DR Congo

Exploitation of forest habitat threatens pygmies in Congo

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From Louis Okamba, PANA Correspondent
Pokola, Congo (PANA) - The massive exploitation of the 15 million-hectare forestland of northern Congo is pushing pygmies towards hitherto unoccupied forestlands.

A continuation of such massive foreign exploitation could jeopardise the pygmies' survival.

The pygmies of the Sangha region, who live in the 1.2 million- hectare "concession" granted to the Congolese Industrial Timber Company (CIB), the largest forestry company in the country, are suffering from the depletion of their environment and the worsening of their living conditions.

"Our only concern is that our forest must not be totally destroyed. At the current pace, we are doomed to disappear if the destruction is not stopped," said Daniel Kaya, a young worker at CIB, which employs 1,600 people, 10 percent of whom are pygmies.

The pygmies, valued for their perfect knowledge of the forest where they help the company identify tree species, are unwittingly taking part in the razing of their natural environment.

"I have to work with the forestry companies for my survival. But it is true that the intensive forest exploitation already has negative consequences on our community. Nowadays, we have to walk very long distances to find food. Life for us is impossible outside the forest," said Florent Bekou, a 50-year-old pygmy.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an American NGO with offices in Kabo, more than 1,500 km north of Brazzaville, is helping CIB draw up a development plan.

The situation may become critical in the distant future for pygmies since the entire northern Congo forest region has been granted to forestry companies, observed WCS local representative Paul Elkan.

The NGO has adopted a series of measures to secure the future of pygmy communities.

"The pygmies cannot live in areas where the forest is depleted.

We will set up hunting zones for them where wandering pygmies could settle and live as hunter-gatherers," Elkan said.

While the pygmies' living conditions are deteriorating in their natural forest environment, their social integration is not easy in the workers' estates of the forestry companies, where they live with their Bantu and western co-workers.

Though the company provides houses for them, the pygmies prefer to build their own huts in the neighbourhood of workers' estates, where they live with their wives and children.

According to CIB managing director Jean Marie Mervellec, "the pygmies are employed on equal basis with other workers, and the enjoy the same advantages, but they do have difficulty integrating socially.

"With no sense of saving for the future, the pygmies prefer not to send their children to school, and immediately spend their wages on alcohol," Mervellec opined.

Notwithstanding, Patrick Geffroy, head of operations in Makobo, one of the CIB "concessions," expressed a lot of respect for the pygmies.

"They have undeniable artistic qualities.... They are human beings who have the right to live in their natural environment," he noted.

But Geffroy expressed concern about the future of the pygmies. "They do not go to school and are gradually losing their ancestral skills. We are heading straight for the uprooting of new generations, which will mean the end for pygmy culture."

In the absence of a general awareness among forestry companies and Congolese government circles still attracted by earnings from timber -- the country's second earner after oil -- the pygmies' living conditions will continue to deteriorate.

Pan African News Agency
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