The Batwa are often described as one of the world’s forgotten communities. Ironically, their history is interwoven into the history of rainforests and high altitude wetlands in the Albertine Rift eco-region. Though the ecosystems that have depended on for centuries have changed due to human activities, they have resisted the onslaught of civilisation on their social and cultural fabric. They are part of nature and depend on nature – directly. The Batwa are an integral part of the communities that depend on wetland resources found in the Rugezi Marsh ecosystem in the Northern Province of Rwanda. They are part of the beneficiary community of a project being implemented jointly by two Rwandan institutions, Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management (KCCEM) and the Albertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOS) in partnership with the International Crane Foundation / Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership. It is probably naïve to simply describe them as project beneficiaries as they role that they are expected to play makes them more than just beneficiaries. In as much as we expect them to benefit, they have a role to play.
It is known that the Batwa are proud of their heritage and rarely intermingle with other communities. The majority of them do not actively participate in mainstream socio-economic activities and therefore depend on Mother Nature for their daily needs. Their high level of dependence on natural resources found in wetland ecosystems is the reason why they are the target of our project’s environmental education and conservation awareness initiatives. We had to bring them on board and there had to be a way of doing so without forcing them to change their norms and values. In 2012, contacts with the community were established and after cordial deliberations, project staff realised that in order to secure buy-in from the Batwa, the project had to use schools as an avenue to persuade the community to participate in conservation activities. A biodiversity threat assessment carried out during the inception of the project revealed that most of the cases of uncontrolled fires and direct threats to wildlife could be traced to socio-economic activities in Batwa villages. Avoiding blatantly blaming them for all the threats to biodiversity at Rugezi Marsh, it was agreed that the project would start by providing educational materials for Batwa children. The idea is to win the hearts and minds of the Batwa community as a precursor to making them true custodians of wetland resources and associated biodiversity. The project seeks to make them proud custodians of their heritage – including the elegant Grey Crowned Crane. This is just a start. It is one of the many innovative approaches we are using to make our project truly people-centred.
The year started on a good note for the Batwa community as the educational materials were handed out to the schoolchildren on the 7th of January 2013. We acknowledge the dedication and professionalism of project implementers from ARCOS and KCCEM.