[IMPFONDO, 23 April 2007] - From the day he started school, François Ababehu-Utauta's short stature made him a laughing stock among other children, but still he persevered with his studies.
"No [child] wanted me to sit next to him in class," the 18-year-old, 1.40m tall Ababehu-Utauta said. "For them, I do not have this right and I am not like them.
"I considered abandoning my studies to devote myself to the activities of the forest," he told IRIN. "Then I told myself that freedom is a fight; I had to resist the uncivil acts of the [other children]. I did not give up because I know I am bright."
Ababehu-Utauta is a member of the Mbuti community, sometimes known as pygmies, who live in the tropical rainforests of central Africa. He originally came from Oriental province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Unlike many other members of his community, Ababehu-Utauta was able to finish primary school, thanks to the Catholic Comboni Congregation of Ouambo diocese of Oriental, which created a school where indigenous children are in the majority.
According to Father Franco Laudani of the Ouambo diocese, there are very few schools that cater for indigenous pupils yet the country hosts a third of the indigenous populations who live in the forests of central Africa.
"Everywhere in central Africa, the standard of living of indigenous people is the same - none of their demands is taken into account," said Hélène Aye-Mondo, director of the Centre for Action for Sustainable Development of Indigenous Pygmies in Cameroon.
In a bid to improve their situation, by increasing their interaction with other communities, delegates from Burundi, Cameroon, Uganda, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo (ROC), DRC, Gabon and Rwanda met in April in Impfondo, the administrative centre of Likouala region, 800km north of the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, for the first international forum of indigenous people in central Africa.
The forum sought, among other things, to reinforce the rights of indigenous people based on international conventions and national legislations regarding sustainable management and conservation of forest ecosystems.
Organised by the ROC government, it was supported by international partners including the World Wildlife Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, the German organisation GTZ, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization and the Central African Forest Commission.
At its conclusion, participants adopted a declaration affirming that they shared legitimate rights on forests. They emphasised the problems of forced expulsion and systematic exclusion from their lands through forest concessions and the creation of protected areas.
"We ask for an immediate stop to practices that generate the destruction of our ways of life and condemn this form of cultural genocide," read the declaration.
Despite the abolition of slavery centuries ago, we observe with regret that there are still places where there is segregation towards our pygmy brothers
They also decided to adopt a five-year action plan on interventions to develop indigenous communities. The plan outlines proposals to improve their status, safeguard ancestral rights over forests and land, enhance living conditions and protect culture and knowledge.
"The Congolese government commits itself to implementing … the Impfondo declaration and action plan," Henri Djombo, ROC Minister of Forest Economy, said at the end of the meeting, which will be held every three years.
"This forum represents the only opportunity for us to raise our problems," Louis Ngouélé-Ibara, president of the Association of Indigenous Populations of Congo, told participants. "We have more duties than rights. In [national] constitutions, we all have rights to education and health but in [reality] indigenous populations are always marginalised."
Pygmies exist in several countries in central Africa including CAR, where they are called the Aka; Gabon, where they are known as the Babongo; Rwanda and Burundi, where they are the Batwa; DRC, where they are the Mbutis; and Cameroon, where they are the Bakas.
In all these countries, they are recognised as among the first occupants of the land and forests but they are still dominated by neighbouring Bantu communities.
"Despite the abolition of slavery centuries ago, we observe with regret that there are still places where there is segregation towards our pygmy brothers," said Gilbert Djombo-Bomondjo, prefect of Likouala, northern ROC. He believes there are many reasons for this segregation, particularly the belief that indigenous communities are second-class citizens.
The communities obtain all their food through fishing, gathering, picking and hunting. They are also masters of natural medicine. "We live with nature and depend on the forest - even though the state does not want to recognise it," said Ababehu-Utauta.
Ideally, such communities should benefit from the exploitation of the forest, which in some central African countries is the first or second-most important national resource. The reality is different.
"The particularly vulnerable indigenous people living in humid and dense forest areas have neither benefited from forest products or natural resources in their respective countries, nor from sustained assistance from the public coffers," said Kapupu Diwa, president of the Network of Local and Indigenous Populations for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa.
"How can we accept that level of discrimination between people and unawareness of the rights of certain populations of central Africa in the 21st century?" he added.
According to him, concessions and contracts between governments and forestry or mining companies rarely take into account the needs and priorities of indigenous populations.
But Minister Djombo refuted Kapupu's claims. "Indigenous people are major actors in the conservation and sustainable management of forest biodiversity," he said. "It is irrational mining, forest exploitation and the development of itinerant agriculture that contributed to the deterioration of the environment of indigenous people."
* [IRIN news used the generic term "pygmy", recognising there are some who feel the term is derogatory and perpetuates the ethnic stereotyping the community is trying to overcome]
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Last updated 24/04/2007 06:53:52