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ICE Case Studies
Number 163, December, 2005

Pygmies in the Congo Basin and Conflict, by Raja Sheshadri

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information

Photo Borrowed with Permission from David Mendosa


1. Abstract

The major issue in this case study is the competition for the resources of the rainforest of Central Africa and how this competition threatens the unique culture of the Pygmies of Central Africa. I find this topic particularly interesting because as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, I had personal contact with this mysterious and poorly understood people. I have also witnessed the difficultly the Pygmy have had functioning in "modern" African society and the problems they have when faced with the destruction of their homelands, discrimination and human rights abuses.

2. Description

Part I: Who Are They?

The racist, colonial-era term "Pygmy" refers to membership in a group of hunter-gatherer societies living outside the state structure in the unsettled equatorial rainforest of Central Africa. Pygmies are generally identified by their short height (generally Pygmies rarely exceed 4 feet 11 inches as adults). The Pygmies are generally much smaller then other African people because in their early teens they do not experience the growth spurt normal in other humans. According to some Anthropologists this is an evolutionary adaptation, because smaller people tolerate the wet and hot conditions of the tropical rainforest better by generating less body heat. Also small people make better hunters in the forest since they can move faster and more quietly through the dense tropical rainforest. Thus by the Darwinian process of natural selection, the Pygmies emerged as a distinct race of people thousands of years ago in the tropical rainforsts of Central Africa.

Historicans traced the earliest recorded existance of the Pygmy to ancient Egypt where they were brought from the forests to the court of the Pharoh to dance for him and make him happy over 4,500 years ago. Since that time the mysterious culture of the Pygmy have remained the subject of fascination and rumors among Islamic and European explorers. Living in the harsh and remote environment of the tropical rainforest few people know much about the "people of the forest." Because little was know about them, rumors that they were subhuman creatures with tails who lived and trees and practiced ritualized canibalism swirled around in contempory Islamic and European texts.

Part II: Pygmy Culture

One of America's foremost Anthropologist (and one of my main sources of research information on Pygmy society) is Colin M. Turnbull. He has lived with the traditionalist Mbuti Pygmy of the Ituri Forest in the Congo for several years. By reading his studies as well as the studies of other anthropologists, one can begin to understand the unique culture of the Pygmy and their fascinating rituals such as the Elima, celebrating a woman's initiation into womanhood and the Molimo, a ritual in the forest performed when a member of the community dies. Other rituals for marriage as well as traditional dances, songs and belief in the worship of the forest portray a fascinating and vibrant culture

According to Turnbill, traditional Pygmy society is characterized by life in territorially defined nomadic bands. The membership in these bands is defined by social relationships or by kinship and marriage and is generally very fluid. Generally these bands have no formal political structure or chiefs and decisions are made through the consensus of all members of the group. Men in Pygmy society are generally hunters who stalk wild game in the forest to provide meat for their group. Women traditionally engage in gathering forest fruits, vegetables and honey. Most Pygmies make most of what they need (housing, clothes, tools) from materials gathered from the forest. Pygmy do, however, interact with their taller, village dwelling Bantu cousins, through trading relationships (trading forest meat and honey for farm goods and small manufactures) and by participating in wage labor and village ceremonies.

Part III: Theats to Pygmy Culture

Pygmy culture is threatened today by the forces of political and economic change. In recent times this has manifested itself into a open conflict over the resources of the tropical rainforest. It is a conflict that the Pygmy are losing. Historically the Pygmy have always been viewed as inferior by both colonial authorities and the village dwelling Bantu tribes. This has translated into vicious discrimination on both a societal and state level. One early example would be when Belgium colonial authorities captured and exported Pygmy children to zoos throughout Europe, including the world's fair in the United States in 1907. Among their taller Bantu neighbors, Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying (if they are given any) jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multi national corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into alien villages and cities where they often are marginalized, poor and brutalized.

Political conflicts in Central Africa have also affected the Pygmy. In Rwanda, an estimated 10,000 of the 30,000-strong Pygmy community was slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide, making them the "forgotten victims" of the Rwandan genocide. During the present Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations is investigating numerous human right abuses against the Pygmy populations which have ranged from massacres, land evictions, rapes and even reports of cannibalism where Pygmies are hunted down as animals, killed and then eaten in the belief that their flesh has magical powers.

