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Who are the Indigenous Peoples of Africa?

Today, groups claiming to be ‘indigenous’ in Africa are mostly those who have been living by hunting and gathering; by transhumant (migratory nomadic) pastoralism. and those practicing traditional drylands horticulture including oasis cultures.

These different peoples represent the backbone of Africa's traditional knowledge of nature and sustainable development in remote rural areas.

Indigeneity is associated with both the negative experience of discrimination and marginalisation from governance, as well as the positive aspects of being holders of unique knowledge which has emerged through the long-term management of arid area and tropical forest ecosystems. Indigenous cultures arise and are sustained by the wise use of natural resources.

Some Africans may be offended by the idea that one ethnic group should be called ‘indigenous’ and others not. IPACC recognises that all Africans should enjoy equal rights and respect. All of Africa’s diversity is to be valued. Particular communities, due to historical and environmental circumstances, have found themselves outside the state-system and underrepresented in governance. These ‘first-peoples’ or ‘autochthonous peoples’ have associated themselves with the United Nations’ standards on the rights of indigenous peoples. This is not to deny other Africans their status; it is to emphasise that affirmative recognition is necessary for hunter-gatherers and herding peoples to ensure their survival.

The claims to being indigenous in Africa are related to a cluster of characteristics:

  • political and economic marginalisation rooted in colonialism;

  • de facto discrimination based often on the dominance of agricultural peoples in the State system (e.g. lack of access to education and health care by hunters and herders);

  • the particularities of culture, identity, economy and territoriality that link hunting and herding peoples to their home environments in deserts and forests (e.g. nomadism, diet, knowledge systems);

  • some indigenous peoples, such as the San and Pygmy peoples are physically distinct, which makes them subject to specific forms of discrimination.

Recent efforts to map Africa’s genetic prehistory are drawing attention to the fact that ‘first peoples’ have a great antiquity on the continent. Africa is recognised by geneticists and archaeologists as the cradle of humankind. Africa has the greatest genetic and linguistic diversity of any continent. There have been major technical advances over the last decade in reading genetic signatures and unravelling prehistory of Africa. Peoples such as the San and Khoe, the Hadzabe, and the various ‘Pygmy’ forest peoples represent some of the oldest gene types on the planet.

Genetics is not the basis of human rights, but it does reflect that the distribution of power between different peoples in Africa is born of a long history and cannot be dismissed.
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