Past literatures identify “pygmy” as people living in the Congo Basin forest. The terminology is used at the end of the 19th century when explorers begin to penetrate inside the central basin of Africa. They alleged that they found people who were “short” and leaving in houses different from those of the coast. Because of their supposed size they are named “dwarfs” and “pygmy” (1873, Georg Schweinfuth), Negrillos (Hamy 1879). Later on they were called by local names “Batwa, Bambuti, Babinga”, which were used as synonymous with or contiguous to “Pygmies”.
Today most anthropologists and ethnologists avoid the use of the term “pygmy”. UN agencies, governments, NGOs and defenders of the rights of these people have proposed the replacement of the word “pigmy” with the concept of “native” or “indigenous”.
Official circles have also adopted new names. In Cameroon, “Pygmy” is considered insulting in some circles and full of prejudices. In fact, many organizations are trying to ban its use in official circles. In Cameroon the talk about “BBBB” or “four B”, to designate the whole Baka-Bagyeli-Bakola-Bedzan living in this country. In DRC the concept used is “PA”. In Congo Brazza, the use of pygmy concept it is forbidden by the law:
“The use of the term Pygmy is forbidden. It is assimilated to the offense of insult provided for and sanctioned by the Penal Code”.
2. Misleading Terminologies
The terminology “Pygmy” invented in the 19th century refers to the inhabitants of the forest of the Congo Basin who would be: “Short in size, nomadic, living by hunting and gathering”.
But if someone considers only this description, he will soon realize that these descriptions can be applied to a set of heterogeneous peoples, diverse ethnic groups leaving in a vast territory. It may then be wrong to put all of them in the same category. From the time researchers have crossed ethnographic studies with linguistic studies, it has become quite clear that the term pygmy does not correspond to anything really identifiable and precise. “The term ‘Pygmy’ leads far too easily to meaningless generalization. It is well that the term ‘Mbuti’ by which is understood the pygmy population of the Ituri Forest is too broad (Turnbull 1965a: 147)”.
Today traditional elements identifying this group no longer stand up to a miniscule examination. Pygmy in the past referred to the size. But it happens that we still find in this group tall people. Pygmy was referring to those living in the forest. In the Congo Basin Forest you may find many other ethnic groups not recognized as pygmies. You will also find pigmies populations living in the savannahs e.g. (Cameroon, DRC and Angola). Others like the (twa) leave in the mountains of Rwanda and Burundi.
The attempt to use the criteria of “hunters” or those leaving out of “picking/gathering” would also leave out those in Rwanda who live by crafts, or those in the DRC who live by fishing or agriculture.
Nowadays it would be important to specify what we are talking about when we refer to indigenous peoples at the risk of falling into the trap of those who systematically associate or confuse, physical appearance, costume, shape of houses and discrimination.
In fact, the groups identified as “pygmy” or “autochthonous people” are different ethnic groups, and speak the languages spoken in the Congo Basin (Niger, Bantu, Ubangian and Nilosaharian) and are distributed discontinuously from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes Region, and on both sides of Ecuador. The majority of them do not mix or know each other. They do not also have the same size. You find among them tall and short people. The sizes of these groups vary from tens of thousands (Baka, Aka, Mbuti …) to less than 500 (Bedzan).
Finally the so-called pygmies live in close contact with other non-pygmy communities and share their language. This often makes it difficult to know how to identify them.
From : ROBILLARD Marine et BAHUCHET Serge, Les pygmées et les autres : terminologie, catégorie et politique, Journal de la Société des Africanistes • January 2013, 18.
3. Concept of “Native”, Indigenous, Autochthonous
From the time Human Rights institutions and NGOs have started to address this issue the term most used in the Congo Basin region has been “autochthonous people”. This term finds its roots in the struggle for the rights of the indigenous people of latin America. The question of who is or who is not indigenous in Africa is also a debate. It refers to the category of “first occupants”. But who was the first occupant is far more difficult to establish in Africa than in America . It is indeed known that tribes in Africa, before colonization, have always been migrating for different reasons. This makes it difficult to qualify some of them as “first-habitant”.
4. Human Rights Approach
In 2000, the regional human rights mechanism ot the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), established a working group on indigenous peoples. In its report it gives some indication on who are indigenous people.
