The home of a Batwa family in the Rwandan northern province of Ruhengeri. The marginalised status of pygmies through out the Great Lakes Region of Africa means that they are likely to require more support than other citizens to claim their rights to ancestral lands.
Credit: IRIN
The issue of access to land and ownership, a crucial one in any agrarian society, is especially vital to pygmy communities, whose culture, belief systems and livelihood depend on their symbiotic relationship with the Central African rainforest. Despite this, legal provisions concerning land and real estate are often unsuitable to the needs of traditional forest dwellers and almost always ignored in the case of indigenous groups.

The pygmies of Central Africa are a vulnerable people, and discrimination is part of their daily existence. Their marginalised status means they are likely to require more support than other citizens to claim their right to ancestral lands. In many cases, and over many decades, they have been driven away from their territory without compensation or any prospect of alternative livelihood. Without land or independent means of sustaining themselves, many pygmies live in extreme poverty.

“Since we are expelled from our lands, death is following us. We bury people nearly every day. The village is becoming empty. We are heading towards extinction. Now all the old people have died. Our culture is dying, too,” said a Mutwa man from Kalehe, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Inadequate provisions

Modern Western property law relies on identification, title deeds and recording of ownership of land plots. Most Central African legal systems have adopted this organisation because of colonial influences, but these practices often conflict with traditional systems of land tenure. According to custom, pygmy clans collectively own tracts of forest or land. In Burundi, the local Batwa, or Impunyu, number about 50 members on average. Although any individual is free to travel through another clan’s territory, they usually remain in the vicinity of their own clan, as they are more familiar with the available natural resources. Despite being semi-nomadic, the Impunyu have developed an attachment to preferred areas.

In the eastern DRC, as throughout most of Central Africa, the Batwa have been dispossessed of most of their land, largely due to the fact their system of collegial land ownership does not fit easily in modern legal systems. Joint ownership of land is hardly enforceable within current legal frameworks in Central Africa, which require a single title deed and do not recognise collective, clan-based land rights. According to John Nelson of the Forest Peoples Project, “Although the vast majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa hold land under customary law, their rights to do so are almost never recognised under existing national laws.” It has become increasingly difficult to enforce traditional rules with modern legal instruments. When collective ownership is possible, it is limited to institutions. There is, therefore, a need to “reform laws and their application through the ‘re-institutionalisation’ of customary arrangements into codified law,” said Nelson.

Individual titling of pygmy lands is counterproductive. Delivering legal titles to individuals – as opposed to the whole clan – does not necessarily protect their rights. The promotion of individual land titling for vulnerable groups may actually expose them to further discrimination, as subordinate right holders are often intimidated or bullied into surrendering use of their land to more powerful groups or individuals.

Abused Rights

As population levels in Africa continue to rise, Rwanda has become the country with the highest population density in Central Africa, with approximately 340 people per square kilometre. As pressure on the available land has become more intense, the Batwa pygmy community, which has been excluded from all national development activities, has found itself increasingly landless.


In Rwanda, as pressure on the available land has become more intense, the Batwa pygmy community has found itself increasingly landless.
Credit: Forest Peoples Project
According to Minority Rights Group International, current government land-use policies and poverty-reduction strategies in Rwanda are taking no real account of the land needs of the Batwa. The focus, instead, is on increasing agricultural productivity through improved cultivation techniques and the reclamation of unused land. In September 2005, the government of Rwanda published a new national land law, the result of several years of debate. According to Human Rights Watch, the new legislation might even make it more difficult for the Batwa to keep the little land they still own, as it will give the government complete authority over land use, potentially subjecting owners to loss of land without compensation.

In the DRC, entitlement to land possession is tied to an individual’s Congolese nationality. This has prevented many minorities, including the Batwa, who are not considered “real Congolese” by the authorities, from legally owning their land. The Banyamulenge, a group of ethnic Tutsi Congolese nationals, have also been discriminated against in this respect. Authorities have refused to provide them legal documentation of their Congolese nationality, thus barring them from owning land or enforcing their ownership rights. Indeed, once their legal identity fails to be recognised or considered equal to others, their right to own land is compromised. African customary law often bases land rights on the individual or the group’s social identity.

Despite provisions made by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981, most hunter-gatherers are denied land rights. Hunting and gathering is not considered a legitimate or sustainable use of land – as opposed to agriculture and deforestation, practised by Bantu Africans. Land used by hunter-gatherers is therefore regarded as available to farmers. Human rights NGO Minority Rights Group International described the process as “attrition through encroachment, intimidation and theft”. Evicted pygmies often remain close to their territory of origin, thus becoming tenants or squatters on what used to be their own land. In remote parts of the Republic of Congo, pygmies are considered slave labour attached to the land: Those who reside on a plot are the property of the landowner, who is free to use and abuse them at will.

