In the past, pygmies' communities through out central Africa have developed a well-recognized artisan trade, pottery. However, modern plastic containers are quickly replacing old pots made out of clay, as a consequence, the economic benefits of such artisan skills are dying out.
Credit: Forest Peoples Project
Over recent decades, development activity and political instability have encroached on the living space of many pygmy communities of the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. The increasing number of urban settlements, population growth, deforestation, armed conflict and ethnic discrimination have forced a large number of pygmies to leave their ancestral lands. Displaced from the forests that provided them their livelihoods, pygmies have struggled to find their place in the modern world. Today, most communities live in poverty as second-class citizens, with less access to healthcare, education, land and employment than the ethnic majority.
As indigenous people living in dense tropical rainforests in Central Africa, pygmies survived through their symbiotic relationship with the environment, which provided all of their basic necessities. The pygmy livelihood is based on hunting and gathering of forest resources. Bartering, rather than financial exchange, accounts for most trade transactions, both within pygmy communities and between pygmies and other groups. Pots may be traded for tools, traditional medicine for plastic utensils, and animal hides for clothes. While it was comparatively easy for pygmies to live in isolation, it has become virtually impossible for them to participate in the economy of the modern world.
Most pygmies live in areas that are remote from commercial centres, and their skills are not considered very “marketable” in modern society. While they are well versed in natural medicine and the ecosystem of their forest environment, they are ill equipped to assert themselves in a society that rejects them because they are an ethnic minority. This ethnic discrimination, combined with economic weakness, has isolated pygmies politically as well.
Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic dancing. Pygmy’s culture promotes the shearing of goods and resources among the community. Any surpluses are split among several families. Most pygmy groups, therefore have no saving or investment capacity.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
Another dominant feature of pygmy economic practices is the sharing of goods and resources among the community. Any surpluses are split among several families. Most pygmy groups, therefore, have no saving or investment capacity. They are neither consumers nor manufacturers of high-value-added goods. They are often geographically scattered into small communities – the Impunyu forest people in Burundi, for example, live in clans averaging 50 members. Their capacity to accumulate capital or develop cash surplus as disposable income or savings is negligible or extremely low. Consequently, with minimal economic weight or influence, they are effectively excluded from economic life.
The Geneva-based International Council on Human Rights believes that pygmies’ exclusion from formal education has had considerable impact on their economic situation. In the past, colonisers and missionaries in the Great Lakes Region largely ignored pygmy communities and refused to send them to school. This discrimination continued after independence, and today, the majority of pygmies are illiterate, making it even more difficult for them to be involved in commerce and trade, let alone participate in government or study for any of the professions, such as law or medicine. This neglect by governmental authorities is made worse by pygmy communities’ inherent political weakness, which stems from their dispersion, imbalance of power and the discrimination they suffer from their co-nationals.
With the speeding up of the global economy and the current political situation in Central Africa, the International Council on Human Rights expects that pygmies will face further economic marginalisation in the coming years, and their critical lack of political representation will isolate them further and make them more vulnerable as a community.
Throughout Central Africa, governments have denied pygmies the right to organise and represent themselves, which has led to increasing cases of ethnic discrimination, violence, poverty and a general and gradual disintegration of pygmy culture. The majority of pygmy communities do not benefit from any form of political representation and also lack institutions able to directly defend their rights. Being geographically and politically dispersed and having little trans-national consciousness as an ethnic group, they remain politically weak.
The traditional power structure of representative institutions is entirely foreign to pygmy society, as hierarchy is not necessarily a dominant feature of pygmy clans. Executive power over the clan often stems from elders’ collegial decisions. Consensus, rather than imposition, is the general way of Batwa governance in eastern DRC, for example. This often collides with the protocols of modern administration, which call for a delegate, spokesman or leader to centralise decision-making after consultation. A “flat” power structure is hardly adapted to project-management frameworks, which now permeate most development programmes.
Societal prejudices against pygmies further impede their being included in development schemes. Often considered “inferior”, “impure” or even “sub-human” by their Bantu neighbours, pygmy groups are segregated and excluded from the sphere of public action and decision-making. As a result, development – or emergency relief – operations are channelled to other populations. The Batwa of Rwanda have regularly attended the United Nations’ Working Group on Indigenous Populations since 1994. Despite this, their rights are rarely recognised and seldom respected.
Pygmies lack secure rights to their ancestral lands, as their rights are not recognised in statutory or customary law. As a consequence, according to the Forest Peoples Programme, a UK-based charity, “External agencies have thus been able to freely appropriate their lands with out being obliged to provide recompense.”
Land reform has further marginalized and endangered pygmy groups. Although some reforms are progressive in providing security for communities living on their ancestral lands, they have been of little benefit to pygmy groups, such as the Batwa in southwest of Uganda, whose lands were expropriated when the Mgahinga, Bwindi and Echuya forests were designated as protected environments in 1991. The loss of land has made it very difficult for the Batwa to secure their basic survival needs, resulting in acute hardship and extreme poverty. As access to the forest remains severely restricted, many have become squatters on the lands of neighbouring farming communities. The Ugandan government has acknowledged the negative impact of “gazetting” land as protected environments on pygmy communities, but it remains a policy measure.
