One of the oldest myths impressed into the minds of modern people is the image of the wild, virgin forest. The twisted, gnarled and dense trees, complete with ancient ferns, silent deer and patches of sunlight through gaps in the canopy. In this vision there are no people, and this is a striking feature of what we mean by ‘wilderness’. We have decided that humans are no longer a natural part of the wild world. Unfortunately, these ideas have real world consequences for those remaining people who do call rainforests and woodlands their homes. Approximately 1,000 indigenous and tribal cultures live in forests around the world, a population close to 50 million people, including the Desana of Colombia, the Kuku-Yalanji of Australia and the Pygmy peoples of Central Africa and the Congo. This is a story about those people of the Congolese forests, about how their unique way of life is threatened by the very people who should be defending them and how rainforests actually thrive when humans adapt to a different way of life.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has to be amongst modernity’s greatest tragedies. Almost no-one knows that the ‘Great African War’, fought between 1998 and 2003, saw 5.4 million deaths and 2 million more people displaced. Very few can grasp the bewildering complexity of armed groups, of the ethnic and political relationships between the Congo and Rwanda or the sheer scale of the conflict, which at its height saw 1000 civilians dying every day. And yet this is also a country of staggering beauty, a sanctuary to the greatest levels of species diversity in Africa. It is home to the mountain gorilla, the bonobo, the white rhino, the forest elephant and the okapi. Roughly 60% of the country is forested, much of it under threat by logging and subsistence farming expansions. The Congolese Pygmy peoples have been living here since the Middle Stone Age, heirs to a way of life over 100,000 years old. A note here on naming – the term Pygmy is considered by some to be offensive and the different people grouped under the title prefer to call themselves by their ethnic identities. These include the Aka, the Baka, the Twa and the Mbuti. The Congolese Pygmy people are grouped under the Mbuti – the Asua, the Efe and the Sua. In general these all refer to Central African Foragers who have inherited physical adaptations to life in the rainforest, including shortened height and stature.
The Mbuti people are hunters, trappers and foragers, using nets and bows to drive and catch forest animals. They harvest hundreds of kinds of plants, barks, fruits and roots and are especially obsessed with climbing trees to source wild honey, paying no heed to the stings of the bees. In many ways theirs is an idyllic antediluvian image of carefree hunter-gatherers, expending only what energy they need to find food and make shelters, preferring to spend their lives dancing, laughing and perfecting their ancient polyphonic musical tradition. Of course, this is an edenic view and the reality of their lives is much more complex and far more tragic, but it is worth highlighting the key environmental role they play as stewards and denizens of the forests. The Mbuti have been in the Congolese forests for tens of millennia, living within the carrying capacity of the land and developing sophisticated systems of ecological knowledge, based on their intimate familiarity with the rhythms and changes of the wildlife and the plants. Despite other groups of hunter-gatherers eating their way through large herds of megafauna, the Mbuti can live alongside elephants, rhinos and okapi without destroying their numbers.
In spite of this, the Mbuti and other Pygmy peoples have been attacked and evicted from their forests for decades. In the 1980’s, the government of Congo sold huge areas of the Kahuzi Biega forest to logging and mining companies, forcibly removing the Batwa people and plunging them into poverty. To this day, many of their descendents live in roadside shanties, refused assistance from the State, denied healthcare and even the right to work. Many have since fled back to the forests. Alongside the mining and logging companies, conservation charities have been targeting the Baka peoples for evictions. In particular the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been lobbying to convert the Messok Dja, a particularly biodiverse area of rainforest in the Republic of Congo, in a National Park, devoid of human presence. This aggressive act of clearance is rooted in the idea that a ‘wilderness’ area should not contain any people, thus rendering the original inhabitants of the forests as intruders, invaders and despoilers of ‘Nature’. The charity Survival – an organisation dedicated to indigenous and tribal rights – has been campaigning for WWF to stop their activities. In particular Survival has successfully documented numerous abuses committed by the Park Rangers, whose activities are funded by WWF and others:
“notwithstanding the fact that Messok Dja is not even officially a national park yet, the rangers have sown terror among the Baka in the region. Rangers have stolen the Baka’s possessions, burnt their camps and clothes and even hit and tortured them. If Baka are found hunting small animals to feed their families they are arrested and beaten”
Outside of the forest, the Baka and other Pygmy peoples face widespread hostility and discrimination from the majority Bantu population. Many are enslaved, sometimes for generations, and are viewed as pets or forest animals. The situation is no better within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the endless cycles of violence have seen the most shocking abuses against the Mbuti populations. Even in the most peaceful areas, park rangers regularly harass and abuse Mbuti hunters and villagers, illegally cutting down trees for charcoal or shooting animals for meat. In some places the Batwa people have formed militias, often armed with little more than axes and arrows, to defend themselves against slaving raids by the neighbouring Luba people.
