Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Pygmy Girl is Indentured Servant to Take Care of Bantu Children

Pygmy Girl is Indentured Servant to Take Care of Bantu Children

Kenge is possibly the most famous pygmy.  His daughter was traded off to a wealthy Bantu family when the father had a good job with GIC and his wife needed help with the kids.  During the war, the family moved to Beni, because it was a little more secure than Epulu… they brought their pygmy with them.  She does various chores around the house… laundry, sweeping, mopping, washing children… anything that is necessary.

From my journal:

I photograph one last situation… a pygmy girl that was “given” to a Bantu household when that wealthy Bantu family needed help with their young children… these are sad photographs of her washing the kids and mopping the floors… the lowest caste… the indentured servants…  It is even more ironic that she is the offspring of probably the most famous pygmy—Kenge, the main character of “The Forest People” by the second white settler in the Ituri… the book is told thru Kenge’s eyes and it is the book the Harts were reading in the 70’s when they were in the Peace Corps… possibly the reason they came and worked where they are…  Kenge is now a sad drunk and his family is giving away their children to work for the Bantus… It’s hard not to think that this is just the way things will be for these people…

I call Larry at Mission Air to charter the plane to Entebbe… It’s time to leave… I’ve given everything away that I can… Backpacks, GPS’s, water filters, etc…  Paluku is truly sad to see me go…  What a window into a place though… a truly African, wonderful experience… who knows how long this place will last.

From a conversation with Terese Hart, Scientist and Conservationist:

The war is about land and is thus irrelevant to the Pygmies who have no land rights.  They will be losers no matter who wins.

Their buffer to the war and to outside pressures in general is the forest.  But they do not own the forest.

The highest density of pygmies anywhere in the world is the Ituri forest and the Okapi Faunal Reserve, which is propped up only by management by international agencies like WCS.  They pay the salaries of the guards along with CI and GIS and WWF and they provide the infrastructure.  They even pay the head of the DRC governmental agency ICCN in Kinshasa.

There is a perfect storm of forces surrounding the Pygmies and their forest.  On the eastern side of the Albertine Rift there is a population density of 300 per square KM.  On the Pygmies side in DRC there is a density of 3 per square KM.  The only thing that keeps the hordes at bay is insecurity.  But even with insecurity, they are forcing their way in from the east.  From the western side are huge red zones of logging concessions.  And scattered about are mineral concerns—red zones that leapfrog linear expansion, creating pockets of deforestation randomly around the reserve depending on availability of gold, diamonds and coltan.  A watershed that runs through the Ituri forest has eroded the hotly contested mountains of gold around Bunia.  Artisanal gold miners create extractive outposts that then grow like cancer in the pygmies forest.

The people of the mountains who are moving into the forest, the Nande, do not see the forest they see the land.  They know only the wealth hidden in the ground and gravel of the forest’s streams.  Where wealth springs from the ground, mud-walled Nande shops spring up and the forest is cleared for gardens and further expansion.

These people know the wealth of the forest only when it is cut, sawn and packed into trucks across the border to Uganda.  The Nande are not alone.  The budu from the north and the Bashi from the south, and others join the Nande advance on the standing forest seeking to cut it, to tame it.  They know the cultivated wealth that can be coaxed from the soil.

Poverty is a differential not an absolute.  My neighbors are rich and we are poor because my neighbors have two cooking pots and we have only one, because they have turned two hectares of forest into beans and bananas and we only one.  The Mbuti don’t think that way.  The forest is generous; they can disappear into it knowing that they will eat well; tomorrow they will come out with game meat or honey and the small scale agriculturalists of the forest, the Mbo, the Bila, the Pere, the Lese, the Ndaka, will share their plantains like the Mbuti share the wealth of the forest.

Like the Mbuti, these small-scale agriculturalists also don’t calculate their wealth on the backs of their neighbors.  They sit at the same barazza with the Mbuti as they have for generations, they will circumcise their boys together, and together they will be rich in their rags in the center of the forest.

This is not the case with the Nande immigrants—they need land.  Unwritten but inevitable: the forest will be carved into their gardens and shipped out in their trucks.  When they deal with the forest people, it is not with the Mbuti of the forest, but rather with the traditional agriculturalists who own the land on which the forest grows, and who will cede land and forest, hectare by hectare, for a goat or for a clutch of chickens or two new lengths of cloth for their wives.

The struggling new government of the emerging Congo also needs forest.  If a state is to be built from the chaos of the Congo’s long years of mis-rule, then a healthy forestry industry that provides taxes and transforms timber to finished product is essential.

Why can’t forest tenure exist just as land tenure exists?  And why not—in some places—have forest tenure take precedence over land tenure?  In a new post-war Congo some areas of traditional land tenure rights will be reconfirmed, in other areas government rights (or warlord?) rights will be asserted.  The statutes of classified forests will be reconfirmed, such as Congo’s rich tradition of world heritage sites and parks that protect endemic okapi, gorilla and bonobo chimpanzees.  Likewise why not classify some forest, extensive forest, as traditional hunting areas where Mbuti, in collaboration with National Parks and international Conservation NGOs, are responsible for forest conservation.

This experiment is underway in the Ituri, where Mbuti hunting grounds are being confirmed around a core of complete protection and with an outer fringe of traditional forest agriculture protected from immigration.  In other areas beyond the Ituri, are areas of dense landless Mbuti populations wedded to the forest.  There, too, all along the forests of the Rift frontier, this experiment should be extended.

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