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Permaculture Pygmies

by Xavier Fux

Deep in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pygmy communities had lived for generations as hunter-gatherers. When the Kahuzi Biega National Park was created in 1970 by the Congolese government, the Pygmies and other local communities were expulsed from the forest, their ancestral land, without receiving any compensation or any land to settle in. They were left without a home. Over time, they were allowed to live on private property at the edge of the park, near other local communities but without any right of ownership over the land. This situation created a huge life obstacle for Pygmy communities, because land is the basic means of subsistence in the area. Currently, they rarely have access to the forest that constituted a vital area for their culture and traditions, and where they could collect food, health, means and shelter.

The Pygmies had never farmed before. They were hunters and gatherers and depended on natural resources in the forest for subsistence. Birds and guinea pigs constituted their intake of protein, and they gathered fruits, nuts and collected honey from bee traps they set up in trees.

When they were expelled from the forest, having no other means of survival, they began to hunt secretly in the protected area and exchange their forest booty for banana, beans, potatoes and other crops in the surrounding villages. Nevertheless, the park started slowly enforcing tighter security and often hurt the Pygmies brutally with machetes and beat them when they were caught in the park. With increased hunger and despair, they even started hunting gorillas, which they traded for money or produce in the local markets. The paradox of the situation is that, by not providing the Pygmies with a decent living scenario or compensation when expelled from their ancestral land, the government has only moved farther away from the goal for which the national park was created in the first place: to protect the gorillas and the rainforest.

Pygmies had been living in harmony with gorillas for centuries and respected them dearly, but now, against their will, they found themselves forced to kill them for survival.

In order to understand the whole picture clearly, one must analyze many aspects of their present situation. The Swahili word used to refer to the Pygmies means “less than human”. They have always been looked down upon and alienated from Congolese tribal and social systems, and always lived a nomadic life in the bush; away from society’s rules, regulations, disciplines and ethics.

When we heard about their situation through our friend, Ron Dembo, CEO of Zerofootprint Canada, we became very interested in their plight. After a few discussions, Ron kindly invited my wife, Melanie, and I to join the project he had started along with Strong Roots based in Congo and the Canadian Ape Alliance. Their intention was to raise the necessary funds to buy the Pygmies a permanent piece of land and settle them on it.

With the proceeds of a fundraising event in May 2010, the Foundation was able to lease land for the Buyungule Pygmy community, and a farming project came into being.

This project has benefited around 500 people by creating work and a consistent food source for the families, which suffer from acute hunger — two elements that are vital to creating a sustainable way of life for this community.

Since we joined the project, we set three main goals for short, mid and long term:

In the short term, the plan is to teach them basic permaculture skills and set up high-yielding, fast food crops to give them a quick visible solution to the immediate problem. This is being done on a piece of land that was temporarily lent to them by a local landowner.

In the mid term, we intend to lease them a larger piece of land for about a year, so that they can plant corn, beans, squash, cassava and legumes, while we complete our fund-raising goal in order to be able to buy them the 12 hectares of land on which they can permanently settle.

In the long term, we aim to design a 12-hectare community according to permaculture principles and philosophies. The community will feature rain capture systems, grey water treatment, composting toilets, rocket stoves and solar ovens, composting, livestock, perennial food systems and fruit trees accompanied by high-yield, bio-intensive vegetable gardens, with permaculture taught to kids at the local school.

So far, in the short term part of the process, we have successfully built a rain capture system which collects water from the roof of the local school into a 20m3 capacity tank, we built a seed flat nursery, planted over 30 beds with carrots, onion, cabbage, celery, tomato, sweet potato and all kinds of yummy beans, peas and cassava that will complement the huge avocado tree that they have on site and the many banana trees growing freely in the area. Next week we’ll introduce moringa, sacha inchi, and plant some papaya trees and passion fruit vines.

I have to admit that sometimes working with the Pygmies is a bit difficult and it takes a lot of patience and mental endurance. They are people that don’t really understand the law of cause and effect yet. In the past, all their food was provided to them by nature itself. All they had to do was reach out their hands and collect berries, nuts and fruits, and hunt a bird or two for dinner. It is for this reason that they still haven’t fully grasped the notion of planting a seed and seeing it grow to become food.

One day, after we had made a banana circle compost, I brought some fruit scraps from breakfast to demonstrate dumping it into the hole. When they saw my papaya skins, they literally grabbed them from me before I let them drop into the ditch and proceeded to bite the tiny bit of remaining fruit still on the skin. At first I was shocked and felt terrible to see their hunger, even felt awkward and guilty for throwing away food. But later on that afternoon, when I was reflecting upon the incident, it occurred to me that I hadn’t taken a roasted chicken with me, but only a papaya; a fruit that grows extremely fast and everywhere in the tropical setting of Congo. It was then that I realized that they still haven’t made the connection between seeds and food. Even though they are starving, they don’t associate eating a fruit, planting its seeds and therefore creating more fruit.

