet live. They claim the government allocated it to them as part of a 1983 decision. But a 2008 survey by UWA claims that while the government in 1983 allocated 6,000 hectares (over 14,800 acres) to the Benet, the indigenous group now occupies nearly 8,500 hectares (over 21,000 acres), surpassing the official allocation.
This extra 2,500 hectares, which UWA officials say is part of the Mount Elgon National Park’s protected area, is at the center of the most recent waves of evictions, says David Chemutai, coordinator of Benet-Mosop Indigenous Community, an association pushing for inclusion of the Benet in conservation of Mount Elgon National Park.
Now, the Benet say they are weary of recurring evictions, which they claim have left some of them living in temporary settlements, cost them lives and property, and led to human rights abuses by UWA officials. They are offering the government a solution they say will benefit both parties: involve them in conservation efforts so they can fulfill the government’s goal of conserving the park, while allowing them to live on what they claim they were officially allocated.
A conservation partnership?
Denis Liplangat, a local council leader of Kokwotorokwo village, says community members in the last three years have tried to propose a partnership with UWA since they understand the importance of conserving the park. But their efforts have fallen on deaf ears.
“Traditional ways such as beekeeping and harvesting rely on nature, so we understand the importance of the forests,” he says.
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
Liplangat adds that traditional Benet methods of conservation usually enable animals to feed without harming the ecosystem. One method, he says, is growing siywonent — a plant that can grow in the shade of trees — for the animals to eat so that locals won’t have to cut down trees and other vegetation for pasture.
Francis Cheptoek Kaberwa, an elder of the council of Musopisye people, a clan within the Benet community, agrees. “Our cattle feed on this vegetation, and the cow dung helps siywonent to grow by making the soils fertile,” he says.
Kaberwa adds that the community has always had a deeper understanding of the forest and recognizes the vital role it plays in their lives. “Having trees in the forest protects other plants,” he says. “The forest is also a source of medicinal herbs we use to treat pregnant women, so we can’t do anything to harm it.”
In fact, locals have expressed doubt as to whether the conservation agency is indeed protecting the forest.
“All they do is attack us, sometimes injuring and killing the Benet people in the name of protecting and conserving the park, while at the same time they are cutting down trees from the same park they say they are protecting,” Kaberwa says.
These repeated evictions have left many Benet landless and have deepened poverty for those who lose their crops or have their cattle impounded by UWA rangers, Liplangat says.
Steven Cheromoi, a member of the Benet community, can attest to this. He says his 15 cattle were impounded by UWA rangers during the most recent wave of evictions in May. Cheromoi had to pay 50,000 Ugandan shillings (about 13 United States dollars) as a fine to UWA rangers. It wasn’t the first time. Each time it happens, his dream of building a permanent home for his family moves increasingly out of reach.
“How can one enhance their financial status,” he says, “if any minute their crops will be destroyed, their animals impounded and homes destroyed for settling on part of the 2,500 hectares of land allocated to us by government many years back?”
Skepticism over traditional methods
The UWA is only doing its job by keeping people out of protected areas, says Bashir Hangi, a spokesman.
“What we know is that they go into the protected area and hunt animals and cultivate. What we do as UWA is free the park from any human activities apart from permissible [activities] like tourism and regulated resources access such as collecting medicinal plants,” he says, adding that he is skeptical about traditional conservation methods proposed by the community.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
The drastic methods UWA employs, such as impounding cattle and burning homes, are sometimes necessary to meet their conservation mandate, Hangi says.
He denies allegations that the agency is involved in deforestation, saying what the Benet are referring to is a pine plantation in an area called Suam, which UWA planted within the park for commercial purposes.
“We cut trees and sell them. The community is aware of this [planted] forest,” he says.
Failed efforts and promises
In the past, the government tried to solve these disputes with numerous court rulings, agreements with local leaders and government policies allowing the Benet access to the park. But the Benet people say the government is now violating its own agreements and continued evictions through the conservation agency.
In 2004, Uganda Land Alliance, a national nongovernmental organization that advocates for land rights, sued UWA on behalf of the Benet people. In October 2005, a ruling commonly referred to as the “consent judgment” recognized the Benet as the historical and indigenous inhabitants of the forest that the government classified as a national park, allowing them to live there. However, in 2008, instead of enforcing the judgment, UWA and Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces evicted hundreds of people. Fifteen years later, the evictions continue.
A 2019 government policy also allowed the Benet access to some parts of their traditional land in Mount Elgon National Park for resources and cattle grazing, but a report by international nonprofit Amnesty International claims the UWA physically abuses Benet people who access the park for these reasons.
Hangi says UWA agents only retaliate against attacks made by the community. In some cases, he says Benet people have killed UWA rangers.
“Did they tell you that they chopped our staff into small pieces and put him in a kavera [plastic bag]? Actually, we have lost staff [in Mount Elgon National Park] more than in any other park,” Hangi says. “Some have guns, pangas [machetes] and spears. These can be used to kill animals too. If you engage our [staff], anything can happen — you engage them, they will shoot back.”
Hangi says he recognizes there have been rulings and other policies allowing the Benet access to the park, and their rangers only respond in protected land, as officially listed by the government.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
“Gazetting land is government’s job. Our job is to protect the gazetted area that has been handed to us, including flushing out people who cultivate and rear animals in the park,” he says.
In May, the office of the prime minister — responsible for officially listing protected land in Uganda — wrote to the director of UWA, asking him to “stop the evictions of the displaced people on the temporal resettlement camps with immediate effect. The trespassers and those grazing cows should not be charged until we come on the ground.”
So far, the prime minister’s office has not sent any staff to the area. The office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘Doesn’t solve anything’
The prime minister’s letter is a good gesture that something is being done to resolve this conflict, says Liplangat, the local leader.
“But similar promises or interventions have been done before, only to result into nothing,” he adds. “Until the Benet people are resettled and new, clear boundaries — including the 2,500 hectares — are marked between the park and the community, the letter from the prime minister’s office doesn’t solve anything.”
Just days after the prime minister’s letter, UWA impounded more than 50 cows, Chemutai says.
The Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development investigated the issue after the 2005 court ruling, spokesperson Denis Obbo says. According to the ministry’s findings, both the UWA and the Benet went beyond their demarcated boundaries. Obbo adds that in the past, other ministries — including those for lands, internal affairs and tourism — have tried to resolve the issue. But there hasn’t been much resolution, in part because the Benet’s population keeps increasing and extending farther into the park’s land.
In the meantime, says Obbo, the prime minister’s office, under a pair of presidential directives, is tasked with addressing and resolving the issue.
Hope Atuhaire, the resident district commissioner (a presidential representative) for Kween district, says she is working with the community, UWA, district leaders and members of Parliament to settle the matter. Already, they have held talks with UWA and community members.
“This has led to some impounded cattle be given back to the community without the Benet paying any fines. We have also engaged UWA in negotiating a memorandum of understanding between UWA and the community on partnering to conserving the national park,” she says.
For now, nothing concrete has come out of the engagements. She says she is waiting for the prime minister to visit the area and resolve the boundary dispute.
For Masai, there has been too much talk. The only solution, he says, is a conservation partnership. If the government agreed to it, the conflict would have ceased years ago.
“We could have our own land to cultivate without worrying about being attacked and killed,” he says.