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‘It’s our home’: Pygmies fight for recognition as forest protectors in new film

  • A recent short film, Pygmy Peoples of the DRC: A Rising Movement, tracks the push for the recognition of indigenous land rights in the DRC.
  • The film catalogs the importance of the forest to pygmy groups, as well as their role as stewards of the forest.
  • A raft of recent research has shown that indigenous groups around the world often do a better job of protecting forests than parks and reserves.

The word “pygmy” conjures images of hunter-gatherers living deep in the Congo rainforest, far removed from the modern world. But that modern world is closing in on them, as the forests in which they live fall to provide the rest of the world with timber and make way for huge industrial farms.

Now, the pygmies of the Democratic Republic of Congo are coming together to demonstrate both the value of the forest to their society and their role as stewards of this resource.

“It’s the place of spirits, invocations, incantations and reincarnation,” says Marie Lisenga in a recent short film, Pygmy Peoples of the DRC: A Rising Movement. “It’s our home.”

 

The documentary is part of the If Not Us, Then Who? project, with its mission to showcase how communities are critical in protecting forests and tackling issues such as climate change. Like many indigenous groups around the world, the DRC’s pygmies are struggling to hold onto the lands they have tended for generations.

“No indigenous are recognized,” says Kapupu Diwa Mutimanwa, a leader of the Twa ethnic group and president of the League of Indigenous Pygmy Associations of Congo, known by the French acronym LINAPYCO. “There are customary indigenous laws, but they are not recognized by others. So we must change this.”

The way the pygmies say they’re treated harkens back to racist beliefs dating to colonial times about who they are.

“We are considered as ‘sub-human’ as an inferior race, people who cannot even think,” says Joseph Itongwa Mukumo, a member of the Walikale group in the DRC’s North Kivu province and a coordinator of REPALEF, the Network of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems.

In fact, a growing body of research has demonstrated that indigenous groups are remarkably effective protectors of standing forest, in many cases, better than traditional protected areas like parks and reserves.

As Lisenga points out medicinal and edible plants during the film, she explains how her forest-dependent people make sustainable use of the land.

“We do not cut the trees,” Lisenga says. “We protect the forest, we take only what falls.”

A Batwa man. Photo [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

The international community is awakening to the pygmies’ critical role in protecting forests in the DRC. Now, the groups led by Itongwa and Diwa are arguing for the legal protection of pygmy land in the form of land tenure reform, because, as they see it, these indigenous groups provide a service not just for the DRC, but the whole world.

“The indigenous traditional knowledge is recognized as efficient for tackling climate change situations,” Itongwa says. “We are proud, because we build and protect what is important to humanity.”

Banner image of Batwa women by Doublearc [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Follow John Cannon on Twitter: @johnccannon

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