The Congo River basin is home to 18% of the earth's remaining tropical rainforest. In and around it live 60 million people spread across six nations, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During the last 10 years, experts estimate, more than four-million deaths have been caused by the on-again, off-again, internecine and intertribal fighting that plague the DRC, much of it fueled by outside commercial interests in the country's gold, uranium and tropical hardwoods.
The DRC is home to more than 200 language groups and an even greater number of ethnic groups. Most are descendants of Bantu tribes that emigrated out of the rain forest of West Africa over 2,000 years ago. They combined new food plants with iron technology and a sophisticated form of slash-and-burn agriculture that have allowed them to demographically dominate most of sub Saharan Africa. The Bantu were still cutting into the rainforests of the central Congo during the late 1880s when the European "scramble for Africa" gave the Congo (as the DRC was then called) to King Leopold of Belgium to rule as his personal empire. There, his minions created rubber plantations where, infamously, they chopped off and collected the limbs of workers who did not fulfill their daily quota.
As they were occupying the vast basin of the Congo, the incoming Bantu tribes met up with its indigenous inhabitants. They call themselves by various names; but they are commonly referred to as pygmies as they are uncommonly short. We first hear of them in the Iliad of Homer. French scientists have traced pygmy genetic lines back 60,000 years, confirming that they are indeed the Congo's "First Nations." Even the Bantu believe that they are the forest's original inhabitants.
pygmies live in small egalitarian bands that range from 15-70 people, away from the Bantu farmers of the savannah. They do not farm. They are hunters of wild animals and gatherers of honey, roots and shoots. They are nomadic and do not hunt out their habitats, allowing animals, plants and honey to replenish until they next return. Women are relatively equal and well treated. As the inventors of the "Paleo diet," in their natural habitat they are unusually healthy and free of disease. When ill, they draw upon a wealth of herbal medicine that they gather from the forest. pygmy choral music uses complex harmonies that the French musicologist Simcha Arom says were not equaled in Europe until the late 14th century.
Of the 60 million inhabitants of the Congo River Basin, less than 500,000 are pygmy. Over time, they have retreated into the deepest, remotest parts of the forest in the hope that they could avoid the growing inter Bantu strife and tribal militias. But this has not kept them safe.
Of the six Congo Basin countries, not a single one permits pygmies to become citizens. They are not given identity cards or issued passports. Their land is not legally theirs. It belongs to the state, and frequently is sold or leased out to foreign companies who want its resources or who will cut down the forest and grow agricultural products for export.
The pygmies therefore have no way of claiming tenure to their ancestral lands. The United Nations has never made their land tenure an issue of basic human rights. The pygmies are ignored by the educational systems of their host countries. Most can neither read nor write. Therefore, there is no "educated pygmy elite" that can enter the politics of the capital city and influence government policy in their favour.
The pygmies do not have immigrant communities in Western countries that can lobby for them internationally. This is because almost all of the Bantu tribes and the tribal elites who inherited these newly independent countries in the 1960s will tell you -- to your face -- that they do not think that the pygmies are human beings. They speak of them as animals, and treat them as such. All of the tribal militias that have been battling for control of the DRC have had little qualms raping, enslaving, massacring and, yes, eating the pygmies when it suits their needs.
Seven years ago, in a rare move, the UN acknowledged the growing eyewitness reports collected by aid workers, and called upon the warring factions in the Congo to stop consuming pygmies as food. Rebels say that sleeping with a pygmy woman can cure diseases such as backache. They also believe that eating pygmy flesh can give them magical power.
I have spoken to UN peacekeepers who tell me that Congolese rebels of all factions privately ridicule the UN in the DRC, knowing full well that they have been legally restrained from taking any serious military action against them. And so the civil war and the pygmy massacres have continued with impunity. Now many of the same warlords who've perpetrated these horrors are part of a government of "national conciliation."
During the Rwandese civil war of 1994, the tribal Hutu Interahamwe slaughtered more than 30% of the pygmy population in their area, the largest percentage of any of the ethnic groups killed at the time. Yet most reporters missed that simple fact -- despite the fact that the extermination of the pygmies is in many ways similar to the Nazi massacre of Jews, and is justified by roughly similar appeals to theories of racial superiority.
In many parts of the world, such as Canada and Israel, the names of individual victims of human-rights violations are fastidiously recorded and publicized. Yet where the pygmies are concerned, whole genocidal campaigns come and go without a single major news report. In 2003, for instance, two tribal militias planned and implemented a campaign called "Effacer Le Tableau" or "Erase the Board," in which they systematically exterminated local forest pygmies. Experts estimate that over 70,000 pygmies have been killed during the last seven to eight years in this manner. Many thousands more have fled to refugee camps where, often as not, the Bantu administrators refuse to give them medical treatment or even the same rations as other refugees.
The Congo has enough tropical hardwoods to enrich any tribal elite that can take over the national government. In theory, this industry also could benefit the pygmies. But in 2008, a leaked document revealed that forestry projects designed by the World Bank for the DRC completely ignored the rights of the pygmies and grossly exaggerated the associated economic and social benefits. Panel chairperson Werner Kiene concluded: "There was a failure during project design to carry out the necessary initial screening to identify risks and trigger safeguard policies so that crucial steps would be taken to address the needs of the pygmy peoples and other local people." This is a polite euphemism to describe the horrors catalogues in the paragraphs above.
Who will stand up for the human rights of the pygmies? I would be delighted if the Canadian government made the plight of the pygmies its special human-rights focus for Africa during the 21st century, but I see no indication that it will, or that any Western country will raise its voice.
As a teenager in Toronto's Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, I well remember reading Joseph Conrad's riveting novel about the Congo, Heart of Darkness, a fictitious memoir set in the less-than-fictitious 19th-century Belgian Congo of King Leopold. In it, he wrote: "The conquest of the Earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."
It wasn't pretty when the Belgians were doing the taking. And it's no prettier when its the Bantu. No matter how many times we say "never again," we never really seem to mean it.
First published in the National Post.