• Indigenous peoples in Uganda

    Indigenous peoples in Uganda

    The indigenous peoples of Uganda include the Benet, the Batwa, the Ik, the Karamojong, and the Basongora, although they are not recognised specifically as indigenous peoples by the Government of Uganda.
  • Population

    Batwa peoples: 6,700
    Benet peoples: 8,500
    Ik peoples: 13,939
    Basongora peoples: 15,897
    Karamojong peoples: 988,429
  • Rights

    2007: Uganda is absent during the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Challenges

    Indigenous peoples in Uganda experiences many different challenges revolving land and marginalisation

Indigenous World 2020: Uganda

Indigenous Peoples in Uganda include former hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Benet and the Batwa. They also include minority groups such as the Ik and the Karamojong and Basongora pastoralists who are not recognised specifically as Indigenous Peoples by the government.

The Benet, who number slightly over 8,500 live in the north-eastern part of Uganda. The 6,700 or so Batwa, live primarily in the south-western region and were dispossessed of their ancestral land when Bwindi and Mgahinga forests were gazetted as national parks in 1991.1 The Ik number about 13,939 and live on the edge of the Karamoja/Turkana region along the Uganda/Kenya border. The Karamojong people live in the northeast of the country and numbered 1,025,8002 at the time of the 2014 national census. The Basongora numbering 15,897 are a cattle-herding community living in the lowlands adjacent to Mt. Rwenzori in Western Uganda.

All these communities have a common experience of state-induced landlessness and historical injustices caused by the creation of conservation areas in Uganda. They have experienced various human rights violations, including continued forced evictions and/or exclusions from ancestral lands without community consultation, consent or adequate (or any) compensation. Other violations include violence and destruction of homes and property, including livestock; denial of their means of subsistence and of their cultural and religious life through their exclusion from ancestral lands and natural resources. All these violations have resulted in their continued impoverishment, social and political exploitation and marginalization.

The 1995 Constitution offers no express protection for Indigenous Peoples, but Article 32 places a mandatory duty on the state to take affirmative action in favour of groups that have been historically disadvantaged and discriminated against. This provision, which was initially designed and envisaged to deal with the historical disadvantages of children, people with disabilities and women, is the basic legal source of affirmative action in favour of Indigenous Peoples in Uganda.3 The Land Act of 1998 and the National Environment Statute of 1995 protect customary interests in land and traditional uses of forests. However, these laws also authorise the government to exclude human activities in any forest area by declaring it a protected area thus nullifying the customary land rights of Indigenous Peoples.4

Uganda has never ratified ILO Convention No. 169, which guarantees the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples in independent states and it was absent in the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.

Expansion of national parks in Karamoja

Mobility is part of Karamojong pastoral strategic means of accessing seasonally available water, pasture, markets and managing climate variability in drylands. Karamoja subregion hosts the Kidepo Valley National Game Park, which is the second largest park in Uganda. The park occupies what traditionally were dry season grazing areas of the Karamojong pastoralists in the villages of Usake, Kamion, Morungole, Kawalakol, Lotukei and Lokori and it has a rich diversity of flora and fauna species. The declaration of the area as a game park without taking into account the interests of the community has inevitably fueled continuous conflict between the community and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

Unfortunately, UWA continues to claim additional territory for conservation areas thus further restricting pastoralists’ access to grazing lands and water points. This is happening in the Koteen Hills, Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve Corridor, Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve Corridor and the Kidepo Valley National Game Park Corridors.

In October 2019, UWA expanded the boundaries of the Matheniko Bokara and the Koteen Loyoro Reserves and planted beacons in the dry season grazing lands of the Kalosaris community – grazing lands, which were previously shared by Matheniko, Bokora and Jie pastoralists (clans of the Karamojong pastoralists). The expansion of the national parks was done without prior consultations with the communities and it led to additional conflicts.

