Mar 25, 2008



Status: Indigenous Peoples

Population: 36,228 within Rwanda (2012 district records)

Areas: Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Eastern Congo

Language: Kinyarwanda

Religion: Christian and Traditional Spirituality




The Batwa have been Member of UNPO since 17 January 1993; initially represented by the Association for the Promotion of Batwa (APB), who later merged into the Community of Indigenous Peoples of Rwanda (CAURWA). At the request of APB, UNPO sent a mission to Rwanda and neighboring countries, Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi in 1994, and again in 2010. The current organization representing the Batwa at UNPO is the Cultural Conservation Act, since restrictions on the freedom of association have interfered with previous organizations, especially CAURWA.



The Batwa were originally based around the mountainous forest areas around Lake Kivu and Lake Edward in the Great Lakes region.  Since they were evicted from the forests, they live as squatters in various rural areas.

The estimated population of the Batwa in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Eastern Congo is between 86,000 and 112,000. In Rwanda, the Batwa are one of three ethnic groups. They make up only 0.4 % of the population whereas the Hutu and Tutsi comprise 85 % and 14 % respectively of the total population in Rwanda.

As the Batwa were driven out of their forest many turned to pottery and to some extent, this craft is now synonymous with Batwa ethnic identity. Those who do not work as potters are day laborers, small-scale cultivators or beggars. Due to their low social status, the Batwa have limited access to education, and there is a high illiteracy rate among them. Consequently, very few Batwa have regular jobs. The Batwa earn well below the per capita income of 200 US $.



The Batwa form an isolated and marginalized group in Rwandan society and often face discrimination. They have little access to representation in government; they are marginalised in education, media and health care and are discriminated against in the job market. Two separate policies of land allocation failed to properly include the Batwa. Both government policy and the legal system, far from aiding their predicament, have further exacerbated their circumstance and resulted in ancestral lands being taken away.

Clay pottery became a brief reprieve from lack of landownership for the Batwa. Today however it is no longer a viable way of life because of competition from more industrial producers and new government policies. In September 2005, the government of Rwanda established the new national land law, which has removed more Batwa off of their land. The 2005 law is part of an attempt by the national government to enhance agricultural productivity by claiming underutilised land and by enhancing the productivity of existing farms. The marshes in which the Batwa have been producing clay have been targeted as unused land and the Batwa have once again been forced to move on to make their means elsewhere.  There is no legal recourse through which the Batwa can express their grievances as, based on its western counterpart, Rwandan property law gives little room for unofficial property rights and are incompatible with Batwa culture. It is incapable of encapsulating the unofficial African land rights of ancestry and the communal culture of the Batwa does not fit in with the individualist single deeds required by law.

It has been a continuous battle to obtain recognition of the Batwa as a uniquely underprivileged and discriminated minority group. This has its roots in legislation introduced in 2003 which prevents recognition of the Batwa as a distinct ethnic group. This lack of recognition stifles the ability of NGOs and the media to recognize and address Batwan grievances.



Most Batwa, like many Rwandans, are Christians, while some still practice traditional animist religions.

It has long been documented that the cultural histories, habits and practices of the Batwa differ from those of other Rwandans. Batwa tradition is rich in song, dance and music and cultural gatherings are firmly integrated in the social life of the Batwa.

Traditionally, Batwan societies are non-hierarchical, with collective decision-making being the norm. This also applies to ownership of property and land rights, a characteristic that has resulted in difficulties in encompassing Batwan communities into post-colonial individualistic property law.

The forest was an important core feature of the Batwan identity and way of life. Forest based Pygmy peoples consider themselves to be in an intimate, nurturing relationship with the forest. They believe that the forest is the source of all abundance, and this is maintained by sharing between people and forest spirits, and by singing and dancing rituals that ensure the support of spirits to help them satisfy all their needs. This is based on the reality of the relationship that Batwans had with the forest in the past as traditionally hunter-gathering societies that relied on the forest for all means of subsistence.

Forest-based Pygmy peoples have a wide range of specialised skills and knowledge necessary to carry out their forest-based livelihoods, including an incomparable knowledge of plants and animals, and skills in medicine, music, dance and crafts.

As the Batwa were driven out of their forest many turned to pottery and to some extent, this craft is now synonymous with Batwa ethnic identity. The men collect and carry the clay to the women who then make and fire the pots before they are sold.