3. Duration

This conflict between the Pygmies and the Bantu over the resources of the forest has raged for thousands of years. According to Anthropologists who such as Turnbill and Duffy, who have research the history of the Pygmies through ancient records, the Pygmies used to be the dominant group throughout the in Western and Central Africa. Some even believe they are one of the oldest living races on earth. Over centuries however, a taller more muscular Bantu race appeared and gradually drove the Pygmies out of the Savanna as cattle were domesticated and then later, as agriculture was discovered, out of the choicest areas of the forest. By the 19th century, the Pygmies only inhabited the most remote and densest regions of the Central Africa rainforest. After independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the competition for the resources of even these marginal regions increased. Today the Pygmies are fighting to hold on to their last remaining bits of forest as loggers, farmers and various government and rebel groups invade their last domains.

4. Location

The main location concerned with this study is the tropical rain forests of Central Africa.This geographical region includes the modern nation states of Central Africa that currently control the tropical rainforest of the region that the Pygmy inhabit. These nation states include Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

5. Actors

The Pygmy-

Today there are roughly 500,000 Pygmies left in the rainforest of Central Africa. This population is decreasing every day as poverty, intermarriage with Bantu peoples, Westernization, and deforestation is gradually destroying their way of life and culture as well as their entire ethnic group.

The Bantu Populations-

Always in competition with the Pygmy for the resources of the forest, today the Bantu are gradually winning their struggle against the Pygmy. In addition to seeking farmland, the Bantu populations seek the wood, animals, minerals and plants of the forest. They take these resources at the expense of the Pygmy.

The African Nation States-

The countries of the Central African rainforest region are among the poorest countries on Earth. In the Central Africa, governments own or control nearly 80 percent of tropical forests and the forests stand or fall according to government policy; and in many countries, government policies lie behind the wastage of forest resources. Multinational corporations and international lenders such as the World Bank help exacerbate this situation, by plunging these nations further into debt and forcing then to cut down the forest for quick profits, even though more money can be made in the long run if the forests are sustainably exploited. According to one environmentists group Raintree, statistics show that rainforest land converted to cattle operations yields the land owner $60 per acre and if timber is harvested, the land is worth $400 per acre. However, if these renewable and sustainable resources are harvested, the land will yield the land owner $2,400 per acre.

On a nation state level the rights of the Pygmy as citizens of the modern nation states of Central Africa is also an issue. In most countries of Central Africa Pygmies are not considered citizens and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Also because of their short stature and different lifestyle the are also easy to spot and make fun of in general society. This results in a situation where Pygmies find themselves marginalized, poor and brutalized.

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem Type: Deforestation, Conflict Over Forest Resources

The greatest problem environmental problem the Pygmy seem to be facing is the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In several countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmy from their forest habitat in order to cash in on quick profits from the sale of tropical hardwood and the resettlement of farmers on the cleared land. In some cases as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo this conflict is violent and the desire of a racist groups such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe to eliminate the Pygmy all together and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic means. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forest disappear, so do the Pygmy.

I have had the privilege of interviewing a conservationist Mr. Dominique Bikaba who currently lives and works with the Pygmy in the East of the Congo. In his own words he states "I am lucky to work with a community (pygmy) in which I was born and grew [up in]. I am not a pygmy but we grew [up] together and we had to share our infancy and everything." He states that the conflict over the forest in the DR Congo has led to the Pygmy being evicted from the tropical rainforest after it was proclaimed a National Park. After they were evicted they were forbidden to use the economic resources of the forest (i.e. wild game, wood etc) and forced to live on the margins of the park. This has helped destroy their culture, because their traditional ceremonies and lifestyle were linked to the forest, which was now severely restricted. Also according to his description the current civil war in the region between the Congolese Mai-Mia militias and the Rwandan backed rebels has affected the Pygmy in the form of massacres, military conscription and even cannibalism as rival forces fight for territory in the forest. He also described a severe depletion of the Pygmies main source of food Bush meat as a result of poaching.

7. Type of Habitat

Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests are found in a belt around the equator and in the humid subtropics, and are characterized by warm, humid climates with high year-round rainfall and high plant and animal diversity. Rain forests now cover less than 6% of Earth's land surface.

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Source Problems:

Sink Problems

Global Problems

1) Nations A,B,C,D,E impact Culture A, Modern African nation states of Central Africa impact the culture of their Pygmy populations.

2) Nations A,B,C,D,E impact Nations A,B,C,D,E, Modern African nation states of Central Africa impact the themselves by destroying their own rainforest.

