Written by Sean Connolly
So-called ‘Pygmies’ – indigenous forest-based communities – are located throughout Gabon and include numerous ethnic groups separated by locality, language and culture. Whether the Baka of Woleu-Ntem, the Babongo of Ngounié or the Bakoya around Mékambo, these forest communities traditionally keep themselves to themselves. A rough estimate is that their number is around 30,000, but as they are often without birth certificates or identity cards, it’s hard to know for certain. They are certainly a tiny minority of Gabon’s total population.
Often they face severe discrimination, and to call someone a ‘Pygmy’, a derogatory term that emphasises short stature, is considered an insult (although the term is still commonly used throughout the country). Communities are regularly treated with derision and contempt, and are often cheated and exploited. More often than not they are paid in kind rather than money for their services, which only reinforces their marginalised position. Children often miss out on school, as their parents cannot afford uniforms, books and the necessary bribes. Those who make it risk being taunted and ostracised by their peers.
Although their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle has given way to a more sedentary way of life in modern times, they often choose to live deep in the forest to a degree unparalleled by any other peoples in the interior, who for the most part have moved their villages to roadsides.
Indigenous forest communities possess superior skills in hunting, healing, polyphonic music and collecting honey. Their traditional weapon for small game is the bow and poisoned arrow, and for larger game traps and harpoons. Nowadays, though, they are just as likely to hunt with rifles. Despite these skills, Gabon’s first inhabitants are ignored rather than respected by their countrymen – until they have need of a ‘Pygmy’ tracker or healer, that is.
Traditionally, politicians have taken no account of these communities either, until perhaps elections are on the horizon. However, since the turn of the century there has been a small change in awareness of the rights of indigenous peoples in matters concerning the conservation and development of the country.
In 2005, Gabon agreed to its own Indigenous Peoples’ Plan as part of a World Bank policy loan agreement for the Forest and Environment Sector Program. This marked the government’s first official recognition of the existence of and its responsibility towards indigenous peoples. In 2007, Gabon voted for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, though there remains a long way to go in ensuring these rights are respected on the ground.
Indigenous-rights organisation Cultural Survival assembled a report, Observations on the State of Indigenous Human Rights in Gabon, in 2017, detailing some of the failings in this regard, particularly when it comes to conflicts over conservation. It can be found here.
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