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A recent international conference on indigenous (Pygmy) rights in Central Africa issued a call “for an immediate stop to practices that generate the destruction of our ways of life…”

Indigenous delegates from Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Rwanda, and Uganda met in Impfondo, a city in Republic of Congo, from April 10 to 15. Convened under the auspices of the ROC and numerous international agencies, the conference sought to improve the living conditions of the various Central African Pygmy societies. According to a report from the press office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, IRIN, the purpose of the first international forum of Pygmy societies in central Africa was to “reinforce the rights of indigenous people…”

The conference delegates issued an eloquent appeal for their rights in the “Déclaration des Pygmées d’Afrique Centrale au forum international d’Impfondo.” The first point in their declaration affirmed “the inherent right of indigenous peoples to self-determination.” The second indicated that they feel they “are the owners of the legitimate right to their forests.”

Other statements made by the declaration affirm the necessity of states recognizing, respecting, and protecting the rights of the Pygmies to their forests and natural resources. When the forests are decimated, it says, indigenous peoples must be compensated fairly. The delegates decried policies that discriminate against indigenous peoples or expel them from their own territories.

The conference also adopted a five-year plan to develop indigenous communities in Central Africa. The plan suggests ways of enhancing the living conditions of the Pygmies, protecting their rights to their forests, improving their status, and safeguarding their cultural knowledge. According to Henri Djombo, Minister of Forest Economy for the Republic of Congo, which hosted the conference, his government was committed to implementing the Impfondo Declaration and the Action Plan. The conference, he indicated, will be held every three years.

The declaration and action plan of the conference could have an impact on the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo if it decides to follow the lead of its smaller neighbor to the north, the ROC, and try to promote more toleration for minority peoples. The Mbuti people live in the northeastern area of the DRC and have suffered considerable discrimination and persecutions in recent years, as earlier news reports in this website have indicated.

François Ababehu-Utauta, an Mbuti, told IRIN that he suffered discrimination from the time he entered school due to his short stature. “No [child] wanted me to sit next to him in class,” the young scholar said. “For them, I do not have this right and I am not like them.”

He was tempted to give up his studies and return to the forest but he was determined to fight the discrimination. “I told myself that freedom is a fight,” he said. The young man, now 18, is still only 1.40 m (4 ft. 7 in.) tall. Despite his schooling, he continues to celebrate the forest. “We live with nature and depend on the forest—even though the state does not want to recognize it.”

Others at the conference also stressed the importance of securing rights for the indigenous peoples of Central Africa. Kapupu Diwa, president of the Network of Local and Indigenous Populations for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa, argued that the indigenous, forest-dwelling peoples in the region have not gotten benefits from the natural resources or forest products. The concessions that governments give to mining companies rarely recognize the needs of the indigenous peoples, he said.

Other statements from delegates also supported the rights of the indigenous peoples. “Indigenous people are major actors in the conservation and sustainable management of forest biodiversity,” said Minister Djombo from the ROC. Harmful mining, forestry, and agricultural practices have seriously affected them, he maintained.

Gilbert Djombo-Bomondjo, prefect of Likouala, northern ROC, thinks the discrimination against the indigenous people is caused by the belief that they are second-class citizens. “Despite the abolition of slavery centuries ago, we observe with regret that there are still places where there is segregation towards our pygmy brothers,” he said.