• The Great Lakes

    The Great Lakes

    Who are the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes?

    Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region are or were hunter-foragers living in the rainforest, collectively known as the 'Pygmies'. Pygmy is a colonial name with negative connotations. In local languages, indigenous are known by ethnic names, these being either Batwa or Bambuti peoples.

    The Batwa are genetically, culturally and economically distinct from their Bantu neighbours and other farmers. Although they inhabited the region tens of thousands of years before the Bantu-speaking populations, during the pre-colonial period Bantu populations took over substantial parts of the indigenous peoples’ territories. The indigenous natural resource economy has been partially protected by environmental context of the rainforest which restrict agriculture.

    For centuries there has been some form of relationship between the sedentary Bantu populations and the mobile Pygmy populations based on commerce, trade and intermarriage.

    During the colonial and postcolonial periods, most Batwa were ignored and marginalized during the formation of states. In some countries, the Batwa were not considered as citizens did not have birth certificates. After independence, development policies and stressed sedentary life organized in villages, which had a negative effect on the independence and health of indigenous peoples in the region.

    Increasingly, Batwa found themselves in a subordinate position to neighbouring Bantu peoples, where the indigenous peoples were without land security, without access to schooling, and often susceptible to forced labour. With the armed conflicts in the sub-region, the social and economic vulnerability of indigenous evolved into the most extreme violations of human rights: rapes, torture, killings, cannibalism and genocide.

    Today there are more than 700,000 “Pygmies” in Central Africa, belonging to different cultural and linguistic groups. The Batwa and Bambuti populations occur primarily in the Great Lakes region between Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Democratic Republic of Congo. To the west, we find the Bagyeli, Bakola, Bakoya, Baka, Aka, Babenjelle, Bacwa, Babongo and others (see the Congo Basin region here).

Human Rights

The human rights situation of indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region is still very serious despite positive efforts that have increased formal recognition of their presence. At its more serious, the indigenous peoples of this region are under the constant threat of renewed genocidal violence.

The context of recurring wars and political conflicts add to several problems which make indigenous peoples exceptionally vulnerable to violence, forced labour, rape, marginalization, discrimination and denial of their specific rights by the traditional authorities, political-administrative and military.

The challenges of access to land, the legal security of traditional indigenous territories and the lack of access to civil status documents (birth, death, marriage, identity card citizen card voter, etc.) maintains the fragility of these peoples. Finally, the absence of a law recognizing the specific rights of indigenous Pygmy peoples in most countries of the Great Lakes region indicates how much more political awareness is needed. DR Congo is studying new legislation in this regard. The UN Universal Periodic Review has made four specific human rights recommendations on indigenous issues to the DRC which must be pursued.

IPACC and KIOS have worked with PIDP Kivu on an ambitious project to document human rights violations and provide disaggregated statistics to the UN to help with early warning systems in the prevention of genocide.

Since 2005, the Rwandan government reversed its position vis-à-vis tolerance of Community of Indigenous Rwandans (CAURWA) - the largest indigenous NGO in the region. CAURWA was banned on the grounds that this NGO operates in the name of a specific ethnic constituency. The rights of indigenous peoples in that country are fragile and volatile. As President Kagame makes moves to change the constitution and give himself a longer mandate, the threat of violence increases. The Batwa must identify themselves as 'potters', a traditional craft and a pseudonym tolerated by the state.

Armed Conflicts

The Great Lakes region requires urgent attention in order to end the armed conflict, re-establish the rule of law and to protect the human rights of indigenous peoples and to prevent a renewed genocide.

The unstable political situation in Burundi, Rwanda and the DR Congo make all of the Great Lakes volatile and unstable. The experience of the 1990s indicates that indigenous peoples are often the first target of violence, including the genocidal violence as in the case of Rwanda, where a third of the Pygmy population perished during a war led by majority ethnic groups in the war of 100 days.

Since the Rwandan genocide, the Batwa in all three countries have been in varying degrees of vulnerability. Women have experienced mass rapes in DR Congo; there have been cases of militias committing cannibalism in the DRC, and widespread use of forced labour, murderers or false accusations.

New threats include a surge of violence in Katanga province and political turmoil over presidential politics. In 2015, Burundi and especially Bujumbura has been a new wave of instability after the efforts of Pierre Nkurunziza to insist on a third term in the Presidency of the Republic. Kagame in Rwanda has also indicated his intention to change the constitution to extend his rule.

Climate Change and the Environment

Like other regions in Africa, Central Africa suffer profound climate change and loss of biodiversity, especially because of deforestation and the impacts of extractive and mining industries. The rainy seasons are in perpetual disorder.

Across the Great Lakes region, many workshops and activities have been organized to help secure land, community forestry tenure and promote the right of access to land for indigenous.

IPACC launched the first participatory 3D mapping project in Gabon which has been taken up in DR Congo by various NGOs including the National Resources Network in DRC (RRN). This work has been important for the protection of Batwa rights and livelihoods threatened by deforestation, industry and protected areas.

The community and individual reforestation of degraded sites around the eastern territories of the DRC is still a crucial activity for the legal security of traditional indigenous territories.

In cooperation with Norway and Rainforest Forest Peoples' Programme, indigenous people of the DRC have led awareness campaigns on protected areas and World Heritage sites. IPACC has worked with PIDP to study the mechanisms and human rights norms associated with the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.