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Minority and indigenous cultures in Africa facing serious threat – new global report

12 July 2016

Minority and indigenous cultures in Africa are under serious threat, says Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in its annual flagship report, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, which focuses in 2016 on culture and heritage.

‘Many minority and indigenous communities right across the African continent are being displaced because of political conflicts, natural resource extraction, large-scale infrastructure projects and tourism parks, ’says Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications.  ‘For many communities, culture is intimately linked to access to their land so when that link is severed, their cultures are at risk.’

This year’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples  explores the impact of armed conflict, land dispossession and discrimination on the most fundamental aspects of minority and indigenous identities, namely their languages, art, traditional knowledge and spirituality.

In Uganda, for instance, the Koogere oral tradition – part of the collective memory of Kasese’s Basongora, Banyabindi and Batooro communities and an essential part of their folk expression – is severely threatened. Their cultural heritage was undermined when their lands were parcelled into Queen Elizabeth National Park. Storytellers are no longer able to recreate episodes of the Koogere story and gatherings are dominated by other, more modern forms of entertainment.

In Kenya, the semi-nomadic pastoralist Endorois community were forcibly evicted in the 1970’s from their ancestral lands by Lake Bogoria, in order to pave the way for a national park. In 2010, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in the community’s favour, but a government Task Force came to the end of its mandate last year without having made any meaningful progress. Meanwhile, the Endorois struggle to maintain their culture while lacking full access to important sacred sites.

The government in Cameroon has forcibly removed indigenous forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer communities like the Ba’Aka, Bagyeli, Bakola and Bedzam from southern tropical forests to make room for logging projects, commonly ‘resettling’ them in unfamiliar environments where they are vulnerable to poverty, discrimination and exploitation. They are also unable to pass on their forest skills to their children, resulting in a tragic loss of traditional knowledge.

‘Too often states underestimate the impact of development projects and other top-down policies, leading to the wholesale displacement of communities with disastrous effects for their cultures,’ emphasizes Söderbergh. ‘This includes separation from sacred sites, the loss of traditional livelihoods and social disruption.’

According to its own guidelines, the World Bank has an important role to play in safeguarding guarantees that its funded projects do not expose minority and indigenous communities ‘to loss of identity, culture, and customary livelihoods, as well as exposure to disease’. Unfortunately, World Bank-funded programmes have had disastrous consequences for many minority and indigenous communities; the Sengwer who have suffered forced removals in Kenya are just one of many recent examples.

‘While the outlook may be gloomy, we shouldn’t forget that many minorities and indigenous peoples are actively drawing on their cultures and heritage in new and creative ways in order to combat discrimination, build community support and garner much needed income for their members,’ says Söderbergh.

To guard against large pharmaceutical companies using minority and indigenous traditional knowledge without acknowledgement or profit sharing, there has been a series of initiatives to support traditional health systems and strengthen their status within wider society. One case in point is the bio-cultural community protocol developed in 2009 by traditional health practitioners in the Bushbuckridge area in South Africa, setting out how they expect other stakeholders to engage with them.

The State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples also includes other examples where minority and indigenous activists have drawn on their cultural heritage like the Maasai in Tanzania to mobilise their communities to secure intellectual property rights.

Notes to editors

Interview opportunities:

  • Agnes Kabajuni, Africa Office Manager, MRG
  • Carl Söderbergh, Director of Policy and Communications, MRG
  • Claire Thomas, Deputy Director, MRG

Minority rights activists from around the world

  • State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 is available for free download on MRG’s website on 12 July 2016.
  • View a short video on MRG’s YouTube Channel about State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016.
  • View an online storypack on culture and heritage – photos, films, case studies
  • Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.

For more information, to receive an embargoed copy of The State of World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016, or to arrange interviews please contact:

Mohamed Matovu – MRG Press Officer (Africa)
E: [email protected]