Throughout the Congo Basin, governments have ignored politically weak hunter-gatherer groups because they do not make investments in land generally recognised by authorities, such as clearing, farming, or mining. However, according to Nelson, “The irony of this situation is that, under almost all African customary systems, it is well understood that occupancy is generally the key to ‘ownership’ and land is allocated by those claiming prior occupancy through lineages and clans.”

The side effect of conservation

In an effort to protect natural resources, many conservation projects were launched in the 1990s throughout Central Africa. However, the practice of “gazetting” land – passing legislation that declares an area to be a natural park or a wildlife sanctuary – has pushed many indigenous groups out of their traditional habitat. The struggle to preserve the environment has had tragic consequences for some pygmy communities, which have fallen victim to heavy-handed environmental conservation projects.


Pygmies have depended on the forest since time immemorial. Today, heavy-handed environmental projects, such as the introduction of national parks, have caused tragic consequences for the well-being of the pygmy community.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
It started with the establishment of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu, DRC, a forest that was declared in 1980 a World Heritage in Danger site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Zairian Institute of the Conservation of Nature violently expelled 580 Batwa families from their land - with a view to protecting one of the last populations of mountain gorillas - without informing, consulting or offering them any reparation. The eviction destroyed their livelihood, culture and spiritual practices that tied them to the land.

“We did not know they were coming,” said a Mutwa widow and mother of five who was among the 3,000 to 6,000 pygmies evicted from the forest. “It was early in the morning. I heard people in uniforms with guns. Then suddenly one of them forced the door of our house and started shouting that we had to leave immediately because the park is not our land. I first did not understand because all my ancestors have lived on these lands. They were so violent that I left with my children.”

According to the NGO Refugees International, the trend continues. In southwestern Uganda, the Batwa were similarly evicted from what became Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in 1990. According to historical and oral records, the Batwa are the only group to have populated this area since the sixteenth century. Despite their historical claims to land rights and having lived for generations without destroying the ecosystem of their natural habitat, they did not benefit from any national compensation scheme. UNESCO consequently hired some of the local Batwa to work as park guides. Non-Batwa farmers, who had destroyed the forest to cultivate the land, received compensation and recognition of their land rights.

Donor sensitisation and compensation initiatives

Poaching has often been used as a handy excuse to justify gazetting land. “For other groups, the forest represents an additional source of income. For the Batwa, it is their livelihood, and their activities are focused on daily subsistence rather than intensive exploitation,” said Minority Rights Group International. The hunting-and-gathering activities practiced by pygmies are ecologically sustainable occupations that do not destroy the balance of fauna or flora. Still, because of poaching and deforestation, states have felt compelled to cordon off tracts of land and forbid access to it – even to its original inhabitants.

International donors are slowly waking up to the need to incorporate indigenous peoples’ survival into development projects, but enforcement is slow. The World Bank has developed policies to force aid recipients to assess the impact of park projects on local residents. For example, the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project was required to draw up a plan for vulnerable indigenous people, examining ways to relocate and compensate the Bagyeli pygmies. However, a land title deeds were necessary to claim compensation, and the Bagyeli had few. Most were denied payment. In some instances, Bantus received compensation meant for the Bagyeli.

The forest as battleground

According to Refugees International, forests in the DRC are becoming a hideout and battleground for rebel groups. The Batwa, who live deep in the forest and have no involvement in the political arena, are increasingly exposed to armed clashes, often becoming victims of violence. Amnesty International has reported incidents of cannibalism, where armed groups have killed Batwa people and forced prisoners to eat their flesh.

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, nearly one million people – approximately 14 percent of the Rwandan population – were killed. The Batwa did not participate in political life and comprised only 0.3 percent of the total population, yet according to Minority Rights Group International, 30 percent of the Batwa population were killed as a consequence of the genocide and the ensuing war.

“We are truly the forgotten people of Rwanda, having been there for the longest, having lived for thousands of years in the rainforest of Africa before the Hutu and the Tutsi arrived. We have been forgotten by all those who have come to use our forests, ignored by the European colonists, and we are again forgotten by all those who would help to resolve the chaos that Rwanda is in today,” said Charles Uwiragiye, executive secretary of the association for the promotion of the Batwa, during a speech in 1994 asking the world to hear the suffering of the pygmies. More than a decade later, not much has changed.