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Congo pygmies ill-prepared to fight for their forests

Pygmy chief Mbomba Bokenu says he may soon let loggers cut his forests, and all he expects in return are soap and a few bags of salt.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2006 17:21 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

Pygmy chief MbombaBokenu says he may soon let loggers cut his people's forests, and all he expects in return are soap and a few bags of salt.

"The Pygmies are suffering, we accept what we are given," said Bokenu, draped in brown civet-cat skins and holding a slender carved-wooden shield. "Our children live in dirt, they suffer from disease. Soap and salt is a lot to our people."

The Pygmies, though, should expect, and demand, much more under proposed rules meant to ensure that forest communities benefit from the wealth all around them.

But there's reason to question whether the poor illiterate Pygmies, product of years of government neglect and discrimination by ethnic Bantus, will be able to use the law to help themselves.

"People who do not have money for clothes are not in a position to apply the forestry code in a reasonable manner," said Richard Mboyo, head anthropologist at Congo's Center for Ecology and Forestry, a government research institution in the northwestern Equator province.

"Some of the tribes are facing the modern world for the first time. They don't understand the value of their trees," said Mboyo, who has researched forest communities in Congo for over two decades.

Pygmy chief Bokenu said he knew some Bantus, who are more educated and Westernized, had negotiated hospitals for their forests. But when asked if the Pygmies would ask for one as well, he said: "We are not educated enough to ask for hospitals and schools."

Mboyobelieved it would take years of diligent work to teach Pygmies their rights and how to use the law. And that effort could only begin once Congo's ruined infrastructure is rebuilt and the thick forests penetrated.

First Published: Mar 01, 2006 17:21 IST