The Pygmy people lack basic citizens’ rights, and they have no legal claim to their ancestral land.
In a diverse landscape of forest and volcanoes, eastern lowland gorillas roam. This is the Kahuzi Biega National Park, where the largest gorilla species is being closely protected. Once, the park was also home to the Batwa, an Indigenous Pygmy group.
They were forced out in the 1970s by the government, displaced from their ancestral land, and at the centre of human rights violations. Although human and primate had lived side-by-side for centuries, the Batwa people were forced out of the forest in a bid to protect the gorillas.
Just outside the national park, on the edge of the forest, a permanent home has been created for 24 Batwa families. They had been working as labourers on nearby farms for over 12 hours a day, remunerated with nothing more than a bare minimum amount of food. Many people in this position are exploited, due to their economic vulnerability.
Adjusting to a new way of life
Now, these families live on a seven-hectare eco-village – a new home that they have helped to create alongside Mama Na Bana, the group that owns the land and which is working to create sustainable lifestyles in the region.
The villagers are now also on the deeds. Huts built from natural materials are dotted along a road, which winds up a lush green hill, and crops grow around the site. This is the new home of this Batwa community, a place that provides food, water and shelter to 160 people. Reaching this point has taken time and energy, and the community has had to adapt.
The national park, which they can no longer access, is part of this Indigenous group’s identity. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Batwa people have adapted to their new home, but are unable to practice their traditional way of life. Without access to the forest, they are denied the right to determine their own way of life.
Mezani is the chief’s assistant. Along with the rest of the community, he has had to adjust to staying in one place: “We used to spend our time in the bush searching for meat. We've been learning to stay at home since our arrival here and we understand that it is important to grow food now that the forest is no longer reachable.”
Kabindji, who has a spiritual role within the village, says that the group’s ancestors had no interest in communicating with other tribes. With new challenges to overcome, this feeling is starting to change, and the Batwa community is open to engaging with other people in order to keep their culture alive.
“All this did not exist before. We are no longer afraid of people for no reason. My parents were scared of anyone who carried a book in his hands, thinking that he was more clever than them.”
As they have adjusted to a completely new way of life, visiting local communities has helped the Batwa shape their own village. Mushipi, the community’s chief, said the Batwa have learnt a lot from their neighbours, who are growing their own food and trading items like charcoal, soap and flour.
He said: “Our neighbours helped us in showing us the way, which means that they taught us the best way to find a living in this zone.”
Building an ecovillage to call home
In May 2014, the Batwa people were taken to the ecovillage site by Mama Na Bana, the group that owns the land. Aside from a river and fertile soil, there was little to see.
“There is a river, you have land, we can bring seeds,” Mama Na Bana told the community. And they did. Careful to offer support without intruding on the Batwa’s culture, Mama Na Bana trained the community in the principles of permaculture. They soon developed the skills which will help them become self-reliant.
A topographer arrived to map the land, and chose to stay and help build a home for each family using local, natural materials. The site itself proved a bountiful source, with trees becoming buildings and clay harvested to clad the walls.
Later, a teacher showed the community how to render and protect buildings, making them more waterproof with a mixture of mud, lime, salt and sand.
From humble beginnings, both ideas and landscape have grown. Starting off with food parcels, the Batwa now grow their own crops. Onions, cassava, and tomatoes sit alongside fields of corn and 4,000 plum trees.
The basic needs of food, water, and shelter were addressed first, but now the village is beginning to flourish. There is clean water to shower and wash clothes, and there is a functioning medical system. The recent arrival of a nurse has cut out the need for hospital visits, but a lack of maternity ward is still a concern for the community.
Jacqueline, who is responsible for the church, says the Batwa are happy to be in the eco-village: “We went through many challenges before having the grace of living in this village. It is like a blessing. The hard times I experienced helped me to appreciate the importance of living here.”
Self-sufficiency is inching ever closer, as the community is given the tools they need to feel settled. Their own ideas are coming into effect, and without any external support or influence, they have created a school. Batwa culture is weaved throughout, with botany lessons reflective of the community’s close connections to the forest.
Currently, the education is informal and classes take place under a tarpaulin, so Mama Na Bana is looking for support in developing the initiative. A lack of access to education has been a problem in the past, and this development marks a major step for the community.
Mama Na Bana said the school is a sign of the group’s hope for the future: “This does not mean that they feel the need to abandon their culture and traditional way of life, but rather acknowledge the awareness and capacity to learn more and be on par with the evolving world they are a part of.”
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.
Katie Dancey-Downs is a writer at Lush, and she was shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize 2017 for creative non-fiction. Follow the Lush Times on Twitter: @LushTimesEN