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Great Lakes Regional Representatives :

Regional Representative: Vital BAMBANZE, Batwa, Burundi
Deputy Regional Representative: Joseph ITONGWA, Bambuti, DR Congo
Women's Representative : Marthe MUHAWENIMANA, Batwa, Rwanda



Background and Ethnic Overview

The indigenous peoples of Central Africa are forest-based hunter-foragers known collectively as the 'Pygmies'. This term is used by some communities and organisations, but is considered pejorative by others. Indigenous peoples in Central Africa are genetically, culturally and economically distinct from their Bantu and other farming neighbours.

Indigenous peoples in Central Africa likely preceded the Bantu-speaking peoples by tens of thousands of years, though they have in recent times had symbiotic relationships, trading honey and meat from the forest for agricultural produce. During the precolonial era, Bantu speaking peoples took over parts of indigenous territories, as part of the massive expansion of agriculture and metallurgy across Africa. However, indigenous economies were protected by the environmental conditions of the Equatorial rainforests which made agriculture difficult, and Bantu and indigenous peoples came to live in a co-operative relationship with trade and one-way intermarriage.

There are between 300 000 and 500 000 indigenous forest based people in Central Africa from numerous ethnic and linguistic groups. Roughly, they are clustered in two regions. The first is the Great Lakes region between Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo and Burundi. These peoples are mostly Batwa and Bambuti and have become extremely vulnerable in recent times due to the great civil disturbances and armed conflicts in the region. To the west is the Congo Basin with the second largest expanse of rainforest in the world. Indigenous peoples in these states include the Bagyeli, Bakola, Bakoya, Baka, Aka, Babenjelle, Bacwa, Babongo and others. Discrimination is an everyday problem for indigenous communities today in Central Africa. To read more see this IRIN article of April 2007.

Regional Overview
The greatest achievements in Central Africa have been made in Burundi, where Batwa activists have been integrated into the National Assembly and the Senate. Burundi has rapidly emerged as one of the most progressive states in Africa with regards human rights and recognition of the needs of indigenous peoples. In neighboring Rwanda, however, the case is very different. For several years, the Republic of Rwanda has been attempting to shut down the local indigenous peoples' organisation, Community of Indigenous Rwandans (CAURWA), which was deprived of its legal status in 2005. This stems from the fear of ethnic divisions due to Rwanda's history of genocide.

Indigenous peoples throughout Central Africa have a problem with realising their full citizenship. Those living in the forest often do not have birth certificates or national identity documents, which makes it difficult to access services such as clinics, hospitals and schools.

Across Central Africa, a major concern is deforestation due to logging. Private companies negotiate concessions with governments in which they are required to do selective cutting, but African governments cannot always monitor what happens in remote areas, and the results can be devastating to the environment and the forest peoples. The destruction of the forest canopy has a radical impact on the environment, leading to a rapid loss of biodiversity as well as endangering the air quality of the earth. A major effort is being made by Western and African countries to slow down the devastation in the Congo Basin, one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet.

2008
IPACC is supporting a project in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in which Indigenous peoples are attempting to negotiate their rights in relation to the Kahuzi Biega National Park. IPACC is supporting workshops which include discussions on job creation and certification of traditional trackers. Batwa and Bambuti trackers are often used by conservation and anti-poaching units but without recognition of their skills or adequate remuneration.

2007
In April 2007, IPACC's Executive Committee gathered in Bujumbura, Burundi for a strategic planning exercise on natural resources and the environment. The meeting was opened by the Minister of the Environment and Land Management, who placed emphasis on the importance of an organised civil society which actively claims its rights of participation. Later, IPACC leaders held meetings with the Minister and members of the Government, Senate and National Assembly. IPACC plans to explore the possibility of more training and policy dialogue in Burundi on issues of deforestation, protection of biodiversity, resource rights and climate change.

Vital Bambanze, Deputy Chair of IPACC, was appointed to an important Land Commission investigating solutions for displaced and landless peoples in Burundi, including Batwa.

In November 2007, IPACC sent a major delegation to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights held in Republic of the Congo. IPACC cooperated with the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to run a training course on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the African Charter for 25 indigenous activists in Brazzaville. IPACC members met with African states and ACHPR Commissioners to discuss the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Africa. The Republic of Congo also hosted a major dialogue on the environment and indigenous rights in Central Africa. This event was held in Impfondo, northern Congo. The dialogue involved diplomats, civil servants, indigenous peoples organisations and NGOs. The conference failed to agree on a joint statement, and there was tension amongst delegates over natural resource rights.

IPACC conducted a mission in Gabon with its national indigenous peoples network. MINAPYGA was the first independent indigenous organisation in Gabon. It was started by Leonard Fabrice Odambo, a Bakoya man who received higher education and is a journalist. MINAPYGA's focus is on development opportunities for the Bakoya around Mekambo, but through contact with IPACC it is taking on a wider role in national network building. MINAPYGA cooperates with other indigenous peoples' organisations including Association Edzengui in Minvuol, a Baka organisation.

In October 2007, Kapupu Diwa Mutimanwa (DRC) and Zephyrin Kalimba (Rwanda) organised a visit to Gabon on behalf of the African Commission working group on Indigenous Issues.

In November 2007, MINAPYGA cooperated with the IPACC Secretariat and Wildlife Conservation Society to visit Babango and Mitsogho communities around Waka National Park in Ngounié province. MINAPYGA, IPACC and WCS plan to work together in 2008 to introduce Babongo villagers to the concept of creating and running their own association which can help protect their rights. The Babongo live almost exclusively off forest resources which are being threatened by Malaysian logging interests in the area.

2005
Burundi adopted its new constitution that includes guaranteed representation for indigenous Batwa people in both the Parliament and Senate.

Cameroon and Gabon both signed World Bank Operational Director 4.1 which recognises indigenous peoples and creates mechanisms for consultation on development and environmental issues.

In Rwanda, the government suddenly reversed its support for the Community of Indigenous Rwandans (CAURWA), accusing them of promoting ethnicity and undermining national unity. CAURWA's legal status was annulled by the State, blocking CAURWA's ability to raise funds and help vulnerable rural people. CAURWA had emerged as an effective human rights and development organisation in the post-genocide period, when many Batwa were displaced and living in situations of extreme poverty and vulnerability. They set up a national network of field workers to help Batwa apply for land, access schools, clinics and other resources, and were lobbying for the President's Office to include Batwa in the Senate.

2003
The world was horrified by evidence that dominant combatant groups in Democratic Republic of the Congo were cannibalising Pygmy civilians. The conflict continued, with Pygmy women being singled out for rape and abuse by rebel soldiers (See MRG report B Erase the Board).

2002
Gabon declared 13 national parks, including the vast Minkebe National Park within the Congo Basin. IPACC conducted a month long mission to Gabon visiting Pygmy communities to encourage them to enter into dialogue with government over the regulations relating to hunting, occupation and traditional practices in Parks and the periphery.

1994
During Rwanda’s horrific genocide, one third of the Batwa population perished from the violence waged by the majority ethnic groups.

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