What you need to know:
- Communities insist that areas around Mt Elgon park is their ancestral land but UWA maintains its protected.
Nicholas Ruto lies in excruciating pain after he was allegedly shot while grazing cattle near Mt Elgon National Park, a sprawling 431 square miles in eastern Uganda.
Mr Ruto, 27, counts himself among the 15,000 people who constitute the minority Benet Mosopisyek indigenous community. The community was evicted from the national park in 1993 when it was gazetted by the government.
“I was shot by the ranger, and I still have a bullet in my body after failing to get money for the operation. [The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) ranger] found me grazing animals and I decided to [flee] with my animals, but instead he decided to shoot me from behind,” Mr Ruto, whose large intestine was severely damaged and experiences difficulties in easing himself, told Sunday Monitor.
“I am the breadwinner and my children dropped out of school due to lack of school fees,” he said.
The Benet originally lived in the lower plains of Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween districts along the drought and cattle rustling prone border of Karamoja Sub-region.
Part of their settlements and grazing fields were inside the national park until they were evicted, receiving 6,000 hectares of land. These were reportedly grabbed by imposters.
“Many people have been killed and tortured by rangers. We are born from this land and we grew up from here,” Ms Jesca Chemutai, a local official, said, adding: “As chairperson [of Siywo Village, Kapsapit Parish in Chepkwasta Sub-county, Bukwo District], I am not happy about this government.”
Ms Phyris Chemose, whose son—Clinton Kiplimo—was shot dead aged just 19, said his crime was grazing the animals near the park.
A case was reported at Bukwo Central Police Station and the file was transferred to Mbale High Court.
“I want to abandon the case because it’s becoming expensive to the family. Going to court and hiring lawyers is very expensive and yet the case has stayed in the court without ruling,” she said.
“As a family, we are suffering. I sold my small plot of land to cater for burial expenses. My husband is disabled and we have become beggars in the community.”
Mr Alex Yesho, the chairperson of the Benet Mosopisyek community, said they have lived on the contested land all their lives.
“The government assumed that the locals were destroying the forest. The forest has existed with people,” Mr Yesho said.
The community has an “emotional attachment” to the forest since it is the final resting place of many.
On October 31, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja invited some officials for a meeting to discuss the Cabinet directive on the proposals to resettle minority tribes of Uganda.
“Cabinet under minute no 109 (CT 2022) constituted a committee under my leadership to discuss proposals of resettling the Batwa, the Bambuti, the Benet and other minority groups in Uganda in the Kyangwali and Nakivale refugee settlement,” the letter reads in part.
However, locals headed by Mr Yesho declined to be resettled in the refugee camp, claiming they are not refugees.
“We cannot be resettled in a refugee camp. We are not refugees. The government has used the word ‘conservation’ to grab our land,” Mr Yesho argued.
Mr David Chemutai, the coordinator of the Benet Mosopisyek community, said they were evicted from their ancestral land illegally.
“Whenever our community tries to access the ancestral land for resources and cultural issues, they face human rights abuses like torture such as shootings, and illegal arrests,” Mr Chemutai said, citing three people who were reportedly shot last month.
“We need dialogue to bring this issue to an end. We need a joint conservation. The community should be given a chance to conserve the forest,” he added.
Mr Fred Toskin, 49, another victim, said he was shot by rangers as he was coming back from a trading centre.
“There was an alarm in the area. When I tried to see what was happening, I was shot and I was seriously injured. Part of my knee was damaged, [now] I cannot walk,” Mr Toskin said.
Mr Yesho told Sunday Monitor that the area is enveloped by insecurity.
“UWA impounds our cows and they don’t give us receipts after paying the fine. If one is arrested, they demand Shs500,000 for one to be released,” he said, further alleging that UWA rangers have a torture house in the area where all unimaginable horrors take place.
Mr Julius Maket Korose, an elder, said they receive many threats from UWA rangers.
‘They don’t want anyone to ask why someone has been arrested. They start threatening to arrest you. We don’t have communication between the UWA and homeless people,” he said.
Mr Patrick Chemutai, a resident of Roroka village in Tuika Sub-county, Kween District, said he was shot by rangers on October 18 when his cows crossed to the park accidentally.
“When I tried to follow up my cows, I was instead shot by the ranger. I was injured and admitted to hospital,” he said.
Mr Alex Augustine Zakayo, who works with Lobby Group, an NGO, said the community has been neglected.
“Pregnant mothers walk long distances to access health services. There is no piped water, roads and electricity. This is a community that used to depend on the forest for firewood and yet you don’t have electricity.”
Ms Hope Atuhaire, the Resident District Commissioner of Kween, said the Office of the Prime Minister was considering resettling the affected people.
She added: “Most of them are not happy to be resettled somewhere else, but we need to leave the forest free.”
Ms Atuhaire said her office is investigating allegations of extortion.
“UWA are taking people’s money and they are not receiving receipts. They impound cows because it has become a money generating activity for them,” she noted.
No love lost
Ms Bessie Ajilong, the RDC of Bukwo, however, said the community has failed to respect the jurisdiction of UWA.
“It’s not right for the community to encroach on the gazetted park. The community have for long thought that the park is their land. They have failed to accept that the land belongs to UWA,” Ms Ajilong said.
According to the RDC, some communities have violated the law by planting marijuana in the park. She also said that a recent shooting was prompted by an attack on UWA wardens.
“UWA don’t intend to shoot and kill. They shoot to injure but not to kill. As long as people continue invading the park, UWA will continue pushing them out and so long as they continue encroaching in the park, they will continue having wounds,” she said.
Mr Joseph Chepsikor, an elder, said the situation turned volatile on April 25 during an eviction which targeted Kaptorokwo, Kapnoibei and Kital villages in Kapchorwa and Kween Districts.
“We are spending nights in the cold during this rainy season,” he said.
A letter from Chepsikor, which is addressed to the director of UWA and the third Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Rukia Nakadama Isanga, reads: “I am writing to inform you that the issue of the Benet was raised in Parliament by Mr William Chemonges [Kween County MP]. As we look for a lasting solution for the displaced people, you should stop the evictions on the temporal resettlement camps with immediate effect.”
A 2021 report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), a global human rights organisation, reveals that for several decades, the indigenous Benet people have formally petitioned for the return of their ancestral land atop Mt Elgon.
The report also highlights a landmark victory in October 2020 when the Ugandan government issued a memorandum of understanding which granted the Benet people regulated access to various resources within the park, including cultural sites and cattle grazing areas.
Mr Denis Cherop, the LC3 chairperson of Kaseko Sub-county in Kween District, said several women have been raped inside the forest.
He called for gazetting the boundary between the national park and the community.