The ‘Pygmy’ peoples of central Africa are traditionally hunter-gatherers living in the rainforests throughout central Africa.
The term ‘Pygmy’ has gained negative connotations, but has been reclaimed by some indigenous groups as a term of identity.
Primarily though, these communities identify themselves as ‘forest peoples’ due to the fundamental importance of the forest to their culture, livelihood and history.
Each is a distinct people, such as the Twa, Aka, Baka and Mbuti living in countries across central Africa, including the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon.
Different groups have different languages and hunting traditions. Although each community faces different threats and challenges, racism, logging and conservation are major problems for many, all contributing to serious health problems and violent abuse.
Current estimates put the population of the ‘Pygmy’ peoples at about half a million.
Central to the identity of these peoples is their intimate connection to the forest lands they have lived in, worshiped and protected for generations.
Jengi, the spirit of the forest, is one of the few words common to many of the diverse languages spoken by forest peoples.
A Pygmy loves the forest as she loves her own body
The importance of the forest as their spiritual and physical home, and as the source of their religion, livelihood, medicine and cultural identity cannot be overstated.
Traditionally, small communities moved frequently through distinct forest territories, gathering a vast range of forest products, collecting wild honey and exchanging goods with neighbouring settled societies.
Hunting techniques vary among the forest peoples, and include bows and arrows, nets and spears.
But many communities have been displaced by conservation projects and their remaining forests have been degraded by extensive logging, expansion by farmers, and commercial activities such as intensive bush-meat trading.
Few have received any compensation for the loss of their self-sufficient livelihoods in the forest and face extreme levels of poverty and ill-health in ‘squatter’ settlements on the fringes of the land that was once theirs.
In Rwanda for example, many Twa people who have been displaced from their lands earn a living by making and selling pottery.
Now this livelihood is threatened by the loss of access to clay through the privatisation of land and by the increasing availability of plastic products.
Begging and selling their labour cheaply have become the only options left to many displaced and marginalized forest peoples.
Rights and recognition
A fundamental problem for Pygmy peoples is the lack of recognition of land rights for hunter-gatherers coupled with the denial of their ‘indigenous’ status in many African states.
Without nationally recognised rights to the forest lands on which they depend, outsiders or the state can take over their lands with no legal barriers and no compensation.
Those communities who have lost their traditional livelihoods and lands find themselves at the bottom of ‘mainstream’ society – the victims of pervasive discrimination affecting every aspect of their lives.
Health and violence
Forest peoples who live on the land they have nurtured for centuries have better health and nutrition than their neighbours who have been evicted from their forest land.
The consequences of losing their land are all too predictable: a slide into poverty, ill-health and a profound destruction of their identity, culture and their connection to their land that creates a new underclass requiring central government support.
The conflict in the DRC (Congo) has been especially brutal for the country’s ‘Pygmy’ peoples, who have suffered killings and rape, and allegedly been the victims of cannibalism from the heavily armed fighters.
In 2003, Bambuti representatives petitioned the UN to protect their people from horrific abuse by armed militia in Congo, including extremely high incidences of rape of women by the armed men. One of the outcomes has been a soaring rate of HIV/Aids.
‘In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals, as has recently happened,’ Sinafasi Makelo, Mbuti spokesman.
The Batwa also suffered disproportionately in the Rwandan genocide of 1994: studies estimate that 30 % of Batwa were killed – more than double the national average.
Where Pygmy communities continue to have access to the rich forest resources on which they have traditionally depended, their levels of nutrition are good.
When displaced from the forests – usually without compensation or alternative means of making a living – their health dramatically declines. One study reports that 80% of sedentary Baka in Cameroon have yaws (a painful skin condition).
Further studies have shown that forest-dwelling Pygmy communities have lower levels of many illnesses compared with neighbouring settled Bantu populations, including malaria, rheumatism, respiratory infections and hepatitis C.
In addition, communities can no longer access the forest medicines on which they relied and are in danger of losing their rich traditional knowledge of herbal medicine.
Most communities cannot access healthcare due to lack of availability, lack of funds and humiliating ill-treatment. Vaccination programmes can be slow to reach forest peoples and there are reports of Pygmy people being discriminated against by medical staff.
A central factor behind many of the problems faced by forest peoples is racism.
Their egalitarian social structures are often not respected by neighbouring communities or international companies and organisations which value strong (male) leaders.
The forest peoples’ intimate connection to the forests was once valued and respected by other societies, but is now derided.
To many farming and herding communities across the region, the forest peoples – who have neither land nor cattle – are seen as ‘backward’, impoverished or ‘inferior’ and are often treated as ‘untouchable’.
