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The indigenous peoples of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), including the Mbuti, have taken their forest preservation campaign directly to the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington. Supported by the Rainforest Foundation and Greenpeace, the leaders of three indigenous organizations in the DRC flew to Washington last week to attend the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They left the DRC with high hopes of having a meeting with the new World Bank President, Robert Zoellick.

The recently leaked report by the Bank’s own Inspection Panel, which strongly criticized the Bank for many of its policies and lapses in managing logging in the Congo rainforests, garnered a lot of unfavorable media coverage only a few weeks ago. The bad press continued in the run-up to the arrival of the indigenous delegation in Washington on October 16th.

Adrian Sinafasi, leader of the delegation to Washington and one of the spokespersons for the rights of the indigenous forest dwellers (often called “Pygmies”), described the noise the loggers make in the forest, the fact that they scare away animals, and the way they hunt bush meat with their rifles.

He told the media through an interpreter, “When the logging companies arrive, they restrict on our right to use the forest and forbid us access to vast areas. They cut pell-mell, with no consideration for the trees we depend on for caterpillars to eat, or the places where we can find mushrooms or get honey. We have no say about whether a tree should stand or whether it should fall.”

The stated objective of the delegation in going to Washington was “to tell the World Bank that they must not allow any expansion of the logging industry,” according to Sinafasi. “We have been the stewards of these forests for many generations and, to lose them now would be utterly devastating.” He indicated he had been displaced from his home in the eastern region of the DRC.

As the week in Washington wore on, it appears from clues in the press that the Congo delegation, with assistance from the NGOs that were sponsoring their trip, used all avenues to press home their message about the foolishness of destructively logging the rainforests. They emphasized repeatedly the importance to their own culture, and to the lives of millions of others, of not harming the forest.

A Reuters story filed early Thursday evening, October 18th, indicated that despite the wishes of the delegation to meet with President Zoellick, that would simply not be possible. A representative of the Bank, John Donaldson from the Bank’s Africa region, said that despite the impossibility of the President having a meeting with them, the Bank’s Vice President for Social Development Network, Katherine Sierra, and the Vice President for Africa, Obiageli Ezekwesili, would be able to see them. Donaldson refused to comment about the report by the Inspection Panel, but he did say that logging was appropriate in the DRC.

According to Ms. Adolphine Muley, a member of the indigenous delegation, “There is no difference between Pygmies and the forest. If you want to protect the Pygmies, you have to protect the forest.” Sinafasi added that the Bank needed to consider the indigenous people “as key partners in forest management.” Anyone concerned about the health of the entire planet could agree with his assessment that the forests of the Congo are an essential component. “The forest plays a role in regulating the climate,” he said.

The World Bank’s own website gave clues on Monday this week about the outcome of the delegation’s efforts. While they apparently did not have a formal meeting with President Zoellick, they were able to address their concerns to him during a forum for civil society groups. He talked with the delegation informally afterwards.

The Bank press release acknowledges the concerns of the delegation, and it refers, in fairly straightforward language, to the perception of the indigenous people that the Bank should “strengthen its collaboration with local communities and protect the rights and way of life of forest-dependent people, including Pygmies.” The release also acknowledges the concerns of the delegation about threats to the rainforest that imperil the food, fuel, medicines, and shelter of the indigenous inhabitants. It mentions that the forest supports “the cultural and spiritual needs of forest-dependent people.”

The release then wallows in bureaucratic glop: “The Bank is keen to promote both participation of indigenous people in key decision-making activities and programs that support local communities…” But following such disappointing verbiage, the document indicates the Bank is willing to hold a meeting in the DRC that will include the members of indigenous groups and that will “continue the discussion of issues and agree on next steps.” The official statement implies that the insights of the indigenous representatives at a meeting in the DRC will be listened to by the Bank representatives.

Meanwhile, Bank employees are not permitted to discuss the Inspection Panel report until the Board of Executive Directors has had a chance to discuss it. An official response to the Inspection Panel report is not expected until December.