“… the groups identifying themselves as indigenous peoples: …their cultures are under threat, in some cases to the extent of extinction. A key characteristic for most of them is that the survival of their particular way of life depends on access and rights to their traditional land and the natural resources…They suffer from discrimination as they are being regarded as less developed and less advanced than other…They often live in inaccessible regions, often geographically isolated and suffer from various forms of marginalization, both politically and socially. They are subject to domination and exploitation within national political and economic structures…This discrimination, domination and marginalization violates their human rights as peoples/communities,…”
The African Union has chosen the term “indigenous peoples” to identify these categories of population. This document helps also to unfold the concept and criteria of indigenous peoples in the African context.
“The report clearly states that unlike many other continents, who refer to aboriginality, the principle of self-identification is a key criterion for identifying indigenous peoples in Africa” .
The African Commission on Human Rights has been critical in the development of the concept from the Human Rights approach. From the judiciary perspective the case was applied in 2010 in the case opposing the government of Kenya and the Ogiek population.
“The Endorois indigenous peoples are pastoralist communities of Kenya living around the Lake Bogoria…The Endorois peoples were dispos¬sessed of the concerned ancestral lands which became a protected area… the Endorois indigenous peoples brought their complaint to the African Commission, who in 2010 ruled against the Kenyan Government emphasizing that the evictions were in violation of several rights of the concerned indigenous community, including their rights to lands, natural resources and cultural identify” .
Most constitutions in Africa have included the right of indigenous people. The 2010 Constitution of Kenya has identify indigenous people as “communities that have “retained and maintained a tradi¬tional lifestyle and livelihood based on a hunter or gatherer economy; or(d) pas¬toral persons and communities” as groups whose cultural existence and preser¬vation depend on the protection of their ancestral rights over lands and resourc¬es”.
In the region of the Congo Basin the Economic Community of Central African States (CEAC) established in 2011 a commission to address this mutter. “Forum International sur les Peuples Autoch¬tones en Afrique Centrale (FIPAC)”.
In 2005, the Namibian Government appointed a Deputy-Ministry to be in charge of “Marginalized Communities” with a mandate to promote indigenous peoples in Namibia and to protect Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Namibia.
In 2012, Gabon committed to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and to provide medical, educational and economic assistance to these communities.
The question of autochthonous peoples in Africa raises several questions.
– Who are the natives is a question in debate. The definition of the African Union recognizes as self-interested the peoples who define themselves as such. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is based on the right to self-determination. African nations are therefore confronted with the notion of the “first occupants”. The concept “first occupants” may be clear in Latin America, Australia, South Africa, but could not be applied to the indigenous peoples of the Congo Basin
– Some NGOs specializing in advocacy have tried to make a list that is not convincing. It says that “the indigenous peoples of Africa are the Bushmen of Botswana, the Maasai of Tanzania, the Ogiek of Kenya, the peoples of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia and the Pygmies of Central Africa” .
The tendency of some environmental NGOs is to link the question of environmental disturbances, with the aim of compensation for deforestation and from this problem creates an exceptional category which gives the right to a favorable treatment regime vis-à-vis projects for the conservation, sustainable management of biodiversity or construction of major infrastructure should be addressed in a wide perspective. The question to ask in Africa may be how to save the forest using the wisdom of local population leaving in the forest without excluding Pygmies. Firstly, not all communities leaving in Congo Basin Forest are pygmies. Secondly, what should be done by pygmies who have opted for a “more modern” way of life than others, for example those who plant cassava? Are they no longer “indigenous”?
In several African States, debate on indigenous peoples is not close. Arguments of all Africans being indigenous or that the concept “indigenous peoples” is divisive and unconstitutional are persis¬tently expressed in political statements and continue to shape policies of several African States.
Beyond discussions, what should be addressed is the large-scale dispossessions of local communities’ lands. It remains a significant challenge in several African States. The global drive for raw materials, agro-busi¬ness and building of major infrastructures are pushing local communities and not only pygmies in their last boundaries. A recent African Commission report on extractive industries and indigenous peoples revealed the negative impact of several mining, agro-business and logging projects on local communities, land rights and access to natural resources. In several cases, tensions with communities have led to open conflicts, including loss of lives. All these aspects and others should be of concern for the Church in Africa. The creation of REBAC responds to some of these concerns.
Rigobert Minani SJ
REBAC/SECAM focal point