Uganda: Evicted from their ancestral land 13 years ago, the Indigenous Benet people still await justice

Uganda’s Indigenous Benet people continue to languish in deplorable conditions in ramshackle resettlement camps with little access to water, sanitation and healthcare 13 years after being violently evicted from their ancestral forest lands in Mount Elgon, Amnesty International said in a report out today.

The report, 13 Years in Limbo: Forced Evictions of the Benet in the Name of Conservation, based on interviews with 61 evictees documents the numerous impacts of forced evictions against the community of about 18,000 people, including on their right to health, adequate housing and education. It found that the Benet are still reeling from the disruption to their way of life and remain at risk of physical harm from the forest rangers despite repeated promises by the government – including President Museveni – to remedy their plight.

The Benet were first evicted from the forest by the National Forest Authority in 1983, and subsequently by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in 1993 when the Ugandan government declared the forest a national park. In 2008, UWA forcefully evicted about 200 families of the Benet, this time targeting members of the community who the UWA claimed were still settled inside the national park despite government allocating the same land to them after the previous evictions.

Not only were the Benet violently evicted from the forest and robbed of their ancestral home but today, 13 years later, they are still living in temporary settlements made of flimsy huts of mud and stick, deprived of essential services such as clean drinking water and electricity and cut off from healthcare and education.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.

“The Ugandan government must recognize the Benet as the Indigenous inhabitants of the forest and restore them to their ancient home.”

The Benet have accused UWA of killings, unlawful use of force and firearms, including shootings, beatings, and even crimes under international law, including torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, when they try to enter the forest which was declared a national park in 1993. They also report being subjected to extortion by UWA wardens deployed to prevent them from returning to the forest to cultivate crops, graze animals or perform their cultural rituals.

“President Museveni has repeatedly promised to take action and has at least twice directed the Office of the Prime Minister to do so, but years have come and gone, and the Benet people remain in limbo with nowhere to turn for justice. This situation must be immediately remedied to comply with Ugandan and international law,” said Deprose Muchena.

Amnesty International has raised the findings with various state agencies in Uganda, including the Office of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Health and is in the process of engaging with them to see that the rights of the Benet are upheld.

Forced evictions across Uganda

The Benet people are not the only community to have suffered from forced evictions. In May 2018, Ugandan soldiers and UWA forcibly evicted communities in Apaa, northern Uganda, claiming that they had settled in a wildlife reserve. By May 2018, more than 250 homes had been burnt and destroyed, leaving hundreds of people, including children, homeless. Similar unlawful and violent evictions continued in 2019 and 2020.

As of January 2021, more than 35,000 people from over 2,300 families had been forcibly evicted from their homes in Kiryandongo by Ugandan security forces to make way for the industrial farming projects.

In 2016, President Museveni appointed a commission led by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire to investigate land disputes nationwide. But the Commission’s final report has still not yet been made public.

“This speaks to the broader need for the Ugandan government to prevent forced evictions in law and practice. Not only must the Ugandan government ensure the rights of Indigenous peoples are respected, including with respect to ownership of their ancestral land, but it must also protect the right to housing of all without discrimination,” Deprose Muchena said.

At times the government has cited climate change and the need to mitigate against it through conservation as the reason for evicting the Benet people from their land. Indigenous peoples all over the world have lived sustainably with their ecosystems for centuries, and Amnesty believes that, if the state worked with the Benet to co-manage Mount Elgon, they would continue to do so.

“Academic research shows that conservation works best when the state works with Indigenous peoples as equal partners in conservation. It must not result in human rights violations, or be used to justify them,” said Deprose Muchena.

“Evictions must always be a tool of last resort and must not be conducted without following due process requirements as per international human rights standards. Uganda is a signatory to African and global treaties that stipulate this irreducible minimum and prohibit forces evictions. It must comply with them.”

The Benet are a hunter-gatherer and pastoralist community widely referred to by the pejorative word “Ndorobo”, meaning the “primitive people of the mountain”. Their land issues date back to the colonial period when the British colonial government declared the Mount Elgon moorlands and grasslands, home to their ancestors from time immemorial, as a forest reserve but they have carried on and worsened with each passing decade since independence.