Another issue we’re facing is the laziness of men. Women are the ones that do most of the labor and daily chores in the community. Men only build. Women collect water, wood, dig trenches, farm, cook and tend to the children. It’s been a challenge to get the men to work and collaborate. Many times, they simply stand there watching us dig laughing in our faces and calling us “muzungu”, “muzungu”, which means “white”. When we give them the shovel or hoe, they reach out their hands and ask us for money. It is very important in these communities that people learn the importance of working in order to subsist and eradicate hunger. Us Westerners have for years given them hand-outs that only temporarily satisfy their bellies and in fact deepen their dependency and poverty. Self-sustainable approaches to community, food and well being are necessary in order for long term projects to succeed. It is vital that children learn about permaculture and social skills in schools so that future generations are better prepared to face life outside the bush. Lately, every time they hold up their hand begging for money or food, we give them seeds to plant, hoping that they soon understand that this the only way they will ever empower themselves and see their gardens flower and fruitify!

12 Comments

  1. On a cynical note, why are you bothering them with your science, with your knowledge?

    Maybe all they want is to reach out their hands and get the food.

  2. Daniel – what food, exactly, is that? Do you mean the food they can’t access because they’ve been evicted from their traditional lands? I think Xavier has made it quite clear that if they try to do that, they’ll get those hands chopped off.

  3. There is a deep challenge facing people who do permaculture with those from marginalized cultures, and that’s not doing it in a paternalistic way. The people who have been kicked off their land had an intact culture stripped from them by colonial forces, and now we are going to them trying to impose an entirely new culture through colonial methods. It is not surprising they are resisting this.

    I don’t know what the answer is, in a social environment where so much damage has already been done—obviously the real answer is never to steal land from people with a healthy culture and leave them to starve or have to get what they can through unsustainable and unhealthy methods.

    But that having already been done, what do the people say they want? Is it to have their land and forest back, intact? Instead of insisting that they be put to work immediately, would it be possible to work with those who are respected among them, to tell the story of how the forest became the productive ecosystem that supported them, and how a new forest can be grown on new land? This of course means eliminating the assumption that they are like children who do not understand cause and effect yet. They clearly know what cause and effect is, but they see a different set of causes and effects than you do. Maybe you can come to a shared understanding of the situation, its causes, and the solutions.

    Much of what we know about permaculture principles came to us originally from people who had intact cultures of cooperation with their native ecosystem that looked to colonizers like they just put their hands out and fruit fell into it.

  4. The Western naive belief that the Bayaka (Mbuti, Twa, Mbenga, etc..) aswell as other remnant hunter-gather groups still in existence after the Iron age Bantu expansion like the Hadze, and the collectively known Bushmen; have and are continually manipulating and adapting their environments in ways only paralleled with the indigenous and aboriginal peoples of the North American West Coast, the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia and the populations of Post-Collapse Amazonia.

    Through cooperative horticultural practices these ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups have coaxed (to use a oft used permie word) “abundance”, systematic redundancy, and botanical order in their lands, the “wildernesses” of Western and European thought.

    Only when European explorers, traders, slavers, colonists, and soldiers; with their limited understanding of the other peoples horticultural practices and ingrained xenophobic and often enough down right racist rhetoric did they begin to assume that these said peoples are stone age “children” merely surviving from the at first glance Eden-like rainforests and part-like lands.

    Read Permaculture Principles and Pathways; Holmgren even mentions the story that the Mbuti and other non-bantu groups of the Congo Rainforest were the descendants of a once thriving Arboreal cultural complex. Anthropologists and Paleo-Archeologists are beginning to acknowledge and accept alternative timelines of human cultural and social “advances”. Ones that do not follow the narratives of the Fertile Crescent.

    So when you say the “Pygmies” never practiced farming (To cultivate or produce a crop on.) that would be incorrect. The did in ways well pass sustainable but regenerative and environmentally sound.

    Read the Future Eaters or Tending the Wild; hopefully people will begin to write about others around the world to end the ignorance on the issues and abilities of the Global South and the indigenous people who live their.

  5. what a wonderful job you are doing! I remember going to a ballet at UF in Gainesville with my daughter. Some of these pygmy’s were dancing with the San Franscisco ballet. Beautiful reed music and willowy dancing. So many nomadic cultures are having to adjust, and who are we to say we have all the answers? Permaculture is the obvious solution, and you are offering changes in such a gentle and kind way. I have done a lot of travelling around the world, and the places that get handouts just never progress. You are definitely giving a hand up to these gentle people, and it is a long hard road as you teach them different concepts that will ensure their survival.

