A group of indigenous people who were evicted from Mt Elgon National Park Forest Reserve, in Kween District, has demanded the intervention of Justice Catherine Bamugemereire’s Commission into Land Matters to secure their permanent settlement on the land where they were temporarily settled some 10 years ago.
Through their leaders and civil society actors, the Benet-Ndorobo people say, since they have exhausted all avenues including petitions to Parliament, the prime minister’s office, court among others, with no favourable answer in sight, the intervention of Justice Bamugereire’s Commission into Land Matter is necessary.
Mr William Cheptegei, a Benet-Ndorobo elder who says he has attended various meetings with government officials who have promised to solve their problems but the promises are empty.
“The Benet people were unfairly treated by the colonial government that gazetted their area as a national park without considering their future. All the subsequent government have promised to solve the problem but their promises are empty,” he said. “We believe the Commission into Land Matters should visit the area where we were temporarily settled and listen to our grivances,” he said.
Members of the minority group say their ancestors lived in the forest since “the time of creation” and the parts of the reserve where they were temporarily settled in 2008, should be de-gazetted as a human settlement.
Mr David Mande, a Community Activista for Action Aid Uganda, a civil society organisation that works to ensure that the community enjoy their land rights, says because the land is still treated as a forest reserve, and an illegal settlement, the Benet-Ndorobo people cannot easily set up social services like schools and health centres.
“Pregnant women are dying because they cannot access the basic antenatal care, most children here are not immunised and pneumonia is killing them regularly because of the cold weather condition,” he said.
He said the forest reserve where residents used to get herbal medicine is a no-go area since it’s guarded by Uganda Wildlife Authority wardens who he accused of brutalising whoever is found inside the forest.
Mr Mande’s brother, Mr Titus Sande, says his 12 children are likely to become semi-literate because the only community primary school in the area does not have qualified teachers.
“My children cannot walk to better schools that are about 20 kilometres away,” Mr Sande says. “Government displaced us and they don’t care about providing social services as if we are not Ugandans.”
Their frustration, Mr Mande says, is manifested in several scenarios like the 2015 consent judgement in Mbale in 2005 by Justice J.B. Katutsi that ordered the de-gazettement of the area that sits on 2,500 hectares as a wildlife protected area and declared the Benet community as historical and indigenous inhabitants of the area has never been implemented.
Although it was consented to by the Attorney General, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and representatives of the Benet people, it has never been implemented.
They affected people who are about 2,500 mainly stay in Yatui Parish in Kween District and in Rwanda and Kisangani refugee camps on the slopes of the mountain.
The wrangle over the land started in 1936 when the British colonial government gazetted the Mt. Elgon Forest area as a crown forest.
At that time, the Benet community in the forest was small and surviving as pastoralists and fruit and honey gatherers.
In 1983, the government of the day allocated them land between rivers Kere and Kaptokwoi and beneficiaries were given certificates of permanent residency.
In 1993, the status of the area was changed from a forest reserve to a national park which displaced them to current location, which is still not gazetted as land for human settlement.