Amendment of the Wildlife Act

The 2018 amended Wildlife Act allows for compensation of families and communities whose property has been destroyed by wild animals while outside of the conservation areas. However, in spite of this, the pastoralist communities living in the sub-counties of Sidok, Loyoro, Lolelia, Lobanya and Lokomebu within Kaabong and Kotido districts whose livestock and crop fields were destroyed in 2019 by elephants and buffalos, have not been compensated. The Wildlife Act does not provide for compensation where a human being is killed by a wild animal, yet it provides for compensation of crops. Instead it provides for life imprisonment for anyone caught in the act of killing a wild animal or being in possession of wildlife parts.5

Insecurity and cross-border MoU between Uganda and Kenya

Good news from the Karamoja region came in September 2019 when the governments of Kenya and Uganda formally recognised the importance of cross-border pastoralist mobility through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Cross-border mobility is an important coping mechanism against effects of climate change, which manifest themselves through increased conflicts between pastoralist communities caused by increased competition over natural resources (pasture and water) and associated livestock theft.

Moroto municipality in Karamoja Region hosted Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya for the signing of the MoU. They were accompanied by the Uganda Minister for Karamoja Affairs and area Members of Parliament of Karamoja, Pokot and Turkana to witness the signing of the MoU. The objective of the MoU is to promote sustainable peace and development between the Karamoja area in Uganda and the West Pokot and Turkana areas in Kenya. The MoU laid strong emphasis on resource sharing, creating space for opportunities, collaboration and coordination for peaceful co-existence of communities. The MoU aims to reduce cross-border conflicts by engaging local and county governments to respond rapidly to incipient conflict, by eliminating the illegal flow of small arms and weapons, strengthening community resilience, increasing surveillance of livestock theft, disease management and improving infrastructure, livelihoods and food security.

Despite the MoU, a number of conflicts have taken place after the signing. Partly these are attributed to weaknesses in the MoU such as lack of financial support and commitment on the part of the two governments. The USD$950,8476 joint work plan (2019–2023) is solely financed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). According to some observers,7  Uganda needs to augment the benefits  of the MoU interventions with the adoption of the long overdue Rangelands Management and Pastoralism Policy. This policy will facilitate efficient and sustainable use and management of rangeland resources including water, forests, pastures, and livestock resources. In addition, it will allow for better wildlife conservation and protection of the biodiversity found in the greater cattle corridor of Uganda within which Karamoja falls.

Conflicts and outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease

In the dry season beginning September 2019 till the end of the year, 10 cattle thefts and eight fights between the Local Defense Unit/ Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) and Turkana pastoralists from Kenya were reported to peacebuilding organisations (DADO, KDF and KAPDA).8 The insufficient water and pasture in the Turkana areas forced them to move into the areas commonly used by the Jie and Matheniko pastoralists resulting in increased pressure on the already scarce water and grazing resources and hence fueling inter-community conflicts.

As a result of the high concentration of livestock in fewer areas where pasture and water can be accessed, livestock diseases have increased. A Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in November 2019 led to the closure of all livestock markets in Karenga, Kaabong, Kotido, Abim, Napak and Lira Districts, and it is believed that this closure will continue until August 2020. By the end of 2019, vaccination of livestock had not yet started. This resulted in food and income insecurity for many pastoralist households that are dependent on livestock for their income and food.


The continued gold mining activities coupled with leasing of land by the miners/mining companies in Lopedo and Rupa sub-counties in Kaabong and Moroto districts have denied pastoralists access to pasture and water. To make matters worse, the existing water points are contaminated by the poisonous mercury used by miners. The gold miners burn the pastures and dig deep holes that are causing accidents and blocking pastoralist access to routes during grazing. The burning, deforestation and use of mercury in the area are destroying the rangelands and are causing environmental degradation and desertification.

Climate change threatening Basongora existence

Climate change is said to have effect on human settlement as it forces people to migrate continually in search of water and pasture. In the process of mobility, both humans and livestock are exposed to dangers. For example, in 2019, a lion (perhaps in search of prey) attacked one Musongora man at his home and killed him. This is one case among many cases of lions, hyenas and other wild animals killing people, cows and goats. The killing of livestock renders the Basongora cattle keepers more vulnerable as it impacts directly on their source of livelihoods.

As a result of climate change, domestic animals have tended to move further away from homes in search for pasture. In September 2019, a Musongora man had his cows stray into Queen Elizabeth National Park. This led to a confrontation with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) officers who impounded his 150 cows. The case ended up in court where the UWA officers claimed that they had impounded only 136 cows. UWA was able to get court authority to auction and sell about 30 heads of cattle on the grounds that it had to defray the costs of the suit. Therefore, the pastoralist lost 44 head of cattle, yet the National Park occupies what was legitimately the ancestral land of the Basongora people, but which was taken away forcefully by the government.