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict- Civil

While the problems of each Pygmy tribe vary tremendously among the eight modern nation states in Central Africa that control the tropical rainforests of Africa, all of the conflicts are essentially inter communal and intra state over a wide variety of issues ranging from discrimination by other ethnic groups, disputes between traditional and more "modern" lifestyles, disputes over ownership of the resources of the forest and at times, the right to survive in a resource scare region. Despite efforts to preserve their culture, it appears to be a struggle that the Pygmies are losing as deforestation and westernization is destroying their traditional hunter and gatherer lifestyle in the tropical forest.

10. Level of Conflict- Intrastate: High

Thought the Pygmies living in Central Africa are essentially civilians who have never taken up arms during the civil wars of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, they are still targeted by armed factions. In Rwanda, the Pygmies are the "forgotten victims" of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Before the genocide they were an estimated 30,000 Pygmies in Rwanda. After being targeted by rampaging Interahamwe Hutu militias who sought out the creation an ethnically pure Rwanda by eliminating the all Tutsis and Pygmies, observers estimate that at least 10,000 Pygmies were killed with a further 10,000 forced to flee their homes, leaving that population at less then a third of what it was before 1994. (with more killed and displaced proportionally then the Tutsis!).

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to Africa's largest population of Pygmies, there have been several human rights reports that state that the Pygmies are victims of countless human rights abuses that have ranged from murder, forcible population transfer, torture and rape. Between October 2002 and January 2003, two the rebel groups, the MLC and RCD-N in the East of the Congo launched a premeditated, systematic genocide against the local tribes and Pygmies nicknamed operation "Effacer le Tableau" ("erase the board"). During their offensive against the civilian population of the Ituri region, the rebel groups left a more then 60,000 dead and over 100,000 displaced. The rebels even engaged in slavery and cannibalism. Human Rights Reports state that this was due to the fact that rebel groups, often far away from their bases of supply and desperate for food, enslaved the Pygmies on captured farms to grow provisions for their militias or when times get really tough simply slaughter them like animals and devour their flesh which some believe gives them magical powers.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): 70,000 estimated

In the case of two nation states, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this conflict has manifested itself into a full scale civil war that has left an estimated 70,000 Pygmies dead. Since the Pygmies are only equipped with stone age weapons and are not accepted into the military or society in general, they are easy civilian targets for rampaging army soldiers or rebels. This number is only a rough estimate by the UN and other NGO’s. The real number could be much higher, if one adds the unrecorded numbers who have died from starvation, disease and displacement.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12) Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics-

Causal Diagram

Pygmies lose their land to Bantu farmers > Bantu peoples farm more, grow more food and increase their populations > Expanding Bantu populations need more land > Pygmies lost more land to Bantu farmers

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

Within the state of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Pygmy are often in direct conflict with the ethnic groups the state represents as well as rebel groups opposing the state. Outside of the Congo, Pygmy groups are also in conflict with Post-Colonial African states and their desire for modernization and economic development.

14. Outcome of Dispute: Loss

This is a conflict that the Pygmies are definately losing. If something is not done now, many predict that the tropical rainforest of Central Africa, as well as the Pygmies that live within them may disappear within the next 30 years.


V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

1) NAGORNO Nagorno War and Armenian Deforestation, by Kathy Lalazarian (Summer, 1997)

2) KALIMAN Ethnic Conflict and Deforestation in Kalimantan (Indonesia), by Dianne Linder (November, 1997)

3)CHIAPAS ChiapaCivl War and Environment, by Amanda Marx (November, 1997)

4) TUPAC Tupac Amaru, Deforestation and Peru, Julissa Castellanos (January, 1998)

5) NIGER Fulani and Zarma tribes pushed into fights by Desertification?: Desertification in Niger, by Andrew H. Furber (June, 1997)

6) KIKUYU Ethnic Cleansing and the Environment in Kenya, by Doug Jacobsen, (January, 1998)

7) GUYANA Gold and Native Rights (Venezuela), by Colleen Reed (November, 1997)

8) JAMES James Bay, Electric Power and Conflict with Indigenous Groups, by Mary-Ellen Foley and Andrew Hamm (TED cross-list #91)

9) TUAREG Tuaregs and Civil Conflict in West Africa, by Ann Hershkowitz (August, 2005)

10) YANOMAMI The Yanomami in Brazil's Amazon and Conflict, by Stephanie Bier (August, 2005)

16. Relevant Websites and Literature




BBC Homepage

Rain Tree International.

United Nations Homepage:

Raja James Seshadri 11-7-2005