The main indigenous hunter-gatherer communities in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are the Batwa (or BaTua), numbering up to 100,000 in the Lake Tumba region of north-west DRC, as well as a few thousand in Kivu near the Uganda and Rwanda borders, and the Bambuti of the Ituri forest in north-east DRC, numbering about 35,000 (est. Refugees International). The term Batwa is used to cover a number of different cultural groups, while many Batwa in various parts of the DRC call themselves Bambuti. Many Bambuti and Batwa depend in part on forest hunting and gathering, and both groups face discrimination from neighbouring agriculturalists; but whilst many Ituri-based Bambuti retain traditional semi-nomadic residence patterns, most Batwa are settled and very many are cultivators.
Bambuti provide a good illustration of the pressures on indigenous hunter-gathering populations, even among a group generally considered closest to traditional ways of living. Despite being viewed by cultivators as inferior and even not fully human, Bambuti – like most forest-dwelling indigenous peoples – benefited from reciprocal relationships whereby game, skins and other forest products were exchanged for food, while allowing autonomous social and cultural traditions to be maintained. For most Bambuti such long-standing relationships substantially survived the depredations of the slaving and colonial eras. In the civil conflicts of the 1960s, however, many outsiders sought refuge in the forest, and stayed on as traders and gold prospectors. Increasingly the Bambuti were drawn into a monetized economy, selling meat for cash and engaging in menial wage-labour, invariably for a fraction of normal rates. Large areas of the forest were reserved as national parks, from which hunting was banned. Women increasingly married outsiders, further disrupting the basis of Bambuti society. Traditional relationships have increasingly degenerated into those of exploitation and servitude, sometimes bordering on outright slavery, accompanied by social disintegration and loss of morale, and often by social problems such as alcoholism and prostitution.
Official government policy in Mobutu’s Zaire was that these groups should be ‘emancipated’ and considered as being no different from other citizens – indeed the use of the term ‘Pygmy’, a derogatory label still widely used today, was officially banned. To the extent that Mobutu implemented any social policies, especially in the east, in practice this meant promoting sedentarization and agriculture – a policy also pursued to some degree in colonial times and reflected in many missionary programmes.
Prospects for DRC’s indigenous hunter-gatherer communities, particularly those still maintaining in whole or in part a forest-dwelling existence, also relate to developments at a national level. The country’s forests represent a huge economic resource, whose survival has partly been a consequence of the political instability and economic chaos which has inhibited infrastructural development and the viability of commercial logging. If DRC gains stability, the forest, as elsewhere in the region, would be under greater threat, and the social and cultural disintegration of indigenous forest-based society, already far advanced, would be likely to accelerate.
But while conflict and instability have perhaps helped deter large-scale deforestation, the Batwa and Bambuti peoples have suffered immensely from war. As MRG found in 2002 and reconfirmed by many research visits since then, Batwa and Bambuti peoples living deep in the forests of eastern DRC had become targets of various militias, including that of Jean-Pierre Bemba and his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Between October 2002 and January 2003, before they joined the power-sharing interim government in June 2004, rebel groups MLC and RCD-N jointly carried out a premeditated, systematic campaign of attack against the civilian population of Ituri, which they named ‘Effacer le tableau’ (‘Erasing the Board’). The objective of the campaign was to gain control of the territory, including the strategic surrounding forests, and to plunder its resources, using the terror created by grave human rights abuses as a weapon of war. Encompassing the civilian population in general, the fact that the campaign specifically targeted the Batwa for mass killing and the severe deprivation of other fundamental rights, by reason of their supposed supernatural powers and knowledge of the forest, indicates the commission of the crimes against humanity of persecution and extermination. In South Kivu, continuing attacks by Rwandan rebel forces in the countryside outside Bukavu in 2006-7 had a grave effect on the Batwa / Bambuti as on other communities. Pillage, torture and killings were common, and there was a particularly high incidence of rape and extreme sexual violence. Batwa women were singled out for rape due to beliefs that sleeping with them conferred special powers to the rapist. Because rape was so common during the fighting, Batwa and Bambuti rates of HIV infection rose throughout the conflict, from very little or no infection before the war to almost matching the national infection rate. In North Kivu, some Batwa / Bambuti communities were caught in the large waves of displacement caused by the ongoing fighting between forces loyal to Nkunda, Congolese Mai-Mai, and the Congolese armed forces.
Further north in Ituri, the situation in areas inhabited by Bambuti communities was calmer during the course of 2006 – 7, although some parts of the district were threatened by the presence of hardcore FRPI fighters who had refused to join the demobilization programme. Batwa in Ituri and the Kivus have never taken up arms during the armed conﬂicts in the eastern DRC, but they have nonetheless been targeted by armed groups. Both the location of their villages in the forest, and their knowledge of forest paths and hunting skills, have made them vulnerable to being coerced by different armed groups operating in the forest into acting as trail-ﬁnders and to hunt game, and have then found themselves subject to revenge attacks by opposing armed groups. Throughout the region, the chronic poverty and marginalization experienced by Batwa / Bambuti communities was exacerbated by the security situation. In June 2006, the British health journal The Lancet reported on the lack of Batwa and Bambuti access to healthcare: ‘Even where healthcare facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, or are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment.’
