Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Pygmy Boys in Manhood Ritual

Pygmy Boys in a nKumbi Manhood Ritual wear a leaf mouthpiece to keep them quiet near Epulu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Forest Pygmies are indigenous, semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherers in the rainforest of the Congo Basin. An adult Pygmy man’s average height in adult men is less than 150 cm or 4 foot 11 inches high. The BaMbuti Pygmies perform a  nKumbi or initiation that lasts five months where the boys live at a camp in the forest and go off daily to learn survival skills.

From a conversation with John Hart, Scientist and Conservationist:  “Culturally and biologically, all of Africa meets at the Albertine Rift.  It is the source of the Congo and Nile rivers and it is the heart of the continent.” The rift is also the most hotly contested area in Africa… DR Congo borders Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and on the east side of the rift you have huge population density (300 people per square kilometer) trying to eke out agriculture.  On the west side of the rift you have jungle and 3 people per square kilometer.  The rift frontier is the Pygmies homeland.  DR Congo has half of all the forests in Africa and the Ituri region has the highest density of Pygmies… They are the original indigenous group for this forest.

DRC is the biggest country in Africa that has great mineral and natural resource wealth.  Algeria and Sudan are bigger countries, but they are mostly dust. Sudan is 2.5 million sq. KM with 36 million people. DRC is 2.35 million sq. KM with 53 million people (3rd largest pop in Africa)

Ironically, the greatest long-term threat to the pygmies is peace and prosperity.  No one wants to rape their land when it is still in a war zone. They have been left alone in their forests because foreign companies and individuals are too intimidated by the jungle or to do work here.  The fledgling political system of DRC will never be able to handle the influx from the Albertine Rift and other areas.  They are certainly not organized enough if the Chinese or other groups decide it is safe enough to come to DRC en masse for it’s natural resources and mineral wealth. The Ituri River erodes the mountains of gold near Bunia.  The militias hotly contested the few gold extraction operations in the Ituri drainage, but the real conservation problems will start when people on the densely populated east side of the Albertine Rift realize this area is secure and contains gold.  And then those that follow the extraction points, will clear the forests.

Pygmy heartland is still a frontier – partially because sedentary groups are afraid of the jungle and partly because the main East-West Road in DRC (the Trans-African Highway) is basically a footpath. But the frontier is being invaded.  The first toeholds into this zone are mining for minerals like gold and coltan.  But once the jungle is breached, other groups follow.  One of the most pervasive is the Wanande from Uganda.  They follow the miners and set up shops and little cottage industries to make money.  Then the general population follows.  This is already happening all around the Ituri region.  One of the photographs I’ve made is Pygmies on scaffolding around trees chopping them down for agriculture.  They are being hired to chop down their own forest.

Once security is regained in this region, the influx from the eastern Albertine Rift will be horrendous.  At the moment DRC is amassing troops at their border here to protect their interests in the region.  The rioting in Kinshasa and fighting in Bukavu were basically over control of the rift.  Rwanda would like to annex the area. Pygmies dissipate and evaporate with the forest. They don’t stay and fight.

The Wanande is the largest ethnic group invading the frontier and they have businesses, churches, schools, money… And the Mbuti just have small hunting clans, leaf huts and a few pots and plastic bottles.  The Wanande don’t care about the traditional trading arrangements the pygmies have had over time. Pygmies go into the forest and hunt for protein and the sedentary Bantus have traded starch for the pygmies’ meat.

While most of the Ituri has fewer than 3 inhabitants per square kilometer, the forest is surrounded on all sides by districts, which support the highest population densities in all of Zaire outside of its capital, Kinshasa. The frontier moves with these extractive outposts (like gold mining) and the jumps are unpredictable.  For example, John Hart’s PHD on hunting was done in a forest site in the 70’s.  There isn’t a tree left in the area. The Harts are really in a unique position to study.

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