‘Our life will never again be as before. We are losing for good our means of subsistence. Our survival depended on the forest, which gave us everything we needed to live. Now everything is disappearing: the forest, the wild game, the caterpillars, the mushrooms, even the honey… These things will not return. What will become of us, of us and our children?’
Pygmy villager from Yaimbo, L’Equateur Province, DR Congo.
_‘They [the loggers] don’t respect our forests: the sacred trees, the sacred places, the burial places of our ancestors in the forest.’ _
Pygmy villager of Makumo, Orientale Province.
This is contrary to the mercantile vision of the forest, which is simply as an object of commerce, and which leads to its devastation
‘The companies don’t recognize that we are the proprietors of the forest which they are exploiting. Our oak trees are destroyed, the mushrooms become scarce, animals have fled because of the noise of the machines, or have been massacred by shotguns. We are dying of hunger! If we dare to speak… they have us arrested by soldiers… We have always suffered, but since the arrival of the timber companies, it’s worse.’
Boko Tatakoyi, a 45-year old Pygmy woman from Yaimbo.
These sad words sum up the drama that Pygmies are experiencing as a result of logging, and the deforestation that follows, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The forest is vital for millions of lives. It covers two-thirds of the Congo Basin, the second largest forest area in the world, after the Amazon. But quite apart from its planetary role in the current context of climate change, the forest assures the survival of 40 million out of the country’s 60 million people.
It harbours endemic species of wildlife such as the Congolese peacock, the chimpanzee- like Bonobo, the okapi giraffe and many sought-after wood species such as Wenge, Sapelli or Afromosia. There are also Pygmies.
The first people to inhabit the territory, Pygmies† are the aboriginal people of the DR Congo – where we are estimated to number between 300,000 and 600,000. People of the forest, we have lived here for millennia in harmony with nature. Our holistic vision of the forest – including its spiritual dimensions – means we see it as our nurturing mother, venerated and protected. This is contrary to the mercantile vision of the forest, which is simply as an object of commerce, and which leads to its devastation.
The destruction of the forest is as a real tragedy for Pygmies. The forest is our supermarket, our pharmacy, our school, our temple and our cemetery.
Deforestation deprives us of the resources vital for our survival, and the environment in which to express our culture, our traditional wisdom and our spirituality. Briefly, deforestation sets in motion the total uprooting of Pygmies; it brings poverty, malnutrition, illness and death.
World Bank double-speak
Since 2001 the World Bank has financed and supported forestry reforms in the DR Congo, to ‘create an environment and a development driven by the private sector, including expansion of industrial exploitation of timber’. This policy is largely responsible for deforestation.
However, according to its own rules, the World Bank should not be doing this. In May 2002 the Bank inspired and supported a moratorium on the granting of new forestry concessions. In August that year it also adopted a new forestry code.
For its part the DR Congo Government restricted the renewal of logging titles in October 2005 and extended a moratorium on granting new forestry concessions. An independent observer, from the World Resources Institute, was recruited to monitor the process of renewing titles. But this is what happened:
The moratorium was systematically violated by the Government, under the nose of the World Bank whose silence translates into complicity.
The Bank participated in violating the moratorium by financing – through the Société Financière Internationale – the Singapore-based multinational Olam, which acquired 300,000 hectares of forest three years after the moratorium was established.
The Congolese forestry sector is gangrenous with corruption; the forestry administration is very weak, badly equipped and incapable of controlling the sector.
Illegal exploitation and devastation of the forests is intensifying, to the detriment of forest communities and the Congolese state.
Twenty-two million hectares of forest – almost the entire land surface of Britain – have been conceded to timber interests through 156 titles of which two thirds – covering 15,416,252 hectares – are illegal and granted in violation of the moratorium.
The titles are mainly held by multinationals with foreign capital – US, French, Italian German, Portuguese, Belgian, Libyan, Singaporean, Chinese and Indian. Many concessions encompass areas vital for forest-dwelling communities, leading to conflicts between these indigenous communities and the timber concession holders.
Our survival, our vital space, our cultural identity, our traditional wisdom are threatened. We have only one option: to resist. Ours is a peaceful resistance – but not a passive one.
As to the protection we might expect from the Congolese state: it is absent. Rather, the state is the protector and accomplice of the companies and against indigenous communities.
From 2003, we repeatedly appealed to the Government and the World Bank, through formal and informal meetings, through written correspondence, to try and draw attention to their failings and to propose alternatives. We did not have much success.
In February 2005, indigenous organizations addressed a memo to the World Bank, pointing out its ‘failings concerning the forests and the indigenous peoples of the DR Congo’. The Bank’s response, dated 5 July 2005, was received by us on 5 October 2005. It did nothing to address our concerns.
In October 2005 indigenous delegates visited Washington, informing the Executive Directors of our grievances and supplying irrefutable evidence. There was not an echo in response. The indigenous Pygmy groups therefore decided to submit a request to the World Bank Inspection Panel, on 30 October 2005. Our complaint: that the Bank was not respecting its own policies in relation to forestry sector reform.
With help from allies such as the Rainforest Foundation, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, indigenous delegates made several visits to Washington and other capitals.
The Inspection Panel made two missions to DR Congo, after which it upheld the complaints against the Bank. In October 2007, a delegation of Pygmies arrived in Washington for the World Bank’s annual meeting. We had the chance to talk with the Bank’s President, Robert Zoellick, and other members of the staff. The Bank management was defensive, ill at ease, as though trying to ignore the Inspection Panel’s conclusions.
In November 2007 the Bank’s management published its rather disjointed response – but did not deny the facts. In January 2008, the Board of Directors got together again to discuss the response of the management in light of the Inspection Panel’s report.
The Board limited itself to general considerations. For us, a clear position on specific issues, such as maintaining the moratorium on issuing new logging concessions, would have been preferable. The management is embarrassed, abashed by the gap between its actions and its declarations of good intentions. Its Plan of Action promises improvement. As far as we are concerned, the management must put into place a Development Plan for Indigenous Peoples that protects our community rights. It would be better if they developed it with our participation.
Meanwhile, our struggle continues.
So the next time you see an item made out of tropical wood that comes from the DR Congo – or are perhaps considering buying it – remember the words of the Pygmies quoted at the beginning of this article. Say to yourself: ‘The survival – physical, cultural or spiritual – of thousands of Pygmies, extremely dependant on the forests, is every day sacrificed for the comfort of rich consumers of tropical timber from the DR Congo!’
† Although the word ‘Pygmy’ has derogatory connotations it is the term currently used by many different groups – including Batwa, Twa, Bantu – to describe themselves.
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