Control over forest resources continued to be of critical importance to the Batwa / Bambuti. The traditional forest homes of eastern DRC’s indigenous hunter-gatherers have in several cases been named World Heritage Sites; this is the case, for instance, for Bambuti / Mbuti peoples in and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and Batwa peoples in Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks. In these areas they have found themselves pushed out of their forests in the name of conservation, effectively alienated from their livelihoods as well as their cultural and spiritual heritage.
While indigenous peoples’ rights should be met along with the demands of environmental management, conservation programmes have often had a negative impact on communities in these areas. For Batwa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, since its designation as a national forest in the 1960s, the community has been evicted from much of their ancestral lands, bringing an end to traditional hunting practices and resulting in malnourishment, poor health and deep poverty. With the outbreak of conflict in 1994 their situation became even more precarious, and they were subjected to attack by armed groups in and outside their traditional forest homes. These pressures have only intensified with the continued deterioration in security in many areas and the depredations of armed poachers. Groups concerned with indigenous peoples’ rights have continued to insist, however, that conservation and wildlife protection efforts must not in any way be used to suppress the legitimate hunting and other traditional activities of indigenous peoples. A decree on community forests was adopted in 2014, as was, in 2015, a decree on their implementation; however, a subsequent ministerial decision instituting forest concessions raised concerns about official commitment to indigenous and other local communities’ land rights. The Batwa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park lodged their case, including for land restitution, before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in November 2015. The case was ruled admissible by the African Commission in 2019.
In late 2007, a leaked report from a World Bank Inspection Panel said that the World Bank had backed an environmentally damaging logging project, without consulting with the Batwa, or considering the impact on their communities. A coalition of organizations based around forest peoples’ groups began lobbying at the UN against what they regarded as a deficient government response to the plight of the forest peoples. Following the government’s presentation in 2006 of its State Party report to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the coalition replied in January 2007, noting that forest peoples had been completely ignored in Kinshasa’s submission. In its concluding observations issued in August 2007, CERD recommended that DRC take ‘urgent and adequate measures’ to protect the rights of the Batwa to land. It also urged that there be a moratorium on development of forest lands, efforts to register the ancestral lands of the Batwa, and legal recognition of the forest rights of indigenous peoples in domestic legislation.
Concerns persist about issues such as Batwa children’s ability to access their right to education across the region, due to socio-economic obstacles, lack of community support networks, discrimination and the impact of conflict, and the situation of Batwa women and girls, particularly around gender-based violence, land rights, access to public services and involvement in decision-making.
Batwa also face the risk of targeted violence on account of ethnic discrimination. In the Tanganyika district of Katanga, for example, violence between indigenous hunter-gatherer Batwa inhabitants and ethnic Luba, a Bantu group, displaced more than 70,000 people in 2014, primarily indigenous Batwa. Some Luba accused Batwa of supporting the armed forces in their fight against the (largely Luba) secessionist Mai Mai militia groups known as Kata Katanga. The struggle is also rooted in social inequalities between the historically marginalized Batwa and the more privileged ethnic group, as well as in competition for land and resources, exacerbated by increasing pressure on the Batwa way of life due to deforestation and the expansion of agricultural lands. In 2015 Manono and Nyunzu territories in the eastern Katanga province saw continuing violence between ethnic Luba and members of the Batwa, and conflict, including killings and sexual and gender-based violence, continued into 2016-7.
However, some of the most egregious and systematic violence in recent years against Batwa has been carried out in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a protected area and UNESCO World Heritage site that has received funding and material support from the German and US governments, among other international supporters. In October 2018, after four decades of broken promises of resettlement, reparations and justice from the Congolese government and other stakeholders, segments of Batwa communities returned to the park, rebuilding villages on their ancestral lands. Their return was met with swift and devastating violence by park authorities, with park guards and soldiers conducting multiple large-scale operations that targeted Batwa-inhabited villages inside the park, along with numerous smaller-scale evictions and acts of repression. Among other abuses, dozens of Batwa were killed, injured, arbitrarily detained or subjected to violent group rape in a systematic campaign of violence designed to terrorize Batwa and drive them out of the park.
This ongoing violence, carried out in the name of environmental protection, is rooted in the original expulsion from their ancestral homeland to pave the way for the creation of the park in the 1970s, forcing Batwa into decades of grinding impoverishment, landlessness and displacement. This abuse, far from being an isolated incident, has been made possible by a culture of impunity that devalues indigenous life in service of a highly militarized approach inherent in the ‘fortress conservation’ model, excluding the land’s original inhabitants in violation of international law.
Updated April 2022
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