NAMISINDWA – “They slaughtered an animal, skinned it and placed it on a stick at the entrance to Uganda Wildlife Authority Camp in Mukoto, Namisindwa district.
“Then they covered the entire ground with blood such that anybody would get scared.”
“And one time, the encroachers rolled stones down the hills to Mukoto UWA Camp and armed with spears, machetes and stones, the encroachers attacked the rangers, leading to a fight that left two rangers killed and several others injured”
“This is what the encroachers have been doing to scare UWA from evicting them from the park, from poaching animals, grazing and farming inside the park. And this practice of witchcraft increases when we intensify operations to forcefully rid the park of encroachers,” said Mr Fred Kizza, the former Mt Elgon conservation area manager.
Over time the tensions between fighters from the communities surrounding the park and UWA rangers have heightened to high degrees putting especially the lives of the rangers in a precarious position
The battles – over control of park land, park resources and ownership of the parkland – have seen several communities living around the park now fighting against anybody in UWA uniform and anybody they suspect to be an ally to UWA.
Many UWA rangers in Mt Elgon especially in Mukoto face the threat of death daily in the line of duty, from communities living around the park and even from the wild animals they are meant to protect.
For now close to twenty three years, Mukoto has been rocked by deadly battles between Uganda Wildlife Authority and encroachers.
The conflict in the mountainous and volcanic region of Mount Elgon over land that sparked off in 2000 and is locally often referred to as a dispute between UWA and the local communities over land in Mt Elgon National Park.
Mr Asuman Namakanga and Mr William Kandawala a, a member of Namisindwa Land Owners Association [NALOA] says for the past couple of decades, he and his members have tried to fight for their land rights and identity as indigenous citizens of Uganda— sometimes pitting themselves against the government. But like thousands of other settlers across Mt Elgon, they have failed. Mr Namakanga says he is frustrated.
He revealed that UWA has the 1954 colonial boundary, 1983/84, 1990/93 and the 2003/04 boundaries that have confused people for the last 15 years to the extent that many encroachers believe that boundaries are forged.
And Mr Namakanga’s concern is the violent confrontations his community faces at the hands of UWA rangers almost on a daily basis. He claims there has been sexual molestation of women who go to the forest inside the park to fetch firewood and mushrooms.
And because the people are landless, the only option they have is returning to their ancestral land, with UWA rangers resorting to force to evict them.
Although there are reports from the community that at times encroachers are chased towards the cliff and that many of them have jumped and died there un accounted, UWA also says their rangers have been brutally cut and abandoned deep in the forest to die o thrown at the cliff.
The community accuses UWA rangers of killings, unlawful use of force and firearms, including shootings, beatings and even crimes under international law, including rape, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
“Overlooking, ignoring, and silencing these communities’ voices are acts of violence and can severely perpetuate harms,” says Ms Grace Namukhura, a former Woman MP for Namisindwa district.
Bashir Hangi, the communications manager for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, however, told this reporter that ever since the government gazetted Mt Elgon into a protected area, UWA’s “biggest sin” has probably been implementing the law as it should be.
Reports at UWA indicate that residents who live around the park hunt wildlife for game meat, cut down trees for timber and settlement and have encroached on the parkland for farming thereby scaring away the valuable birds and animals that are a major target for tourists.
At least 35 people have been reported killed and several dozens wounded in clashes between encroachers and UWA in Mt Elgon national Park.
Here it is reported that the elderly and disabled civilians are caned in the attacks, which appears aim at driving them out from of the national Park land.
“But the brutality and ruthlessness of UWA rangers as described by the survivors suggests that their intent is to forcibly displace people, burn their crops and homes, punishing and terrorizing them to ensure that they never return,” said Ms Namukhura adds.
Mr Richard Matanda, a senior warden in charge of Bokora-Matheniko Wildlife Reserve [under Mt Elgon conservation area] says UWA rangers have suffered more attacks from the encroachers to the level of even killing them.
He explained that the accusations labeled against UWA for killings, unlawful use of force and firearms, including shootings, beatings, including rape, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are all false geared towards making government to allow them back in the National Park.
