Integrating the spiritual values, sacred sites and cultural framework of the Bakonzo, the Mountain People, into the management of Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Uganda.
Photo above: One of the ridge leaders standing near Kaghoma sacred natural site (a tree on his left) that was abandoned when the park was created.
Ministry of Water and Environment, Uganda
AIMM Green, Uganda
Mountains of the Moon University
The Rwenzori mountains range, Uganda, is a sacred landscape for the Bakonzo people the meanings and uses of which originate with Kithasamba, the Creator, who inhabits the snowy peaks. The National Park, which includes African’s third highest peak, permanent glaciers and montane forest supports 70 species of mammal, 217 species of birds and is exceptionally rich in endemics species. The park is bordered by the villages and fields of the Mountain People. The Uganda Wildlife Authority manages the park but collaborates with neighbouring communities and a ‘Park Community Institution’. Park staff are responsible for protecting the park and supervising community access to resources while cultural institutions help manage sites of historical and cultural significance. An NGO helped brokered agreements between the community and park management for access to cultural sites and raised awareness of cultural values and their relevance to park management. Understanding how culture related to conservation required a painstaking process, patience and understanding. It could not be rushed, and was built on trust and mutual appreciation. It is neither an easy option nor a silver bullet for problems.
Cultural and spiritual significance of nature
Power passes from the Creator to the Omusinga, the king, responsible for the religious ceremonies, rituals and institutions, then to the chiefs, and finally to the B’kukulu ba Malhambo, the ridge leaders. Spiritual and supernatural powers also gave political authority and ridge leaders closely controlled access to the mountains’ resources in different zones. Each ridge that descends from the peaks to the plains is ‘controlled’ by a sacred site where Ridge Leaders perform ceremonies to cleanse their lands and communities. Pollution and dangerous spirits are removed to lakes in the lowlands but spirits can return travelling in rivers and streams.
The Bakonzo, like many of the peoples of Africa, identify themselves along clan lines using natural elements, mainly animals, as totems. The Bathangi clan recognizes chimpanzees as their totem which are consider to be kin, part of the family. It is taboo for clan members to harm or kill chimpanzees but clan members are also required to protect them from the members of other clans. People of other clans are respectful of the Bathangi clans relationship with chimpanzees as they have similar relations with other species. Marriage within clans is prohibited which , expands kinship links between clans and therefore encourages respect for the totems of other clans.
Ecology and biodiversity
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park and World Heritage Site lies in western Uganda along the Uganda-Congo border. The 120 km long range covers an area of about 8,000 square kilometers, of which around 1,000 lie within the boundaries of the national park. The mountains include African’s fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh highest peaks, support permanent glaciers, and are covered by moorland above the tree line, bamboo groves and moist montane forest. The lower slopes are densely settled and cultivated up to the park boundary.
The national park supports 70 species of mammal and 217 species of birds and is exceptionally rich in endemics including 6 butterflies, 19 birds and 12 mammals that occur only here and a few other Albertine Rift sites, including the Rwenzori hyrax the Rwenzori Leopard and the Rwenzori turaco.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) manages the National Park. UWA has full authority to manage the park but collaborates with the neighboring communities made up of Baamba, Bakonzo, Batoro and Batwa ethnic groups, largely subsistence farming communities numbering in the region of 2 million. The ‘Park Community Institution’ facilitates communities to participate in park management through elected Local Government representatives. Multiple Use Agreements provide for regulated access to specific natural resources in specified zones. Since 2012, following agreement between UWA and the Rwenzori Kingdom, a cultural institution of the Bakonzo, access to some cultural sites within the park is allowed, and avenues for community leaders and cultural institutions to participate in park management have been opened. The Cultural values project acted as a broker for relationships.
The Senior Warden and a staff of wardens and rangers are responsible for protecting the park and its resources, supervising and monitoring community access, managing human wildlife conflict, and managing tourism.
Community User Groups play roles in the management of resource access. Cultural institutions including Ridge Leaders play roles in managing sites of historical or spiritual cultural significance, the wider spiritual significance of the mountains and access to resources.
Park staff and Ridge Leaders wish to control access to the mountain but are concerned about different issues. Tourism revenues are important to both but access to the peaks, prohibited under Bakonzo beliefs, is contested.
Steps to integrate cultural values into park management were initiated in 2005 under a project implemented by UWA and Fauna & Flora International,a conservation NGO. Investigating cultural links between community, park and nature was the starting point. An informal inquiry provided a platform for a more formal analysis using focus group discussions, key informant interviews and non-obtrusive observation.
The NGO brokered agreements for the park management plan to recognize Bakonzo values and include specific activities related to cultural values and helped negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding between the park and the Rwenzori Kingdom.
The project raised awareness of cultural values and their relevance to park management, and of park values, including its role in conserving cultural values, amongst communities.
- Trust had to be built before communities would share information about the sacred landscape and specific sites or engage with the idea of managing them in partnership with park management.
- Integrating cultural values into the park made it more meaningful and relevant to the community, while formalising access to sacred sites improved support for the park.
- Rituals and practices carried out at sacred sites helped overcome conflicts between community and park and were an entry point for community engagement in park management.
- Cultural institutions were closely linked to the management of the sacred landscape. Communities were called on by the Rwenzori Kingdom to extinguish a fire that threatened the moorland zone.
- Integrating cultural values reduced conflict, increased collaboration and participation and engaged the support of Ridge Leaders in regulating access to park resources in locations rangers rarely reached.
- Giving attention to cultural values in the park planning process was important for both the community and park officials, stimulating positive engagement with the process.
- Understanding how culture related to conservation required a painstaking process, patience and understanding. It could not be rushed, and was built on trust and mutual appreciation. It is neither an easy option nor a silver bullet for problems.
Infield, M (2013). Sacred sites and conservation of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, Conservation news, Oryx, 47(1), 13–18 doi:10.1017/S0030605312001597
Omaston, H (2006). Guide to the Rwenzoris; Mountains of the Moon, Henry Osmaston. ISBN-10: 0951803964, ISBN-13: 978-0951803967
Katwekali Sacred Site in the Rwenzori Mountains, Fauna & Flora International: www.fauna-flora.org
FFI (2012). “Current status, ownership and management of sacred sites in Rwenzori Mountains National Park.” Kampala, Uganda. Unpublished Report.
Introduction to FFI’s work on the scared sites of the Rwenzori Mountains: www.fauna-flora.org
The Rwenzori Trust: rwenzoritrust.org