- Reports of government neglect, discrimination, intimidation, violence and other violations of human, political and civil rights were rife as representatives of the world's marginalised indigenous populations, including Central Africa's pygmies, met at UN headquarters in May.
- The state does not care about us, said Ms Adolphine Muley, of the Batwa pygmies in Congo Kinshasa (DRC). Because of the war there, she told the UN's 12-23 May Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, "the situation is even worse."
The plight of the Batwa and other pygmies in Africa was but one example of the problems confronting indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific. In Africa, they comprise mainly nomadic pastoralists, hunter-gatherers and other marginalised groups. Generally, the human, land, property and other rights of the world's indigenous populations are much more precarious than those of more settled populations.
Nevertheless, the situation confronting pygmies in the Congo is especially extreme. According to Ms Muley, they have been totally excluded from participation in elections and public administration and cannot even register the births of their children.
Dispossessed of their lands and economy, which had been based on the forests, they survive by begging and are regularly exploited by other groups. Most Batwa people cannot read or write and have virtually no access to health care.
Even worse, Ms Muley said that with the war in north-eastern Congo, pygmies in the Ituri forests have been hunted down, raped and massacred. "They are killed by one armed faction or the other simply for not having an identity card," she said.
Ms Muley also cited reports that Batwa have been the victims of cannibalism. This charge was reinforced by Mr Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Support Action for the Protection of the Rights of Minorities in Central Africa-DRC.
Quoting eyewitness accounts, he said the Mbuti, another pygmy group, were being killed and eaten in Ituri district's Mambasa forest. Such actions are an expression of deep-seated discrimination against pygmies, he said. "The selective character of this cannibalism is tantamount to genocide."
The subjugation of the pygmy people by other ethnic groups was supported and even legalised by the colonial authorities, Mr Makelo said. "They forced us against our will into the dominant tribes that claimed our lands, who in turn have made us their slaves. This has been perpetuated, even enforced, by post-colonial governments up until today."
According to Ms Njuma Ekundanayo, a Congolese government representative to the Forum specialising in pygmy issues, other Congolese see the pygmy people as sub-human.
- Military tools today include rape, live burial and cannibalism, all aimed at extermination so that the perpetrators can have access to minerals and timber, the Congolese government representative admitted.
Exclusion and exploitation
The May session, the first since the Forum's launch last year, drew 1,500 participants from around the world. It was held under the theme, "Indigenous children and youth," to focus attention on the link between the physical and mental health of indigenous children and the survival and prosperity of indigenous peoples.
Unless children are educated in indigenous languages, cultures and values, indigenous peoples and cultures will not survive in an increasingly globalised world, the conference noted.
Millions of indigenous children in African societies, which are already plagued by illiteracy rates of between 50 and 70 percent, are sidelined by a lack of diversity in schools, said Mr Hassan Id Balkassim of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordination Committee. This exclusion is compounded by official information policies that keep television closed to indigenous languages, he added.
Other speakers highlighted the threat posed to indigenous African youth by economic dependency, unemployment and ignorance of indigenous rights. Moreover, since they represent the future of indigenous peoples, youth are often the targets of violence, discrimination, child military recruitment and abduction by hostile groups.
Delegates to the Forum - the first official UN body to which indigenous peoples nominate their own representatives - also expressed alarm over the loss of herbal medicines and indigenous knowledge through the exploitation of natural resources, which not only damages habitats but also fails to benefit their indigenous inhabitants.
According to Mr Alfred Ilenre, a leader of the Niger Delta's Edo people, studies conducted among indigenous peoples all over Africa show a common trend of economic neglect and environmental degradation.
The Niger Delta, for example, produces more than 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings, but extensive oil exploration and extraction has devastated the environment, while the federal government is accused of failing to provide the region's people even with basic services.
Similarly, Nana Akuoko Sarpong, regional director of the Partnership for Indigenous Peoples' Environment, said that Ghana's Agogo Traditional Area - where he is chief - has seen its rainforest transformed into grassland by the activities of multinational companies exploiting timber resources over the last 50 years.
Tropical woods, which sometimes take 200 years to mature, are felled at the stroke of a chainsaw, with negligible returns for local people.
The Forum's mandate includes advising and making recommendations on economic and social development, culture, human rights, the environment, education and health to the UN Economic and Social Council.
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