Mt Elgon frontier communities embrace conservation efforts 

Frontier communities carry firewood from Mt Elgon National Park. PHOTO / FRANKLIN DRAKU

What you need to know:

  • In October 2020, a landmark victory was reached, which granted people within Mt Elgon National Park regulated access to various resources, particularly in the districts Sironko, Manafwa, Naminsidwa and Mbale City. 

Betty Chesaki, a resident of Wanale in Mbale District, has experienced years of agony after she was ordered not to step in the park again. She says for generations, part of the land she occupies was declared a national park and they have been threatened with evictions.

 “This is the land I have known since I was a child. This is our ancestral home. When we were evicted, we were not compensated. We do not have a source of livelihood. We have been at loggerheads with wildlife officials because if they got anyone in the park, they would either kill you or take you to jail,” Chesaki said.

Chesaki is one of the thousands of people neighbouring Mount Elgon National Park, who have been conflicting with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) for land ownership and user rights at the park.

The situation has since become history after Action for Development (ACFODE) and UWA in partnership with the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights pledged to work together to protect the rights of people living near conservation areas around Mount Elgon National Park particularly in the districts of Sironko, Manafwa, Naminsidwa and Mbale City.

Incorporate the communities

According to a report released by ACFODE in 2022, after conducting a baseline survey, for conservation to thrive, a deliberate effort to incorporate the communities into the management and conservation of the park was recommended.

“We were sensitised on how to protect natural resources. We also planted trees and now we are at peace with the park officials. We are allowed to go the park on agreed days to fetch firewood and other medicinal leaves and roots from the park,” Chesaki says.

In October 2020, the Benet people achieved a landmark victory when government issued a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which granted them regulated access to various resources within the park, including cultural sites and cattle grazing areas.

Unfortunately, a number of entities that have worked to defend the Bennet community say UWA rangers continue to ignore the provisions of the MoU. They say indigenous people who enter the park are assaulted, denied access to cultural sites and cattle grazing in the park’s moorlands are detained.

Paul Makabai, one of the victims of the evictions, says for them, a ray of hope came when ACFODE started dialoguing with the communities and UWA officials.

“We were not sure what would happen, but here we are. We have finally learnt to live with the park authorities and the wildlife. Although some of the areas around the park still have some issues, but harmony is in sight. We hope this good relationship lives on,” he adds.

How the idea was conceived

Happy Ainomugisha, the programmes manager at ACFODE, says the programme started in January 2020 in the four districts of Mbale, Sironko, Namisindwa and Manafwa, each represented by one Sub-county.

She says the project had partnerships with UWA, civil society organisations (CSOs) working in conservation areas, frontier communities, district leaders and other stakeholders. According to Ainomugisha, several stakeholders, including the communities took part in the baseline survey and found out that the biggest issue was the question of the boundaries.

Members of Mount Elgon frontier communities during comunity dialgue to resolve the park boundary dispute. The two sides have finally agreed to work together. PHOTO | FRANKLIN DRAKU

“There was a lot of misconception between the two parties on their roles and responsibilities. We also undertook a legal audit of conservation laws and policies because we needed to understand that Mount Elgon is protected and that there may be laws and guidelines on how to and when to access these resources. These helped us to embark on resolving the issues between the two parties,” she says.

Do no harm approach

Ainomugisha says based on the principle of do no harm, they trained 30 members from both the communities and UWA officials on human rights based approach to manage conflict.

 “Do no harm emphasises that while we are protecting the environment, the rights of the indigenous communities need to be safeguarded. How do I execute my mandate without inflicting harm on the people that are living near the national park?” she adds.

Rachael Bigala, a resident of Wanale and also a community lead person in Mbale City, says the situation is normalising after years of bickering. She says for years, both sides considered each other as enemies that must be defeated.

“The community never knew why UWA was in the park. They did not know that a national park is a protected area. During the study, people shared information and ACFODE helped the community to appreciate the importance of the national park,” she says

Moses Magombe, a 54-year-old resident and a team leader of community focal persons of Subaali village, Wanale Sub-county in Mbale City, says the local communities were taught the benefits of coexisting with nature which.

Regina Bafaki, the executive director of ACFODE, says there are improved linkages between frontline communities and UWA authorities, strengthened accountability among duty bearers and protection of rights and remedy for human rights violations.         

People are more accountable

Bafaki says with strategic engagements, the human right based approach and conservation efforts of duty bearers, UWA’s actions towards frontline communities are no longer confrontational.

“Access to natural resources in the reported areas due to the resource management guidelines has greatly improved. There is also improved working relationship between frontline communities and UWA. Community members are now permitted to enter the park and are increasingly becoming accountable and protective of the park resources,” she said.

She says despite these achievements, challenges such as Gender based violence (GBV) and other injustices against women and girls continue to be a concern in communities.