The worst events for the Mbuti people in recent years began during the Rwandan genocide, where the Hutu Interahamwe paramilitaries murdered over 10,000 Pygmies and drove a further 10,000 out of the country, many of whom fled into the forests of the DRC. Later, between 2002 and 2003, a systematic campaign of extermination was waged against the Bambutis of the North Kivu province of DRC. The Movement for the Liberation of Congo embarked on a mission, dubbed Effacer le tableau – ‘cleaning the slate’, which saw them kill over 60,000 Pygmies. In part this was motivated by the belief that the Bambuti are subhumans, whose flesh possesses magical powers to cure AIDS and other diseases. Many of the victims were also killed, traded and eaten as bushmeat. Cannibalism against the Pygmy peoples has been reported throughout the Congolese Civil Wars, with almost all sides engaging in the act.
Unsurprisingly under these pressures, the Mbuti and other groups have been displaced, broken up and scattered throughout Central Africa. In part this has always been the intention of these campaigns, for the Congo region is not an isolated backwater of the modern world, but an integral part of the material economy of advanced modernity. In particular Central Africa has been cursed with an abundance of precious and important metals and minerals, including: tin, copper, gold, tantalum, diamonds, lithium and, crucially, over 70% of the world’s cobalt. The intensive push for electric vehicles (EVs) by the EU and the USA has seen prices for battery components skyrocket. Cobalt in particular reached $100,000 per tonne in 2018. Tantalum is also heavily prized, as a crucial element for nearly all advanced electronics and is found in a natural ore called coltan. Coltan has become synonymous with slavery, child labour, dangerous mining conditions and violence. Almost every actor in the endless conflicts in DRC have been involved in illegally mining and smuggling coltan onto the world market, including the Rwandan Army, who set up a shell company to process the ore obtained across the border. Miners, far from food sources, turn to bushmeat, especially large primates like gorillas. An estimated 3-5 million tonnes of bushmeat is harvested every year in DRC, underlining the central role that modern electronic consumption has on the most fragile ecosystems. In this toxic mix of violent warlordism, mineral extraction, logging, bushmeat hunting and genoicide, the Mbuti people have struggled to maintain their way of life. Their women and children end up pounding lumps of ore, breathing in metal dusts, they end up as prostitutes and slaves, surviving on the margins of an already desperate society.
In Mbuti mythology, their pantheon of gods are directly weaved into the life of the rainforest. The god Tore is the Master of Animals and supplies them for the people. He hides in rainbows or storms and sometimes appears as a leopard to young men undergoing initiation rites deep in the trees. The god of the hunt is Khonvoum, who wields a bow made of two snakes and ensures the sun rises every morning. Other animals appear as messengers, such as the chameleon or the dwarf who disguises himself as a reptile. These are the cultural beliefs of a people who became human in the rainforest, adapted down the bone to its tempos and seasons. They are a part of the ecosystem, as much as the gorilla or the forest hog. Their taboos recognise the evil of hunting in an animal’s birthing grounds, or the importance of never placing traps near fresh water. Breaking these results in a metaphysical ostracism known as ‘muzombo’, a kind of spiritual death and sometimes accompanied by physical exile from the village. As far as their voice has counted for anything under the deluge of horror that modernity has unleashed upon them, they want to be left alone, to hunt and fish in their forests, to live close to their ancestors and to raise their children in peace and safety. The expansion of the ‘Green New Deal’ and the rise of ‘renewable’ industrial technologies may be the death knell for these archaic and peaceful people. Make no mistake, these green initiatives – electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar batteries – these are actively destroying the last remaining strongholds of biodiversity on the planet. The future designs on the DRC include vast hydroelectric dams and intensive agriculture, stripping away the final refuges of the world. Now, more than ever, the Mbuti and other Pygmy peoples need our solidarity, an act which can be as simple as not buying that next iPhone.
Teaser photo credit: Bayaka people in the Dzanga Sangha Ndoki reserve. By JMGRACIA100 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52373514