A recent study done by the Forest Peoples Programme found that in 12 national parks across six Central African countries, pygmy communities were regularly expelled from their land without consultation or compensation. “Even though most resettlement schemes have failed, resettlement is still the most common option used to deal with people who happen to live in African national parks,” the study found.
The meaning of development
Many Central African countries have laws prohibiting hunting, fishing and the sale of forest products. These prohibitions make earning a living extremely difficult for pygmy communities still living in forests, whose economy is largely based on the sale or barter of forest products, including game meat. Protected forests are patrolled by wardens who punish pygmy hunters and confiscate game but who, according to a report of the Forest Peoples Programme, “will turn a blind eye to the activities of commercial bush-meat hunters whose well-organised, and often heavily armed, activities have much greater impact on wildlife.” According to the report, under the new DRC forest policy, the penalty for hunting in protected forests is imprisonment of up to one year or a fine of up to 50,000 Congolese francs (US $130), a risk that is too great for a hunter-gatherer pygmy.
An account by a Bagyeli pygmy of western Cameroon illustrates the frustration of traditional hunter-gatherer communities: “During my father’s time we hunted with dogs and traditional weapons. I love the forest where I hunt: I know it perfectly, inside and out. … There were all types of animals, elephants, gorillas and so many others. Now that forest exploitation has started, all the trees have been destroyed – a lot of noise, hunting with firearms and the animals have fled. Now it is just an open area. These are the people who bought guns, which destroyed the animals in large numbers. We only hunt with nets, dogs and spears. If we have to hunt around our house what can we catch? I don’t understand why we are told to stop hunting; how will we survive?”
According to MRG, local, national and international development and relief agencies have also neglected the needs of pygmies. In many cases, pygmies have been neither consulted nor compensated for the impact of development or conservation projects in the areas they inhabit. When humanitarian endeavours do target pygmies, the specificity of pygmy cultures and livelihoods goes against the underlying premises of development itself. What kind of development suits indigenous hunters and gatherers? Many pygmy groups resist development, as they seek to preserve their traditional practices.
Even without reviewing decades of developmental theory, the futility of trying to industrialise forest-dwelling societies is obvious. Beyond access to health and education, should development programmes aim to remove indigenous groups from their forest environment and resettle them in urban areas? This would undoubtedly destroy pygmy culture – which, in the modern world may face inevitable annihilation and follow the fate of other indigenous groups.
On the other hand, the indicators of human development listed by the UN Development Programme are less likely to improvement if pygmy groups remain in remote, impenetrable forest areas. Life expectancy, adult literacy, children’s enrolment in school and poverty are issues that are easier to tackle in urban environments. MRG believes that development agencies’ resources would be better spent if they were used to help pygmies obtain national identity cards, to mediate with government authorities on issues such as land rights and access to justice, and to invest in awareness programmes against ethnic prejudice and negative stereotyping in the wider community. To enhance pygmy communities’ well-being and quality of life, a “tailored” approach to development that elevates standards of living and respects cultural traditions is a considerable challenge to national governments and development agencies.
Aka pygmy, Central African Republic. According to Minorities Rights Group International (MRG), pygmy communities must be empowered to fend for themselves and given the resources to apply their personal concept of “development’ to their community.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
Increasing attention is being paid to the inclusion of indigenous communities in the disposition of their lands. Experts argue that development assistance programmes must include wider consultations of the affected communities, without imposing the untenable prerequisite of education or diplomas. Provisions are increasingly being made to include pygmies in the management of the natural resources they depend on. In Uganda for instance, many Batwa have been employed as wardens in the natural parks around their ancestral land. This has helped some individuals, but not all Batwa can become park wardens. Finding work alternatives for the majority of land-displaced pygmies should be a priority.
The Rain Forest Foundation, a UK-based NGO, has an advocacy programme to encourage the adoption of new policies and the better use of existing legislation, in order to promote the status of pygmies in Cameroon and DRC. Locally, the programme aims to identify, address and overcome the obstacles pygmies in these two countries face. Internationally, the programme seeks and encourages the implementation of relevant international agreements, such as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights on 25 June 1993. The agreement recognises “the inherent dignity and the unique contribution of indigenous people to the development and plurality of society and strongly reaffirms the commitment of the international community to their economic, social and cultural well-being and their enjoyment of the fruits of sustainable development.”
According to MRG, pygmy communities must be empowered to fend for themselves and given the resources to apply their personal concept of “development” to their community. Beyond education, these efforts must be translated into technical and professional training. Such capacity building is essential for pygmies to become self-reliant in the long term. Positive discrimination in hiring programmes would ensure the community’s inclusion in the economic fabric of the country.
Eventually, these efforts would improve the pygmies’ capacity to represent and organise themselves, rather than depend on national authorities or foreign relief and development organisations to implement their rights for them.