Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Dancing Pygmy Boys

Pygmy boys dance wearing leaves on their mouths for silence as they go through a manhood initiation called nKumbi.  They wear the ceremonial skirts for their circumcision ceremonies, and when the ritual is completed, the skirts will hang in the trees at the entrance to their village in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Pygmies are nomadic hunter-gatherers who rely on a healthy forest to survive. They have no claim to their own home territory, however, because the colonial Belgians assigned land rights only to sedentary groups

From the National Geographic story by Paul Salopek:This is the Albertine Rift. It is the westernmost of the famous African Rift Valleys that began yawning wide some 35 million ago as the Arabian Peninsula drifted away from the continent. The Albertine Rift is especially beautiful. It shadows Congo’s eastern border, cupping a series of enormous, limpid lakes in its belly, separating Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi from Congo proper.

This rift also is a human quake zone. It is the frontier between Francophone Central Africa and Anglophone Eastern Africa. It marks an economic divide between countries with few natural resources (Rwanda, Burundi) and one that overflows with them (Congo). Moreover, it is a violent ethnic front. The Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 mass murder of Tutsis have escaped into Congo’s jungles, sparking years of cross-border reprisals by the Rwandan army. (The militaries of at least five other neighboring nations have invaded weak Congo recently, for much more venal reasons.) 

But to Hart, the most troubling chasm of all is demographic: east of the Albertine Rift, population densities exceed 1,000 people per square mile; to the west, in Congo’s vast, lawless rain forests, it drops to less than 10.

“All these people have to go somewhere, right?” he says, gesturing out beyond the farm-scalped hills around Bukavu. “It’s inexorable. Unstoppable. This is Africa’s last big frontier. All we can do it try to create islands of habitat that the crowds will hopefully flow around.”

Hart works for the Brooklyn-based Wildlife Conservation Society. He and others like him are behind a quiet international relief effort to rescue the richest diversity of birds and mammals on the African continent. Mountain gorillas, bonobos, rare okapis, hippos, forest elephants – all face oblivion at the hands of eastern Congo’s private armies and a tide of land-hungry peasants.

Imagine, for a moment, that the United States has been prostrated by civil war. Imagine further that, after many years of anarchy, gangs of unsavory militias have holed up in famous American national parks. Neo-Nazis occupy Yellowstone. They are machine-gunning the last buffalo. Desperate bureaucrats in Washington have invited foreign green groups to come and help – to save whatever they can. British environmentalists respond by assuming the management of the Grand Canyon, where gangs of thugs are brazenly dynamiting fish from the Colorado River and pit-mining gold. Japanese wildlife experts, meanwhile, face gunfire while re-supplying beleaguered US Park Service rangers, scores of whom have been killed in the mayhem.

This is modern conservation work in Congo.

“The war has been hard,” Hart says, tipping back a warm beer. “But just wait until things stabilize. Wait until the big loggers think it’s safe to move in. That’s when the real plunder begins.”

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