The Basongora people therefore find themselves in the middle of a paradox where they have to live and pay allegiance to a government that has created a space in which they have been dispossessed of their

ancestral land and where wild animals attack the community members and their livestock. It is therefore widely viewed by the Basongora people that the laws of Uganda are much more in favour of wildlife than the people.

Conservation activities violate human rights of the Benet people

Land rights of the Benet people were not improved in 2019. The Government continued to deny the Benet community their rights and the Benet people continued pressing for their rights. The creation of the Mount Elgon National Park in 1992 led to dispossession of the Indigenous Benet people from their ancestral land. Despite a positive court ruling in 2005 stating the Benet people are the historical and Indigenous inhabitants of the area and they are entitled to stay in the area and carry out their economic and agricultural activities undisturbed, the harassment and human rights violations continue. In 2019, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) continued to harass the Benet people when they were found in the forest carrying out cultural activities like the livelihood practice of grazing their animals.

The amended 2018 Wildlife Act gives UWA more powers than before to harass the Benet community when found in the forest. For example, any person found in the forest is fined the equivalent of USD$139 or faces imprisonment for a period not known by the Indigenous Benet people. For stray animals, the fine per animal is the equivalent of  USD$14 for cattle, USD$8 for a goat, USD$56 for a dog, USD$6 for a cat and USD$14 for a chicken. A person found urinating in the park is fined USD$28. These punitive restrictions deny the Benet their rights to fully enjoy their right to their Indigenous land that include access to pasture, medicinal herbs and cultural sites.

In late September 2019, UWA found some Benet people grazing around the boundary of the Mount Elgon National Park. Kiprotich Simon, one of the young boys grazing, was almost beaten to death by the UWA rangers. His mother, who was nearby milking cows raised alarm, which attracted the neighbourhood. The community retaliated by pursuing the UWA staff who escaped without any injury. However, the UWA station was demolished and razed, which led to more conflict.

On 23 February 2019, one boy named Alfred Cheratta was beaten to death by UWA rangers when he was found collecting rafters to put up his grass thatched house. This happened in the Kapkwata government softwood plantation in Kween district. No compensation is envisaged.

On 3 July 2019, a Benet man Cherop Sam was shot dead by UWA staff while riding on a motorcycle at Chekwasta sub-county in Kapsekek. The reason given was that they were scaring away wildlife that had come to invade the community. Out of anger, the community retaliated by killing one UWA staff. Since then, many members of the Benet community have been arrested for taking the law into their own hands including Mr. Malinga Acasha, a district councillor from Suam sub county of Bukwo district. It is alleged that he mobilised the community for revenge. The whereabouts of Mr Malinga, up to the end of 2019, were still unknown.

On 6 September 2019, the Benet community, with assistance from a non-government organisation Solidarity Uganda, organised a peaceful demonstration against the UWA land grabbing by marching from Benet sub-county up to Kwosir sub-county. That notwithstanding, UWA has not changed its practices.

Impact of climate change on the Benet people

The effects of climate change on the Benet people in 2019 arose out  of rainfall unpredictability. The first rains that would normally start late February delayed and only started in May when they would normally be coming to an end. They persisted and overlapped with the second rains that normally last from August to October and on until the end of December. The long and heavy rains led to floods and mudslides, which negatively impacted food production. This will inevitably lead to food scarcity in 2020.

Impact of climate change on the Batwa people

The effects of climate change on the Indigenous Batwa people are worsening day by day. Being landless, they cannot settle in one place for a long period and have to periodically move long distances in search of water, food and firewood. This often leads to their women being raped, beaten or shot at by game rangers who do not want them to enter the national parks to access the natural resources like firewood, medicinal plants or water.

Because of prolonged rains in 2019 due to climate change, the mainly mountainous area of Kisoro district and some parts of the neighbouring districts experienced mudslides. These led to the death of one woman from Rushayu in the Murubindi Batwa community in Rubanda district. The landslides also led to destruction of four Batwa houses in Gitebe community in Kanaba sub-county. Crops were destroyed by excess rain and landslides meaning that overall yields for 2020 will be poor and hence further increase food insecurity.

