The Indigenous World 2023: Burundi
The term “Twa” is used to describe minority populations historically marginalised both politically and socially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
In Burundi, the Twa are considered one of three components of the population (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa). They are estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 individuals although it is difficult to establish a precise figure. There has, in fact, been no official ethnic census since the 1930s and, in any case, particularly in the case of Burundi, such figures are inaccurate (mixed race marriages, porous boundaries between the different population groups, etc). Moreover, most Twa do not have a national identity card and are thus not included when drawing up the census.
Former hunter/gatherers, the Twa were gradually expelled from their forests following different waves of deforestation and forestry protection over the centuries. This phenomenon has redefined this people's way of life: "As the forest was turned into pasture and fields, so many Batwa came to depend on pottery that this replaced the forest and hunting as a symbol of Batwa identity."
During the first part of the 20th century, emerging industrialisation in Burundi, the gradual opening up of the country to international trade and greater access to clay products resulted in a considerable weakening of their pottery trade. The main economic activity of the Twa was thus again undermined, turning them into some of the most vulnerable people in Burundi.
The term indigeneity takes on a particular dimension in the Burundian context given that identity-based claims among the different population components have resulted in numerous conflicts and massacres over the last decades. These conflicts, all too often analysed as ethnic divisions, in fact arise more from a reconstruction of identities and political tensions. In this context, recognition of Twa indigeneity has been the subject of discussion, even controversy, particularly in the early 2000s. Burundi abstained, for example, from adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007.
The end of the Burundian civil war (2005) and the gradual emergence of an international Indigenous Peoples' movement have both, however, contributed to placing the issue of the Twa on the agenda. Since 2005, following the establishment of ethnic statistics, the Twa now enjoy representation in the country's main decision-making bodies.
The events that have affected this community over the past year demonstrate, however, that despite the dynamic nature of local and international associations aimed at defending the Twa, and a relative desire for their political integration, they remain highly vulnerable in both economic and political terms.
General developments in Burundi’s political and legislative context
No new laws were passed promoting or protecting the rights of Burundi’s Indigenous Peoples in 2022. The State of Burundi has, however, co-opted a woman from the Batwa community into the government during this 2020-2025 legislature: the Hon. Imelde Sabushumike, current Minister of National Solidarity, Social Affairs, Human Rights and Gender. There are also a number of Batwa Indigenous community members with positions in national and regional institutions, such as:
- Goreth Bigirimana, Member of the Assembly of the East African Community;
- Charlotte Rukundo, member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a commission, the mandate of which was renewed in 2022;
- Léonard Habimana, who works in the General State Inspectorate;
- Six Members of Parliament, four men and two women;
- Mariam Iranyishuye, member of the National Women's Forum;
- The Hon Vital Bambanze, elected for a second term as Member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues;
- The Hon. Emmanuel Nengo, selected and assigned to the Coordinator’s Office for the U.N. System in Burundi by the OHCHR as a Senior Fellow.
Education of Indigenous Batwa children in Burundi
The number of Batwa children attending primary and secondary school is still insufficient. The number is beginning to increase, however, especially due to the free education measure introduced by the government in 2006 and awareness-raising efforts among the Batwa.
Unissons-nous pour la Promotion des Batwa (UNIPROBA), an Indigenous organization in Burundi, estimated for 2022, the number of Batwa pupils attending primary school was 9,720 across the country's 18 provinces, while those attending secondary school was estimated at some 2,610 children. It is also reported that there are 52 Batwa students in various public and private universities, 223 Batwa who have so far completed secondary school but are unemployed, and 34 Batwa who have completed university.
The main difficulties preventing the Batwa from accessing education are poverty, hunger, ignorance, lack of follow-up, marginalization, and early marriage, among other things.
Situation of Indigenous women in Burundi
Together with the Welthungerhilfe programme, and in consortium with two other civil society organizations, UNIPROBA is working to promote human rights in general and women's rights, in particular, through a project to strengthen the rights of small farmers and marginalized groups (Batwa ethnic minority). This project began in 2022 and is providing training on human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights to Batwa beneficiaries, including Batwa women. This has resulted in the election of Batwa women to local councils at the hill (commune) level. Because of the awareness raising that has been conducted, many women have also joined cooperative movements, such as savings and credit associations, in order to gain some financial autonomy within their households.
In March 2022, the Central African Sub-Regional Assembly on Indigenous Peoples’ Areas and Territories was held in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. At this conference, a declaration was produced by the participants and sent to a number of different stakeholders. This declaration contains a commitment to help promote the Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC)-Territories of Life from the following perspectives:
- By raising awareness among Indigenous Peoples and local communities of the value of their territories and further mobilizing them around self-determination for the governance and management of those territories;
- By supporting the communities to build their own capacities to better document and advocate for legal recognition and defend their Territories of Life;
- By supporting the APAC Global Consortium to complete its regionalization process;
- An institutional commitment to recognizing APAC-Territories of Life at the sub-regional level with legal guarantees, following the example of African Protected Areas and traditional knowledge guidelines;
- Legal recognition, in each country, of APAC-Territories of Live by means of legislation;
- By creating a monitoring group to oversee the “APAC quality” of Territories of Life and their networks in the sub-region.
The 1st APAC meeting was held in Kigali, Rwanda, in July 2022. During this Congress, the delegates from Indigenous organizations made the following commitments:
- To deploy our wisdom, energies and traditional knowledge to advance the conservation and sustainable use of our biodiversity in a culturally appropriate manner and from a rights-based approach.
- To continue to transfer our traditional knowledge to the next generation through our cultural channels and forms.
- To ensure that our natural resource areas are proactively protected and rehabilitated, and to work collaboratively as equal partners, where necessary, with State and non-state conservation agencies.
- To establish a pan-African body of Indigenous Peoples and local communities that will serve as a platform for our shared concerns, actions, programmes and cross-learning among States and that will follow up on the implementation of this declaration. To build national and sub-regional networks to feed into the pan-African platform.
Vital Bambanze is a Mutwa from Burundi. He is a founding member of UNIPROBA and was Chair and Central Africa Representative of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC), and Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). He is now a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). He has a degree in Social Arts from the Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Burundi.
This article is part of the 37th edition of 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 2023 in full here.
Tags: Global governance