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First estimate of Congo Basin’s pygmy population comes with warning about increasing threat of deforestation

As many as 920,000 pygmies live in the forests of the Congo Basin, and deforestation of Central Africa’s rainforests is not only intensifying the threats to their lives but the survival of their very culture, a new study suggests.

Pygmy communities occupy a large amount of territory in central Africa, from the Congo Basin to Lake Victoria. It has been virtually impossible to determine their population numbers and geographic distribution until now due to a number of factors, primarily the fact that they live in remote forest areas and, as hunter-gatherers, tend to move around a lot.

To arrive at the first scientific estimate of Africa’s pygmy population, researchers gathered data on 654 known camps in five of the nine countries where pygmies are known to live.

The researchers then turned to spatial distribution models developed for estimating population size and distribution of plants and wildlife to map out the terrain that was favorable to the pygmy lifestyle, allowing them to predict where other encampments were likely to have developed.

Because pygmies largely live by fishing, hunting, and gathering other forest foodstuff, they’re more likely to live deep in the rainforest, near rivers and far from urban centers.

Batwa (a pygmy people) women with traditional pots. Taken in Burundi, in the village of Kiganda in the province of Muramvya in July 2007. Women are watching a community event, but not involved. Photo Credit: Doublearc / Wikimedia Commons

According to the report published in PLOS One summarizing the study’s findings, 60 percent of the estimated 920,000-person pygmy population lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Pygmies are of great significance to humanity’s cultural diversity, as they are the largest group of active hunter-gatherers in Africa, and possibly the world,” John E. Fa of Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, a senior research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and one of the study’s lead authors, said in a statement.

“Yet this was the first study to use robust scientific methods to predict how many Pygmies are likely to be found in the vast expanse of tropical forests in Central Africa,” Fa added.

Fa and his co-authors of the PLOS One report found that there were several pygmy settlements in areas that have roads, which means they live in an environment too degraded to support their lifestyle and culture. Many were forced to relocate to these “sub-optimal” areas by government programs, according to the report, usually as part of official sedentarization programs or after being displaced by deforestation for agriculture, logging, or mining.

“This is a very underprivileged and neglected group of people, many of whom have already lost their forest land and livelihoods and whose rich cultural traditions are seriously threatened in many regions,” Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist at University College, London, who has worked extensively with pygmy communities, said in a statement.

A team led by Jesús Olivero, an expert biogeographer at the University of Malaga in Spain, designed the statistical method used in the study. Olivero and co-authors say that information on pygmy locations and population numbers is crucial for developing appropriate human rights, cultural, and land security safeguards.

“By using tried and tested animal and plant distribution models, we hope to raise greater awareness of the importance of these too often ignored and marginalized groups in this region,” Olivero said.

“Pygmy communities depend on the forest but their access to forest areas is becoming increasingly difficult because of industrialization and the expansion of market-led initiatives, displacement, forced sedentarization, disease and deforestation.”


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