The Batwa are recognized as the first inhabitants of the land around the Great Lakes region of central Africa. There is little documentation of Batwa history prior to colonialism, and even during the period of the Belgian colonial administration. Recent history shows a long trend of forced and often aggressive government-sponsored relocations of Batwa populations in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s from the forests in order to create National Parks to regulate and promote tourism, or for developmental activities such as logging and tea plantations. In 1974, legislation was introduced to create national parks as part of a wider campaign to enhance the tourism industry. The legislation outlawed all forms of game hunting, including fishing and animal trapping, which gravely affected the Batwa’s traditionally hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

By the 1990s the Batwa population, forced to practice clandestine hunting and gathering, were forcefully expelled from their ancestral forest to make way for national parks and military training areas. With no compensation and a lack of alternatives, most have become beggars and landless labourers, while others became potters to generate income.

Very few Batwa were given work in the National Parks despite their vast and long-established knowledge of the environs. In past decades this relocation was often conducted without consultation or warning. Compensation was lacking and families were often left landless or moved to infertile rocky outcrops.

Batwa communities had lived off the land for centuries, and had no economic or agricultural skills to adapt to their new environments. Many became destitute and today a large proportion are beggars or conduct a hand-to-mouth existence, working perhaps as porters, carrying neighbouring farmers’ produce to markets for tiny sums of money or for something to eat.

As a result of the Batwa losing their livelihood, between 1978 and 1991 the Batwa population in Rwanda declined by around 40% despite the national average growth of the population was rising by about 50%. 

 The 1994 civil war and genocide

Like all Rwandans, the Batwa suffered and continue to suffer from the consequences of the genocide and civil war in 1994.

The Batwa were not specifically targeted as a group and many were not aware of the tensions that had arisen at the political level. However, a large number of Batwa died at the hands of the Interahamwe (mainly Hutu militia sponsored by the government at the time) for being perceived as being close to Batutsi, and many others were killed in the chaos of the war. According to The Forest Peoples Programme the mortality figure may be as high as 30% of the Batwa population. Many others fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries where they continued to suffer discrimination. Rough estimates based on a provisional census carried out by UNPO in late 1994, indicate that up to 10,000 Batwa died and another 8,000 to 10,000 fled, leaving the post-war Batwa population in Rwanda between 10,000 and 20,000.

The civil war understandably left a deep mark in the laws and regulations of Rwanda. Yet, despite the overrepresented figure in terms of the number of Batwa killed, the legal system does not take Batwa discrimination seriously. The legal response has been to shut out inflammatory conversation about Hutu or Tutsi, but the Batwa remain a minority that continue to be discriminated against with little to no repercussions. The ability to recognize the unique challenges of the Batwa community are denied by preventing their recognition as a distinct ethnic group.

 New land policy

In September 2005, the government of Rwanda established the new national land law, which gave the government of Rwanda final authority over land use. In part the law was to address competing land claims from returning refugees and in part it was an attempt by the national government to enhance agricultural productivity by claiming underutilised land and by enhancing the productivity of existing farms.

The Batwa lost out in both aspects: Returning Batwa refugees were rarely given land and the marshes in which the Batwa were producing clay were identified as unused, unproductive land, hence it was claimed by the government and the Batwa there were once again forced to move without compensation.

The government’s legal control over the land set the basis for the introduction of the “Bye Bye Nyakatsi” (Bye Bye Thatched Huts) programme. As the name suggests, it was a policy to remove the often informally constructed thatched huts to replace them with sturdier housing. While seemingly well intentioned, the policy had a damaging impact on the already frail Batwan community. Thatched huts were torn down, but the replacement houses were either never built or sold at a rate unaffordable to the impoverished Batwa. As such, the Batwa have been left largely landless, impoverished and finally, homeless. Those discriminatory policies have made it difficult for Batwa culture to survive, especially regarding ancient knowledge of the forests.

 An uncertain future

Kigali's increasing centralization and intolerance of dissent, the nagging Hutu extremist insurgency across the border, and Rwandan involvement in two wars in recent years in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to hinder Rwanda's efforts to escape its bloody legacy, thus exposure to conflict has jeopardized the Batwa way of life.



