Another story of how indigenous peoples struggle when their land is declared a nature reserve.
“The state is itself a threat to our forests: it makes a complete mess of things by handing out timber licences. It gives them to anyone willing to pay, and we see these people come and cut down our trees with impunity. They cut down our medicinal trees and, with them, the bark and fruits used for our medical treatments. They cut down our caterpillar trees, our oil trees,” says Irangi, who is a member of the Mbuti Pygmies. He lives on the edge of the Itombwe reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He has watched as trees have been chopped down for charcoal to be sent to Bukavu and Rwanda. “These people come with their weapons and take everything: the trees, the animals,” says Irangi. “They even kill species whose hunting we forbid, like the pangolin and the gorilla. Because they have weapons, they believe that they’re above our laws. “We also know that our subsoil is rich. One company has already come to dig for gold. If we don’t protect our forest, more aggressors will come and invade our lands. This is why we have to conserve it.”
The Itombwe forest is the world’s second-largest forest basin, an incomparable wealth of biodiversity has been preserved: rare trees, tropical birds and some of the last gorillas on the planet. International demand for the DRC’s natural resources, in addition to the country’s gradual economic and rapid population growth – and consequent appetite for exploitable land – are taking their toll on the forest. In 2006, the government created the Itombwe nature reserve, supported by WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The reserve delineated an area of 15,000 square metres within which all human activity was forbidden. But this area doesn’t simply contain flora and fauna. It is also home to the Mbuti indigenous people, who have lived and depended on this ecosystem for millennia. Though not protected as indigenous by the state – which would mean recognising their traditional rights over the land – there are at least 600,000 Mbuti Pygmies in the DRC, according to government estimates, including about 60,000 in the Itombwe forest. They live a semi-nomadic life.
“When we learned that the reserve was created we were angry,” recalls Marie, a woman from Kitale village in the mountains. “If you found out that the place where you gather and hunt your food, where you find your medicines, where the resting place of your ancestors is located, was to be taken … would you be happy? We were afraid that they would steal all of this from us. So we met and decided: we’re not going to let this happen.” She continued “In this forest we find the wood to build our homes, the fruits and the takus [caterpillars] we eat … We gather plants, we hunt, we fish – it’s our life.”
In the 1980s, in the neighbouring national park of Kahuzi-Biega, nearly 6,000 Pygmies were expelled from their villages, condemned to re-establish themselves outside the forest without government support. Today, these groups live in extremely precarious conditions along the major thoroughfares. Deprived of their traditional food sources, lands and identities, they work as manual labourers. Irangi and his community know this story all too well – it took place only 200km from Itombwe. “We don’t know what will become of us, but we know it’s not a good thing for our forest to belong to the state,” he says. “This land belongs to us because our entire lives are here: we find our food here, our pharmacy, everything we need. We, the Bambuti [plural of Mbuti], can’t live outside of the forest; our nature is to live here.”
“It’s an old approach to conservation that pushes people out of protected areas in order to conserve nature,” says Lars Løvold, director of Rainforest Foundation Norway, an NGO that defends the rights of indigenous people. “This comes to us from the classic American vision of wild and pristine nature, while in reality, what one thinks to be a virgin forest has in fact been inhabited and delicately manipulated by man for millennia.”
The Mbuti Pygmies have a traditional knowledge of their land, and have their own methods of conservation, which they call their “traditional technologies”.
“We know how to protect our forest because nobody knows it the way we do. We know where the animals give birth, where they sleep and during which periods one must never kill them,” says Mapenzi, a young hunter. “I know all of the traditional methods and was trained by the guardians of our customs. I know the sites and the periods for hunting and fishing. During the dry season, we don’t hunt, because the animals give birth. And there are authorised animals, like the mokumbi [the Gambian pouched rat], and those which must not be killed, like the gorilla. We have our own traditional conservation technologies. The animals that the modern law wants to conserve are already under our customary protection. These are the laws our ancestors established. We will continue to use our technologies to manage our forest with the knowledge of our ancestors.”
The rules are numerous, and those who break them are subject to severe punishment. “The malambo are the sacred sites where the animals give birth,” says Irangi. “There, we don’t have the right to hunt. Just as we don’t set traps near the river where the animals go to drink. If you don’t obey, the guardians of custom will place the muzombo on you. It’s a punishment by death.” Whether a spiritual death sentence or more probably an excommunication, the members of the community believe in the punishment and respect the rules.
Løvold explains, “The majority of conservation organisations have adopted the rhetoric of working with local communities, but in practice their approach remains very instrumentalising, which indicates that they engage members of the community for certain tasks but don’t work deeply with them. It’s not enough to give indigenous peoples a little job; one must truly implicate them in every step of the management of the ecosystem.”
The Pygmies certainly want to conserve their lands and traditions, but they also want access to modern services such as health and education.
“Pygmies are going through profound change,” says Jean de Dieu Wasso, coordinator of Africapacity, a Bukavu-based organisation. “They have suffered forced displacements and violence within a general framework of discrimination as minorities … The community must be free to make its choices and to evolve. The important thing is to respect the international principle of self-determination, guaranteed by the declaration of the UN on the rights of indigenous peoples.”