Batwa Chief Amani Douze has seen his village of Buhoyi come under attack repeatedly, including burning homes, rapes, stealing money and household goods, torture, and forced displacements, by militias determined to control access to the nearby minerals. In April of 2020, Buhoyi was attacked in the middle of the night; 45 homes were burned and many possessions stolen. Rather than being helped by the Congolese authorities, Douze himself was arrested on politically motivated charges. After several charges didn’t hold up in court, he was finally convicted in November 2020 on charges of deserting the Congolese army. In his absence, Buhoyi has been burned to the ground several more times, but Douze has continued to lead his community for the past two years from within the military prison in Bukavu.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
I know that it is painful to think about the genocidal attacks and atrocities perpetrated against the indigenous Batwa people in the Congo Basin region of Central Africa. Even writing this post is difficult for me. But why does this keep happening, and why is it so important for us to do something about it?
To explain, I need to go back to the dawn of human existence as we know it. Archeological and genetic studies have now found that the ancestors of the indigenous hunting-and-gathering people formerly known as Pygmies, and now called by a variety of names including Bambuti and Batwa, were likely to have been in Central Africa for some 88,000 years or more.
This means that they are among the longest-surviving human cultures on earth, having developed sustainable ways of living that didn’t destroy one another through inequality and conflict, and didn’t destroy nature.
For tens of thousands of years they survived, developing their nature-based economy and culture, and protecting the forests of the Congo Basin with all of its diverse plant and animal life. But over the past 100 years – the space of just one lifetime – the Batwa people are being destroyed so that others can take their lands, forests, wildlife and minerals.
They could teach us how to survive; how to coexist peacefully with one another and with nature. We should be learning from them, not destroying them!
Who is taking their lands and life from them?
* Neighboring agricultural tribes are desperate for land as their corrupt governments keep the agricultural population in poverty by supporting corporate land grabs, cash crops and mining operations.
* Corrupt ruling elites cut lucrative deals to extract timber, wildlife and especially minerals from the Batwa’s traditional lands, enriching themselves and hiding the money in offshore accounts. This has been extensively covered by one of the famous journalistic collaborations based on leaked data, called “Congo Holdup”.
* International companies and their governments enable this corruption by continuing to do dirty but profitable business deals in this region in order to get minerals and “carbon offsets” – justifying it as necessary to address climate change and build a “green economy”.
* Violent conflict is rampant in the forests of the eastern Congo as armed militias, often supported by foreign governments, fight over control of the minerals for international export.
* Huge conservation corporations like WWF and WCS, along with their donors and collaborating governments, expel the Batwa from their lands under the guise of “preserving biodiversity” – despite the fact that the Batwa were vastly better at conserving the forests and biodiversity for countless millennia. Now wealthy Westerners engage in tourism and trophy hunting, and mineral deposits are illegally exploited in the so-called Protected Areas, while the Batwa are killed for returning to their traditional lands.
Thus this vicious cycle of local corruption and violent conflict, incentivized by the profits that flow from international business interests, is destroying one of the longest-surviving human cultures on earth, along with the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon.
By destroying the Batwa, we are destroying our own humanity.
Why does IfE – a global network of organizations dedicated to overcoming inequalities around the world – devote so much time and energy to this one particular situation?
* Because this is our largest, most active regional network, and IfE makes its decisions through its partners on the ground.
* Because the situation of the Batwa is a microcosm of everything that is wrong in the world: from the exploitation by corrupt governments, wealthy elites and international corporations to the destruction of nature, sustainable ways of life and peaceful human societies. If we can help the Batwa people change their situation, we can apply those learnings and tactics to help change other situations around the globe, too.
* Because the level of violence the Batwa are up against is so bad that they cannot defend themselves without help. Their need for global solidarity is urgent, and that’s what IfE does best.
* Because most international NGOs that have gotten involved have failed to improve the situation of the Batwa. But we still have a large, regional, multi-partner collaboration working directly with the Batwa on the ground, and we believe we can support the Batwa to achieve their goals. We won’t walk away.
In 2018, Gabriel1, a Batwa rights activist, was kidnapped into an unmarked government vehicle as he walked down a city street. He was thrown in prison without charges, to be tortured off and on for 4 years. When we finally succeeded in making enough noise to obtain his release, we were overjoyed – until we learned that a death squad working with a political party planned to kill him. We moved heaven and earth to help him to relocate and apply for asylum elsewhere. He lives in poverty now, but at least he is alive – for the moment.
1 name changed to protect his identity
What does IfE intend to do about the destruction of the Batwa and their lands?
This multidimensional problem needs to be addressed from many directions. We are looking for a way to record the voices of Batwa elders talking about their history and traditional culture, before they leave us. We are holding discussions with Batwa community members to help them to think through how to reverse the cultural breakdown. We are experimenting with conflict resolution mechanisms that could help resolve inter-ethnic and inter-community disputes. We are advocating for new approaches to conservation that work with the indigenous people instead of expelling them from their lands. And we are intervening however possible to stop the arbitrary arrests, torture and killings that are happening to Batwa people across the Congo Basin and African Great Lakes region.
But we are not only fighting for the Batwa: by preventing this amazingly sucessful human culture from being destroyed, we are also fighting for our own survival – trying to retain some of the key indigenous knowledge, wisdom and life ways that could help all of us survive the existential threats we face today.
We urgently need your help and support! Join with us to stop the killings, reverse the land grabs, elevate the Batwa’s human and indigenous rights, and retain a model for human survival. Please support our work with the Batwa people by making a generous donation today.
Justice for the Batwa!
Dr. Deborah S. Rogers
President, IfE (Initiative for Equality)
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