THE SURVIVAL OF CONGO’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
Text by Shantha Bloemen and images by Graeme Williams
The Republic of Congo’s indigenous people, the country’s first inhabitants, are under threat. The Baka, one of 15 ethnic groups, who traditionally have lived as hunters and gathers in the forest of central Africa, confront two grave dangers. Their traditional habitat is under threat from commercial logging and when they do leave the forest, they are often left landless, impoverished and exploited.
In the village of Moscow on the banks of the Bangui River and on the fringe of the forest in northern Likoula Province, Antoine Bwange is the chief of the Baka. He still takes his son with him into the forest to teach them the natural wisdom of their habitat and to respect its gifts. But when he goes hunting and shoots a monkey, the animal is turned over to his neighbor, the Chief of the Bantu village who live just a couple of hundred meters away. He and is family will only enjoy the heart.
The “Pygmy” became well known in the nineteen century colonial imagination as being “short, subhuman and backward”. Those deep seated attitudes sadly continue into the twenty first century. Today, it is the country’s majority population, known as the Bantu that benefit from their ongoing economic and social exclusion.
Moscow, a throw back to a time when the country was a Soviet ally, was settled only ten years ago. For a few cigarettes and items of clothes, Antoine’s family was lured from the forest to provide cheap labor to till the fields. They now live as secondary citizens. They work in their fields, go hunting for them and are considered as their servants. Towering over this once mobile population, the Bantu Chief acts as their master, considering them as his “pygmies”, ready to exploit their knowledge of the forest and happy to keep them subservient to his needs. They are paid little for their physical labor and often forced into debt.
Dependent on the occasional visit by mobile teams of NGO and missionary health workers, they suffer from long eradicated tropical skin diseases like yaws and leprosy that remain common amongst forest dwelling communities. Mortality rates are higher when measured against Congo’s national averages. Malaria and measles are also common.
There is a school in the near by village, but the Baka children don’t go. It is not the hour long walk that deters them but rather the hostile discrimination and name calling they face that keeps them away.
Alternative “ORA” schools, based on a specially developed curriculum to help indigenous children adjust to the new learning environment have started. Operated by the Catholic Church and supported by UNICEF, they use local teachers and seek to create a protective environment for children, who then can make the transition to a Government school. Yet with only fourteen operating in the Province, many more are needed, especially to reach children living in remote villages like Moscow.
Likoula Province is part of the world’s second largest rainforest, the Congo Basin forest. A pristine rare ecosystem that is home to enormous bio diversity and critical for reducing climate change.
It is also now a giant logging concession. Seven companies control an area slightly larger than Switzerland. The Government has put in place regulations to make sure all exported hard wood timber is certified and the EU has signed a new agreement to help enforce it. Yet environmentalist worry that the ‘selective logging’ of larger areas of forest for rare timber, is causing long term damage to ecosystems.
A recent report by Global Witness argues that the world’s primary forests contain vast amounts of carbon. They claim that even selective logging for the older hard wood destroys the natural forest and releases large carbon stocks contributing significantly to global warming. Already, there is an estimated 51,916 km of logging roads in the Congo Basin. And for the Baku, the threat of losing their habitat is further compounded by the many new comers who start cultivating along the private company roads. Using a slash and burn approach, they start cultivation on the fringe of the forest. It is once again the Baka, who is recruited to come and till the land.
There are small signs of hope. A national association of indigenous peoples known as RENAPAC that started just a couple of years ago is gaining strength and campaigning for an end to discrimination. A draft law outlining indigenous rights lies ready to be approved by Parliament. It acknowledges their special grievances in health, education and economic status and seeks to address them. And the Government also has agreed on a National Plan of Action, which with the support of UNICEF and other development partners, is starting to translate into targeted social services for these marginalized communities.
For Antoine Bwange, the Baka village chief in Moscow, keeping his traditions alive is very important. He wants his sons to know the ways of the forest. Yet he also wants his children to be able to navigate the outside world and enjoy the benefits it has to bring.
“I don’t want to loose them to lose their forest culture and I continue to teach my children but we now co-habitat with the Bantu so it is important that they also understand their ways and learn how to live more like them, “he says.