Foreign Aid

The dying days of the Pygmy people

(October 1, 2012) This article on the crisis facing Pygmy tribes in the Congolese rainforest by anthropologist Geoffrey Clarfield underscores the crucial relationship between property rights and human rights. For the last decade, competing militias have terrorized the Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while in the Central African Republic (CAR) they face losing much of their traditional hunting areas to logging. The government, the World Bank, the EU, the Chinese and most of the large development organizations believe that the CAR can only “develop” its economy by cutting down its rainforest and selling the timber. Without recognized property rights, Pygmies are being forced from their forest homes, dispossessed of the lands they have stewarded and lived in for 40,000 years.

By Geoffrey Clarfield for the National Post, originally published on September 7, 2012

In order to reach the lookout tower at the edge of the meadow, where more than one hundred forest elephants were cavorting in the mud, sand, water and salt, we had to pass through a shallow river on foot, sandals in hand. Two elephants blocked the way. Our Pygmy guides motioned for us to be still and quiet. Earlier they had warned us that in a worst-case scenario, we would have to run. Then, they literally chased the elephants upstream, allowing us to pass in safety and climb up onto the lookout platform.

Our guides had stared intently at the pachyderms. They used various kinds of shouts and they had banged their machetes on the ground. They had displayed no hint of fear or self-doubt, as a few short years ago they had been hunting elephants or accompanying their parents and older siblings as apprentices on elephant hunts. Now, many of them are employed by the Government of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) on a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) project that is trying to fight poachers and protect the elephants, the nearby gorillas, the rainforest and, to some degree, the livelihood of the now modified lifestyle of the indigenous forest dwelling Pygmies of the Northwestern Congolese rainforest, who are known as the Biaka.

Small, rainforest dwelling hunter and gatherers, known by outsiders as Pygmies because of their relatively short height, have been living in the area in and around the Congolese rainforest for 40,000 years. They survive in isolated pockets in Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where they are most numerous. They are the indigenous people of the rainforest. Though cut off from each other, calling themselves by different names and speaking different languages, they are genetically related and, until recently, have been the guardians of the rainforest’s biodiversity.

They are a few hundred thousand all told, compared to the millions of Bantu slash and burn horticulturalists who now surround them and who have been pushing their way into their forest for the last 3,000 years, creating in their wake a semi-feudal relationship between Bantu “lords” and Pygmy “serfs,” with the one difference being that when the Pygmies had had enough of working on Bantu farms, they could and can still retreat to the heart of their rainforest to gather honey and hunt wild animals and be left alone.

This may soon become impossible. The government, the World Bank, the EU, the Chinese and most of the large development organizations believe that the C.A.R. can only “develop” its economy by cutting down the rainforest and selling the timber. If present trends continue, the Biaka will eventually lose much of their hunting areas to logging. This will irreversibly change their lifestyle, turning them into dispossessed, landless, marginalized, casual wage labourers and reluctant farmers.

Read the full story by anthropologist Geoffrey Clarfield, and his plea to the Canadian government to become a moral force for a “Pygmy First” development policy that recognizes their stake in the rainforest. 

Further reading by Probe International on property rights

Probe International’s policy on property rights

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