NEWS

DR Congo. Protected but discriminated against, the Pygmies are driven out of their own ecosystem



Until June 2022, Biranda spent most of his days immersed in the rustling of the forest. He was born and raised in Virunga National Park (located in the east of the country, it was created in 1925, making it the oldest national park in Africa) and he rarely felt the need to venturing into the outside world. “There is such a good atmosphere,” summarizes Biranda, who wished to be identified only by his surname, for fear of reprisals.

The park, classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, is the one which contains the greatest biodiversity in Africa, i.e. approximately 2,077 plant species, 218 species of mammals and extremely fertile soils. There are savannahs, plains, swamps, endemic plants (which only exist spontaneously in a specific geographical area), two of the most active volcanoes in Africa and the mountain gorilla – a species threatened.

This rich ecosystem has always nourished Birandi and its community; the forest is their main source of livelihood. Biranda’s daily life was always the same. He would wake up, put on his boots and wander the park all day looking for honey, edible herbs and medicinal plants.

For this 51-year-old man, a day in the park is like a day at the market. He could meet most of his needs there. According to his childhood memories, there was always enough food and plenty of meat. His parents were excellent hunters. In the evening, everyone sat around the fire. The adults drank kasiksi – a local drink made from honey or banana – and kept the children occupied by telling them stories.

Chased out of paradise

But Biranda and other members of the indigenous Pygmy people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) no longer have access to the idyllic life and land that was once theirs.

In June 2022, rangers from the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the public body that administers Virunga National Park, expelled him from the park along with his family and other members of his family. community, thus catapulting him into a world about which he knew little.

Just one month after these expulsions, in July 2022, President Félix Tshisekedi promulgated a law to protect the indigenous Pygmy people. This text recognizes the discrimination that this indigenous population has suffered over time and grants them fundamental rights, in particular to enjoy their land and natural resources. It is the first law in the country to recognize the rights of an indigenous people.

However, more than a year later, the pygmy populations have still not regained access to the park, which deprives them of land rights and their traditional way of life, and complicates access to food. “I would give anything to go back there,” confides Biranda.

The Pygmy community is part of a larger population of hunter-gatherers who are believed to have been the first to occupy the Great Lakes region of central Africa. It straddles the territories of Uganda, the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, according to reports from the NGO Minority Rights Group International. In the DRC, which has around a hundred million inhabitants, this population would be between 600,000 and 700,000 people, according to an Equator Initiative report published in 2019.

Although these different populations have a common ancestry, their name varies depending on the region. In the North Kivu province of the DRC, they are called Batwa or Bambuti. In the Central African Republic, the Baaka live in the Lobaye forest. Regardless of where they live, these groups experience discrimination, human rights abuses, food shortages, lack of land rights, and marginalization imposed by other groups and decision-makers.

In the DRC, they continue to struggle with their uncompensated displacement from what they consider to be their ancestral land. It is a phenomenon which,

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