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Can the Basongora co-exist with game in Queen Elizabeth Park?

By Vision Reporter

Added 11th February 2007 03:00 AM

WHEN 38-year-old Wilson Okali and thousands of his Basongora tribe mates occupied Queen Elizabeth National Park last April, it was an act of defiance and hope.

WHEN 38-year-old Wilson Okali and thousands of his Basongora tribe mates occupied Queen Elizabeth National Park last April, it was an act of defiance and hope.

By Gerald Tenywa

WHEN 38-year-old Wilson Okali and thousands of his Basongora tribe mates occupied Queen Elizabeth National Park last April, it was an act of defiance and hope.

“We all want the park in place, but we occupied part of it because we have nowhere to graze our cattle,” said Okali, the chairperson of Basongora occupying the park. “The Government should address the problems facing Basongora,” he added.

He looks into my eyes while his lips shake in anger and then points at the nearby wilderness where there are more cattle than wild animals. “We have a land conflict because the population is increasing among some tribes, which are using political influence to grab our land,” said Okali.

“There is need for the Government to intervene and listen to the Basongora,” he stressed.

The Basongora have cut down thousands of trees for building their shelters, enclosures for cattle and firewood for cooking in the northern parts of the park.

The occupation of part of the park has caused concern among the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and its partners including the Wildlife Conservation Society, a US-based environment body, and World Wide Fund for Nature.

“The occupation of the park by Basongora herdsmen has created a crisis, which should be resolved soon,” said UWA’s head Moses Mapesa recently.

Mapesa said this has far-reaching implications on wildlife with some of the predators, especially the lions and hyenas, being killed as they eat the Basongora’s cattle.

There has been a long-standing problem over land shortage, causing conflicts between the residents. This is believed to be the precursor to the growing crisis.

Care International, an NGO, also cited the nomadic lifestyle of the Basongora as one of the reasons why the more-settled Bakonzo and Bamba grabbed their land.

Background to the conflict

In a report, the charity describes the Basongora as pastoralists who have dominated large parts of lowlands in Kasese district, including the current Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Outbreaks of sleeping sickness and rinderpest in the 1900-1920s reduced both their populations and that of their cattle. The survivors and their herds dispersed in Uganda and beyond the borders.

The ‘vacuum’ created by the outbreaks and migration of inhabitants is believed to have favoured the creation of game reserves around lakes Edward and George, later evolving into Queen Elizabeth National Park about five decades ago.

The tribal wars in the Rwenzori area, that culminated into the creation of Kasese district in 1970s, also progressively led to marginalisation of the Basongora, according to the report by Care International.

Further civil unrest in the region in the 1980s and 2000s compelled the Bakonzo, who are cultivators, to move from the mountains down to the low-lying areas. This caused displacement of the Basongora. The Bakonzo subsequently occupied their grazing.

A number of organisations have attempted to advocate the rights of the Basongora without significant success except for their recognition in the 1995 Constitution of Uganda as a legitimate tribe. The population census of 2002 puts the Basongora at around l0,000 people.

In 2002, a group of Basongora took advantage of the political and civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo and occupied parts of Virunga National Park. However, as soon as peace returned, wildlife authorities evicted them from the park.

Search for solutions

Okello Obongo, UWA’s chief warden at Queen Elizabeth National Park, said the Basongora returned last year and camped at the edge of the park while grazing their cattle in the park.

As a solution was being sought, the Basongora entered the park, arguing that President Yoweri Museveni had passed an order against their eviction until they are resettled.

“People do not think the Basongora are indigenous here,” said Okali. “We are not represented in the district and the Parliament. We are not nomadic as we are described. That is why we sought Museveni’s intervention.”

He said their occupation of the park has prompted the UWA to put pressure on the Government to get a solution to their problem. There are interventions that have been suggested to resettle the Basongora. This has been followed up by an inter-ministerial committee headed by the agriculture ministry. The land under Ibuga prison farm was secured for resettling the landless people.

“But the challenge is that apart from the people who came back from Congo, the number has increased because those who stayed in Uganda have also entered the park,” said Damian Akankwasa, the director of Tourism and Planning under UWA.

The inter-ministerial committee led by Hilary Onek, the Minister for Agriculture, is trying to establish people who should benefit from the land.

“As they do that we are being affected and they have not come up with a solution,” Okello said.

Can the Basongora co-exist with game in Queen Elizabeth Park?

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