Finally, as a result of landslides in early 2019, some homes were swept away leaving the affected families without shelter. This was exacerbated by the fact that the landless Batwa mostly live on other people’s lands. In almost all cases, the landowners prohibit the Batwa from both constructing permanent houses and burying their dead on the land.

As a coping mechanism to these climate changes, the few Batwa who own land have planted some trees to avert landslides. In addition, those who have iron-roofed houses have tried to build water tanks to harvest and store rainwater. Others have constructed energy saving stoves that use less firewood than the traditional open-air cooking stoves. It is hoped that the Batwa community will continue to advance and be able to build adaptation and mitigation structures for enhancing resilience to climate change.

Education among the Batwa people

Notwithstanding the challenges the Batwa are facing from the effects of climate change, some positive developments are taking place in the community. For example, during 2019, three Batwa (one female and two males) graduated with bachelor’s degrees. Two of them with a bachelor of social work and social administration while another with a bachelor of education. This is good progress in the Batwa community, which is gradually trying to embrace education. In addition, other Batwa children sat for national examinations at primary, ordinary and advanced levels. They are awaiting the results and will be joining secondary schools and universities respectively. Education is expected to open their opportunities for other livelihood options including paid employment and entry into business.

Positive developments

On a positive note, there is a growing favourable political will towards the Indigenous Peoples in Uganda. For example, the Uganda government through the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) with support from UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) is in the process of drafting the National Affirmative Action Programme for Indigenous People in Uganda (NAAP) on policy matters.

Furthermore, the Indigenous Peoples and communities in Uganda have formed, under the on-going programmes in the MGLSD, a committee of 23 members. The Chairperson of the committee is the Permanent Secretary of the MGLSD. Each of the five Indigenous communities in Uganda is represented by two members, one male and one female.

With support from the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Indigenous people were able to send one person from the Indigenous Benet community to the session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in Banjul, the Gambia in October 2019.


Notes and references

  1. United Organisation of Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), Report about Batwa data. August 2004, Uganda, p.3.
  2. Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2016, National and Housing and Population Census 2014. Available at: http://library.health.go.ug/publications/leadership-and- governance-monitoring-and-evaluation/population/national-population-and
  3. Minority Rights Group International (MRG), 2001, Uganda: The marginalization of Minorities (p.9), Available at: https://minorityrights.org/publications/uganda- the-marginalization-of-minorities-december-2001/
  4. Land Act (1998), Articles 2, 32; and National Environment Statute (1995), Article 46.
  5. Amendments circular; https://www.primeugandasafaris.com/safaris-news/ president-museveni-approves-the-uganda-wildlife-act-2019-uganda-safari- html
  6. The Kenya–Uganda (Turkana/West Pokot–Karamoja) Cross-Border Programme for Sustainable Peace and Develop-ment Implementation Roadmap: Joint Work plan 2019+(2020–2023)
  1. Loupa, 2019 – Article -Who gains from the Uganda –Kenya cross border http://www.celep.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/2019-Who-gains-from- the-Uganda-Kenya-cross-border-MoU_Loupa-Pius_FINAL-270919.pdf 
  2. DADO – Dynamic Agro-pastoralist Development Organisation, KDF – Karamoja Development Forum, KAPDA – Karamoja Peace and Development Agency).


Benjamin Mutambukah is formerly the Coordinator of the Coalition of Pastoralist Civil Society Organisations in Uganda and Chairman of the Eastern and Southern African Pastoralists Network (ESAPN). He is currently ESAPN representative on the Global Steering Committee of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP). He is passionate on matters of human rights for marginalised communities.

Chebet Mungech is the Coordinator of Mt. Elgon Benet Indigenous Ogiek Ndorobos (MEBIO).

Yesho Alex is the Chairperson of MEBIO.

Loupa Pius is a Project Officer at the Dynamic Agro-pastoralist Development Organisation.

Penninah Zaninka is the Coordinator of the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (OUBDU).

Edith Kamakune is a human rights and conflict resolution practitioner in Uganda.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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