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ENVIRONMENT: Kiss of Life for DR Congo Pygmies

Badylon Kawanda Bakiman

BOLENGE, DR Congo, Apr 21 2011 (IPS) - “Most of the houses in our villages are still made with small branches that we have collected, while our timber and our medicinal plants are taken by people who are enriching themselves elsewhere,” said Ampiobo Amuri, a traditional pygmy chief.

“It’s been several weeks now since I stopped listening to the requests of these people who come and bring us drink, give us used clothes, sometimes even salt, in exchange for our products,” he said.

“I want our children to study,” said Antoinette Ambulampo. “The animals and the trees have been taken … When we arrive to work in the forests where someone has cut down the trees, we are hot. We work a lot for the people who come and court us.”

IPS met Amuri and Ambulampo in the village of Bolenge, in the Equateur Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Marginalised minority

There are roughly 200,000 pygmies living in the forests of the Republic of congo, Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – with smaller numbers as far east as Rwanda and Burundi, according to ethnologists Serge Bahuchet and Guy Philipart de Foy.

Across the Congo Basin, indigenous peoples are a marginalised minority. They often provide the workforce in the fields for others, exploited and sometimes paid in kind or with worthless scrip.

At the second International Forum of Indigenous Peoples, which took place from Mar. 16-18 at Ifondo in the Republic of Congo, Henri Ndjombo, that country’s minister of forestry and sustainable development, acknowledged the suffering of indigenous peoples.

“We are going to have to come up with appropriate responses to indigenous peoples’ problems for their survival, because they are up against a number of obstacles, notably, access to resources, which must be increasingly monitored. This is necessary in order for the development of alternative activities that allow this population to live better,” he states.

There have been some successes in securing the rights of indigenous people in conjunction with conservation of the forest they traditionally depend on for a livelihood.

The international non-profit organisation The Forest Trust (TFT), based in Geneva, is part of a wider group whose work for the rights of pygmies Amuri views in a positive light. The TFT has announced the certification of sustainable environmental and humanitarian practices of an additional 571,000 hectares of forest managed by the Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), a logging company operating in the Congo basin.

TFT says this brings the total area of tropical forest under sustainable management in the Congo Basin to more than 5.3 million hectares.

The certification of the Loundoungou and Toukoulaka concessions, according to TFT, means that all of the forest regions under CIB’s management have been certified by the independent standard-setting body, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a milestone in the protection of both the fragile environment of the forest and the livelihoods of local communities, especially semi-nomadic pygmies.

Certification alone not enough

But the lack of demand for sustainable wood and wood products (which command higher prices than other timber) could mean that the positive response of the industry to pressure from European and U.S. activists amounts to nothing, says TFT’s executive director Scott Poynton.

“The consumers aren’t there and the NGOs aren’t pushing the sale of this certified wood. And without economic returns, the companies can’t maintain these practices,” he adds.

Robert Hunink of the CIB confirms that opportunities in the market are still lacking. “Nevertheless, the staff and management of the CIB are in support of the FSC process,” he says. “The buyers will start to reward companies that have responded positively to the certification of their forestry operations.”

Jerome Bokele, the first pygmy to be elected to the provincial legislature of Equateur Province, in the north-west of the DRC, said: “The certification of 571.000 hectares by the FSC is a good thing. But it’s only an announcement. Thousands of logs are thrown into the Congo river – and often come from lawless exploitation of the tropical forests. More than 70 percent of the indigenous people in Africa are trapped in dire poverty…”

Odon Munsadi, an environmentalist in the DRC points out: “Environmental practices in this case involve the rational use of forests for their future existence. Bad practices lead to global warming and grassy plains.”

“Certification can be a breath of oxygen for the indigenous people if there is rigorous monitoring and if they develop and come to the fore. If not, the theory will prevail,” he warns.

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