Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are various groups of Aka peoples in the CAR, the largest of which are the Ba’Aka, who number an estimated 8,000-20,000 and speak a Bantu language. Though their exact numbers are not known, there are estimated to be some tens of thousands of Aka in CAR. Ba’Aka people live largely nomadic lives in the forested areas of the south-west, gaining livelihoods through hunting and gathering; local residents and traders regularly buy meat and other produce from them.
Historically, the Ba’Aka have suffered deep discrimination, regarded as inferiors by other ethnic groups. In some zones, Ba’Aka men sell their labour to local residents and to forest industries. Socially subordinated, they are paid less than others for the same work. Ba’Aka social bonds are disintegrating; health problems, including alcoholism, malaria, HIV/AIDS and respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, are increasing. Literacy levels, low throughout the country, are negligible. Formal schooling offers no means to learn their history and culture. Their cultural survival is severely threatened. As with similar peoples elsewhere in Central Africa, outsiders have tried to turn Ba’Aka to settled farming. The government has left ‘integration’ efforts to Catholic missionaries, who have established ‘pilot villages’. Other mission efforts, such as in schooling, have failed to retain pupils, as Ba’Aka families keep moving in the forests. For most, defence is a matter of always being able to move away from difficulties. Their future as a distinct cultural group depends greatly on the vulnerable forest ecology. Here as in Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, those forests are under great pressure from rapacious and mainly illegal logging. In deals made between the timber companies and government agents, Ba’Aka people have no voice.
The CAR’s indigenous forest-dwelling, hunter-gatherer Ba’Aka people continue to face discrimination and marginalization. With the onset of violence in late 2012 some members of the community were reportedly among those targeted for attack by combatants. The Dzanga-Sangha National Park, part of the World Heritage-listed Sangha Trinational forest located in the Ba’Aka people’s traditional home region of south-western CAR, suffered incursions by armed groups in 2013.
The UN reported several instances in which Séléka targeted and killed individuals which the UN described as ‘pygmies’, such as a father and two young sons in Ngouma, 80 kilometres from Mbaïki, in April 2013, and three others from this population in Ndongo and Mangongi regions. This term likely refers to members of indigenous, traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherer groups such as the Ba’Aka living in the forests of the south-west. Séléka night raids, in which combatants robbed, looted and terrorized civilians, were also reported to have targeted members of these communities in Bangui and Lobaye Prefecture in April 2013. Like Muslim minorities such as Mbororo, these groups have long faced discrimination in the CAR and are at heightened risk of extreme poverty and a range of deprivations.
More recently, there have been reports from Dzanga-Sangha National Park of anti-balaka militias using their weapons for poaching; large-scale killing of the blue duiker, a forest antelope, is rapidly depleting one of the Ba’Aka’s key staple foods. Community leaders warn that as hunting becomes more difficult, young people find the traditional way of life less appealing. They get drawn into local towns where some start using narcotics.
Even before the start of the current conflict, UNESCO called attention to the fact that the Ba’Aka people’s lifestyle and culture were under threat: ‘The scarcity of game resulting from deforestation, the rural exodus and the folklorization of their heritage for the tourist industry are the principal factors contributing to the gradual disappearance of many of their traditional customs, rituals and skills.’ The polyphonic singing of the Ba’Aka, with its accompanying music and dance, has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Updated March 2018