Loss of land and housing

The land is an important factor for the vast majority of Rwandans. More than 90 percent of the population depends on farming for its livelihood. The Batwa have consistently been pushed off of their land, which has left most Batwa homeless. The latest challenge comes from the anti-thatch campaign. While officially, provisions were to be made to give interim housing for those who lose their homes in the transition, the reality has been very different. Thousands of Batwa have often been removed from their homes, sometimes forcefully, and have been left homeless with promises of new housing left wanting. While many have been affected in this process, the largely landless Batwa have been disproportionately affected.

Recently the hopes of ancestral lands being returned to the Batwa have been sparked again since international and regional bodies, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, have asked the Rwandan government to return land to the Batwa which was taken away from them without compensation in order to create national parks.

Government refusal to recognise the Batwa as a distinct ethnic group

In the name of a non-tribal Rwanda and the maintenance of societal harmony, there is an outright refusal of the government to recognize the Batwa as a distinct ethnic and cultural group. The 2003 constitution outlaws discrimination on ethnic grounds. This unfortunately has the effect of establishing a legal blindfold on the government that prevents proper recognition of the Batwa people and the discrimination they face as an ethnic group.

The Rwandan government’s refusal to recognize the Batwa as an ethnic group makes it difficult and nearly impossible for Batwa to organise. It also makes Batwa-specific targeted action extremely difficult, and it affects the way that information on the Batwa is covered by the media within Rwanda.

Groups that have worked for Batwa rights have consistently been met by government created semantic barriers. An excellent illustration of this is the endlessly alternating names of NGOs that support the Batwa. For instance, the prominent NGO created by a handful of Batwa and known as the Association of the Promotion of Batwa (APB) eventually joined the more broadly named Community of Indigenous Peoples of Rwanda (CAURWA), however CAURWA, having ‘indigenous’ in the title faced the threat of government revoking their licence, and so changed their name to the Organization of Rwandan Potters (COPORWA).

On 12 July 2011, the Rwandan government once again reaffirmed the position that recognition of the Batwa goes against the constitution, threatening to revoke all NGO assistance unless the Batwa campaign for recognition is terminated.

Government and societal discrimination

However, while the Batwa can be legally erased, society is far less malleable. So while showing open slander towards Batutsi or Bahutu will result in legal repercussions, it is still accepted for people to show open discrimination towards Batwa, and the Batwa face severe societal discrimination which affects their ability to integrate and contribute to society.

State-sponsored discrimination poses a challenge to the Batwa.  According to UNPO’s own field studies, development and assistance programs intended for Rwanda’s most vulnerable populations are often purposefully directed away from Batwa communities to higher income-generating projects. Oddly, given the Batwa’s overall level of severe poverty, they often do not meet the minimum requirements.

The Batwa are ignored as the government fails to recognise the need for development services, primary healthcare and better infrastructure; maintaining their position at the fringes of Rwandan society.

According to Minority Rights Group (MRG) there are fundamental factors that demonstrate the widespread phenomenon of exclusion and marginalization experienced by the Batwa and their continuing alienation from their traditional culture and values, these include:

- Only 1.6 % of the Batwa have sufficient land to cultivate, and very few own livestock. Most are squatters or tenants on other people's land.

- Over 91 % of the Batwa have had no formal education.



UNPO considers the successive land policies of Rwanda which have left the Batwa population landless, homeless and destitute to be a breach of human rights. Proper compensation should be provided to those who have lost their land and homes and Batwa refugees who have returned following the 1994 genocide should be granted equal status and access to ownership as other Rwandans.

UNPO supports Batwa efforts for recognition as a distinct ethnic group, believing that this will open the door for developments in targeted support for the Batwa community, both from international organizations and with positive discrimination from the Rwandan government. In addition, recognition will allow the Batwa community to more easily organize themselves to improve their situation.

In order to further those ends UNPO has submitted an Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ahead of Rwanda's examination in March 2011. The fact that UNPO’s report was the only NGO report submitted to the Treaty Body monitoring committee underlines the severe marginalisation the Batwa face from economic, social and political opportunities in the country.



The Batwa aim to have their basic needs met as well as to have their human rights respected. They do not aspire to any kind of political independence, but rather strive to pursue their traditional livelihood within Rwanda. Since they cannot return to the forest and that most of their housing has been destroyed, they struggle for land rights in other parts of Rwanda to be able to sustain themselves. They also wish to have their rights respected, including through their recognition as an indigenous group of Rwanda.



Survival International:

The Forest Peoples Programme:

First Peoples Worldwide:

New Vision: Potential changes in land policy:

Minority Rights Group International: