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Out of the woods?
The Batwa might be next door to the national park, but they are a world away when security of their ancestral land is so fundamental to their way of life. Access to this forest and protecting their human rights is another struggle the group faces.
Negotiations are now taking place to address this issue. Mama Na Bana is talking with park officials and the Institute for Conservation of Congolese Nature, the governing body protecting Congolese Nature reserves, with the hope that the Indigenous people will be able to gain access to the park and act as caretakers to the land.
Many people displaced from the land are still lost and wandering. Kabindji says that the park used to be their home: “Our life there was nomadic and we were always looking for wild animals. Every time there were no animals in the area where we were, we moved. Then the government decided to put us out of the park. From that moment, we did not find peace, until the day we arrived in this village.”
The group found themselves in a variety of different places following their displacement from the forest, but they never felt at home: “We were regarded as ignorants and good for nothing by the people we expected help from. We were humiliated, exploited, expelled from many places.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a turbulent history of colonialism, and the Pygmy people have faced many struggles as a result.
The UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights should offer certain protections to this recognised group of Indigenous people, but the reality is very different. The Pygmy people lack basic citizens’ rights, and they have no legal claim to their ancestral land.
A report from the International Labour Organization and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights found that Pygmy people in the DRC are facing a number of problems in terms of neglect and marginalisation, which is having an impact on the group’s long-term survival.
According to this report, most African states fail to deal with discrimination against indigenous people, who are being neglected. They are not receiving proper healthcare or education, and are denied access to the forests where their traditional activities take place. They are not properly represented in government, and lack access to justice.
In addition to this, they are physically at risk. All too often the victims of armed conflict, Pygmy people also face increased threats of slavery and rape. The coalition says this is encouraged by a belief that “sexual relations with ‘Pygmy’ women, who are imbued with mythical qualities, may cure illness, including HIV.”
The struggles of the Batwa people come against a backdrop of conflicts in the country. One such struggle centres around the abundance of valuable minerals in the DRC, where up to 80% of the world’s coltan can be found. This conflict mineral, which is used in electronic devices, is harvested from land rich in Batwa history. Rainforest is cut down and miners dig into river beds.
The Global Policy Forum has linked the Central African wars with coltan, which they say sustains the militias, while the UN has condemned the illegal exploitation of natural resources, and linked it to major conflicts in the region.
The future of the village
With the eco-village community still partly reliant on food parcels, and plans afoot to build a water harvesting and filtration system, there is still plenty to be done. Beekeeping has been proposed as a future source of income, and food parcels will gradually be phased out as the community becomes self-sufficient. This eco-village could act as a blueprint for others.
Faida, who grows food and runs a small business in the village, said: “I hope that the village will continue to grow. A lot has happened in three years and we're thankful for that. We want to keep moving forward.”
The Batwa people may be a step closer towards food security, but they are still a far cry from food sovereignty, where the community can decide for themselves what and how they eat. There is more work to be done while the hunter-gatherers are locked out of their ancestral land, and while they are still searching for respect within Congolese society.