“As UWA we have suffered more, we have lost more than 20 rangers, several others have been maimed but we are focused on doing our work in the most humane way expected of us,” said Mr Matanda.
Ms Christine Nakayenze, a warden in charge of Tourism at Mt Elgon National Park says that Mt Elgon UWA rangers live dangerously due to attacks from illegal encroachers and poachers over forest resources.
She explained that the communities around Mt Elgon Park are very harsh; they have killed, injured and maimed permanently many UWA rangers.
“We have actually lost three rangers in the last two years while others have been injured or maimed permanently. It is a tough road to work especially for our rangers who are deployed inside the Park to oversee the Mt Elgon national resource,” said Ms Nakayenze.
UWA, the institution mandated to oversee wildlife management in Uganda has been having a lot of challenges with the communities living near Mt Elgon national park due to lack of clear boundary demarcation.
“There has been a lot of tension between UWA rangers and the communities, each of them ready to kill the other, local people are armed with spears, Machetes and arrows and bows while UWA is armed with guns,” says Ms Maria Namanzeyi, a neighbour to the national Park in Buwabwala sub-county.
Cause of the battles
The Mt Elgon was established in 1938 at the Uganda-Kenya border as a central forest reserve by the British colonial masters and in 1993 it was gazetted as a national park by government of Uganda without clear boundary demarcation and all attempts to formalize it have failed close to 20 years because of violence from the unfriendly neighbours to the park.
The change in status from a forest reserve to a national Park was in recognition of its water catchment, biological, cultural, historical and other values.
And this process of changing it into a Mt Elgon national Park saw local communities lose valuable herding resources and fertile agricultural land, so local people bear the cost of conservation because of foregoing the opportunity to use their land in alternate ways.
“And for lack of land for farming and settlement, communities forcefully returned to the park as this was the only place they could find free land and resources for their living,” an elder Mr Serapio Muzenze from Zesui in Sironko district said.
Today, UWA says they dig land at night and plant at night in order to evade being arrested by UWA and later claim after plants have sprout that that is their land and they should be allowed to harvest their crops.
Today, if you visited Mt Elgon Park; you notice that the park faces encroachment from local cultivators, settlers, poachers and illegal timber cutters who continue to put pressure on the park land due to big populations.
Mr Muzenze says that local people are up in arms against anybody who would deny them an opportunity to get further into the Park.
“Actually, it is not only in Mukoto here where fighting takes place but across the entire Mountain because people want back their land for cultivation and settlement. And I want to state that we are determined to get back our land through fighting because nobody seems ready to listen to us,” said Mr Muzenze.
To the rangers Mt Elgon national Park’s tremendously fertile soil, its trees, and its creatures should be protected by law for the viewing pleasure of well-off tourists who occasionally visit this resource.
But still, well over 90 percent of known communities surrounding Mt Elgon Park have made war, some frequently and quite brutally against UWA rangers who usually fall by the capricious machetes making their work murky and with no foreseeable end.
Many rangers have across their arms and the backs a grisly network of scars, testifying to their semi-enslavement in the national Park seeing men in their 20s permanently marked by brutality from the communities.
Mr Chemonges Sabilla, the director legal and corporate affairs at UWA says UWA rangers face horrific abuses, including death, injuries, permanent maiming as they struggle to protect the park.
“UWA rangers have often been the main victims of the conflict with the communities living around the park, they have faced indiscriminate killings and been victims of rudimentary tools like spears, Machetes, arrows and bow that have for long characterized the fighting in Mt Elgon national park,” said Mr Chemonges.
He explained that UWA rangers have nowhere to hide, they have to face the wrath of the communities surrounding Mt Elgon national park who see them as enemies who have denied them an opportunity to get back to their fertile land and also get Park resources.
He revealed that Mt Elgon National Park resource constitutes a unique natural heritage that is of great importance both nationally and internationally and that these resources contribute directly and indirectly to the local and national economy through revenue generation and wealth creation.
Reports from the local communities surrounding the Park indicate that in 2001- 2002 when UWA wanted to open up a boundary and re-demarcate the park with fresh demarcation; many people were caught in the park again and have since been fighting UWA.