Political recognition and representation
In an attempt to decrease ethnic conflicts, several African governments, such as Rwanda and DRC, have advocated the notion of the nation as ‘one people’ – emphatically denying ‘indigenous’ status to Pygmy peoples and refusing to recognise their distinct needs.
Pygmy peoples are very poorly represented in government – at any level – in the countries where they live.
Their low status and lack of representation makes it hard for them to defend their lands – and the desirable resources within – from outsiders.
In August 2008 nearly 100 Pygmies were released from slavery in DRC, of whom almost half came from families who had been enslaved for generations.
Such treatment stems from the notion of Pygmies as of lower status, who can be ‘owned’ by their ‘masters’.
Forced labour on farmland is an all too common reality for many displaced Pygmy people, who are extremely vulnerable with no land or representation and little sympathy or support.
Rates of pay are commonly lower for Pygmies across the region.
Logging and parks
Much of the land traditionally lived in by Pygmy communities is rich in timber and minerals.
There is a race between the loggers and the conservationists to lay claim to the remaining forests.
The rights and needs of the forest peoples have been overlooked in the scramble for the central African forests.
In Congo, multinational logging companies rushed in at the first signs of peace to extract valuable timber.
Local communities are often tricked into signing away their rights to the land, losing their cultural heritage, the source of their livelihoods and their food security in exchange for a handful of salt, sugar or a machete.
The results are devastating to the people, the forest, the climate and the future of this desperately unstable country.
In the wake of the loggers come thousands of settlers, eager to farm on the newly accessible land, hostile to the forest peoples whose lands have been destroyed.
Since we were expelled from our lands, death is following us. We bury people nearly every day. The village is becoming empty. We are heading towards extinction. Now all the old people have died. Our culture is dying too.
Mutwa man from Kalehe, DRC
There has been a vicious cycle of forest peoples, deprived of their forests and therefore their means of survival, being further impoverished by outsiders taking advantage of their situation.
With increasing poverty has come decreasing ability to defend their rights. Vast plantations, owned by multinationals are spreading into forested areas.
In Cameroon, Bagyeli communities on one edge of Campo Ma’an National Park have been squeezed between the conservation area and land which has been handed over to multinational companies for exploitation.
Oil palm and rubber tree plantations are no-go areas for the Bagyeli, and there has been no compensation for the loss of their land, no jobs, healthcare or other benefits.
Their health is deteriorating as mosquitoes are rife among the plantations, increasing malaria in the area, and the nutrition of the Bagyeli has decreased radically without access to forest foods.
Their conditions of living are not our responsibility. Questions of poverty are not our responsibility.
John Makombo, Uganda Wildlife Authority
Outsiders who have come to work in the plantations discriminate against the Bagyeli and hunt the local animals, depriving the Bagyeli of their major source of protein.
In 1991 Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda was declared a National Park. The Batwa were evicted and banned from hunting and gathering; few were compensated.
They were not consulted. Most now live as ‘squatters’ on other peoples’ land, always fearful of being moved on, without access to the forest and without land of their own.
Pygmies are experts of the forest. Here they are pictured in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Kate Eshelby/Survival
Elders report that they cannot teach their children the traditional skills – collecting honey, hunting, herbal medicine – because they cannot go into the forest.
The Batwa have been excluded from the parks, but are mistreated and exploited by the farmers on the outside.
Farmers who had encroached the forest with their farms received compensation when the conservation areas were designated. Displaced Batwa did not.
One day, we were in the forest when we saw people coming with machine guns and they told us to get out of the forest. We were very scared so we started to run not knowing where to go and some of us disappeared. They either died or went somewhere we didn’t know. As a result of the eviction, everybody is now scattered.
The tourism revenues from some of the major National Parks in this area are substantial. Foreign visitors pay hundreds of dollars for a day’s trek to see the gorillas in Bwindi.
This money goes to the Ugandan government. It is the local forest peoples who have born the highest costs.
Twa communities have been evicted from parks across the region, including Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda), Mgahinga (Uganda) and Kahuzi-Biega in DRC.
As forest-dwelling peoples, they have suffered exceptionally from their lands being converted into conservation areas from which they have been evicted.
Living in poverty ‘squatting’ on the edges of the land that was once theirs, they have become dependent on begging and labouring for others for meager wages.
In 1999 the Campo Ma’an National Park was demarcated in ‘compensation’ for the environmental damage caused by the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.
Not only did the Bagyeli hunter-gatherers lose their land but they have also been barred from accessing the area and forced to settle and take up farming – without consultation.
Regarding Cameroon’s Lake Lobeke and Boumba-Bek Parks, the Global Environment Facility – a funder of the parks – recently found that several Baka communities were displaced and 8000 people suffered loss of income as they had previously gathered resources in the area.
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