“So what UWA did was to evict these people by first destroying their crops with many ending up homeless/.landless without compensation and this again became the genesis of the whole crisis,” says Mr Stephen Wepukhulu, a local leader in Bumbo and a member of NALOA..
Mr Wepukhulu explained that many people were left with nothing and had to start to fight UWA rangers with animosity and that to date UWA is an enemy to encroachers at not only Mukoto but the entire Mt Elgon national park.
“They are still fighting because they have been deprived of their survival; they were mushroom/wild fruit gathers, Timber collectors and poachers and farmers in Mt Elgon and will continue to fight until they are given land by UWA and government,” said Mr Wepukhulu.
This is in line with recent studies that show that the majority of the local people around protected areas have negative feelings about state policies and conservation programmes and that they don’t have time to listen to the programmes/policies.
Although UWA argues that extractive use of forest of a range of timber and non timber forest products, cultivation of the land and settlement is a threat to biodiversity, local farmers argue that if properly monitored and controlled it is not a threat to biodiversity.
Mr Matanda says the UWA rangers and the community conflicts, therefore, are a consequence of the problem of resource utilisation in conservation areas and that such conflicts do not solve this problem, however, they adversely affect biodiversity.
He explains that land use changes favoring agriculture and settlement have led to the reduction and modification of Mt Elgon Park areas, resulting in the extinction of or threat of extinction to wildlife species and natural areas which serve as a habitat for Wildlife.
A situation analysis report by UWA 2019 indicates that the communities/encroachers have caused them several deaths and numerous injuries while executing their duties in defense of conservation, wildlife protection, and maintaining this crucial water catchment area.
Mr David Kibale, the UWA honorary director whose relatives live in the Park consents the life of UWA rangers is at stake and that anytime they can lose their lives while doing their work of protecting the Park.
“And as for now, UWA should now train local communities to be friendly to rangers and to know that Mt Elgon national Park is not only a national resource but also a global one,” said Mr Kibale, a neighbour to Mt Elgon national Park and former LCV chairman and MP for Budadiri East.
But the encroachers led by Pastor Absolomi Psikwi and elder, Mr Simon Nangumba from Mukoto, are defiant.
“We are not the cause of degradation at Mt Elgon, the bible says in the end times there will be widespread drought, diseases etc. Is our area the only one in the whole world with degradation, Government should stop deceiving us,” said Pastor Psikwi, a Kalenjin who claims his grandparents came to Bumbo in Mukoto in 1922.
Mr Namakanga, an encroacher who has allegedly sued UWA for human rights abuse says local people have interpreted UWA to mean ‘Wuwa’, a Swahili word that means kill and adds that UWA has also been killing local communities.
“We need peace because we have fought for a longtime, we need a rest, government and UWA should re-demarcate the Park land and allow us some land inside the Park for farming and settlement,” Mr Namakanga said.
According to UWA deputy director operations Mr Charles Tumwesigye, more than 25 rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty over the past ten years across all protected wildlife areas.
“Some were murdered by poachers and others by armed robbers targeting cash paid by tourists at national parks gates in protected areas while others have been murdered by encroachers like those of Mukoto,” said Mr Tumwesigye.
According to the International Ranger Federation (IRF), an average of 100 game rangers die annually protecting wildlife, with over 1,000 recorded fatalities between 2004 and 2014, a figure that could easily double since many developing countries do not keep detailed records.
According to the 2014 report by IRF, which has been monitoring ranger deaths since 2000, the 2014 death toll reached 102, with poachers and militia responsible for 69 of those deaths and that of the 56 rangers who lost their lives in the line of duty between 2013 and 2014 worldwide, 29 were killed by some poachers.
Scientists have indicated that because of massive encroachment, Mt. Elgon as a water catchment area is facing depletion at a very high rate, the soils are getting lose with cracks across the mountain and anytime there will be Mudslides.
According to scientists if encroachers do not abide by conservation laws to conserve nature for generations at Mt Elgon, this will directly affect the attainment of three Sustainable Development Goals: SDG1 (no poverty) SDG2 (zero hunger) and SDG3 (good health and well-being). Ends
Mt. Elgon National Park is about 127,900ha in size and this includes the 49,382.9 ha forest that many people still claim is their ancestral land.