  6. Kerrick, colonization could arguably be the number one cause for suffering in most of the African continent and the rest of the world. Congo in particular might be one of the countries worst damaged by colonialization in Africa, so it’s a pretty harsh and serious accusation to say a project is acting with “colonial methods” so lightly, without doing proper research on the project.

    I’m not sure if you understood that the Pygmies were kicked off their land in the forest over 35 years ago (they are definitely not being “put to work immediately”, and nobody is putting them to work by the way, that will be explained more clearly further on). Given their very low life expectancy rate, most of the Pygmies in the Buyungule village were already born outside the bush and a rare few were only children when they were forced to move. Even if we could provide them with an intact forest TODAY, they would no longer know how to live in it. That creates obstacle 1. No going back.

    For many years now the Pygmies have been filing claims against the government’s actions, law suits are currently in place, with still no success.

    You also suggested growing a new forest on new land. What land are you referring to? We and the other organizations involved in the project have been raising funds for almost 2 years now in order to buy them a land to call their own, which will only be enough for the 500+ members of the community to live and farm on. Not nearly enough to create even a fraction of a decent forest. For the past 35 years they’ve been allowed to live on somebody’s private property. They have nothing to call their own and, as everywhere else in the world, land here isn’t up for the taking (that is what caused the problem in the first place).

    We are not the “white man coming to impose our ways”. This project was not born 1 month ago, but 14 years ago, by a man named Dominique Bikaba, who GREW UP WITH THE PYGMIES of the Buyungule village. He lived in the neighboring village and the people we are working with today were his childhood friends (already outside the bush). When he comes with us to the project you can tell he is AT HOME. The only difference between him and them is that he had the opportunity to get an education and go on to university, after which he came back and has dedicated the past 20 years of his life to helping the Pygmies and many other local communities in need.

    It was the PYGMY VILLAGE who decided what they need: land and the skills to work it. As Craig mentioned in is comment, they no longer have a viable food source as the government stripped them of everything they ever had and everything they ever knew. For the past 35 years they have lived off stealing from neighboring villages and risking getting harshly beaten when they’re caught. We can’t change what has already happened, so the only thing to do is help them adapt to the world they now live in, giving them an ALTERNATIVE to stealing.

    I hope you can understand that this project was not created quickly and without thought and it is not an imposition. The Pygmies have asked specifically for land and the skills to grow their own food. The subtle details behind the analysis Xavier makes in his article are difficult to explain, you would have to be here, meet the people, realize their patterns and most importantly, as we’ve done, follow the path set by people who have interacted with them for decades and understand their needs and desires.

    I suggest you look into the project a little deeper in order to understand it more clearly and will be happy to send you articles, research documents, videos and any other information you’re interested in.

  7. Dear Kerrick and Lev, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the article.
    The article, was just that, a few paragraphs long and not aimed at covering the whole spectrum of the Pygmie situation and our project. To do that, It would requiere a whole book.

    If you would like more info of the day to day activities we’ve had with them, and a more comprehensive narration of our involvement with them, and of the project, please visit:

    http://www.congoproject2011.blogspot.com

    and

    https://permacultureglobal.com/projects/706-the-congo-project

    When we first arrived to Congo, the first thing we did was meet with the chief and his council of decision makers. Before we even talked, we asked them what their needs where, and what they thought needed to be done. We also asked them how they envisioned their village in 5 years and in the near future. After we heard they needed to learn how to farm, that they where needing water, that they where in need of a permanent land, and after seeing how happy they seemed to be having us there, we made a list together with them of things we could work on. The response was a round of aplause, and cheering.

    We are merely permaculturists trying to show them a few skills they can implement to have a better life. I thought it was worth mentioning this, as you suggested that we where “imposing” on them, “colonializing” them, and working with them without a “paternalistic” approach, whatever that means to you.

    Their are many Pygmie elders telling their story, and one of them, is the oldest working park Guard at the Kahuzi Biega National Park. A beautiful wrinkled man, who has been heard at many comitees, talks and events.

    There are many reforestation projects in the area led by various local and international NGO’s. Strong Roots, to name just one of them, has planted more than 2 million trees in the last 10 years at a rate of 200,000 per year. The species they are planting are the locals Gravilea Robusta, Eucaliptus, and different types of Acacia.

    you are wrong in assuming we look at them as “children” those where your words and not mine. In fact, we look at them with the respect and admiration that comes from understanding that unfortunately these could be one of the last peoples that had a free livelihood so connected to nature and to its cycles, which was gravely stripped away from them.

    We feel privileged to be here, working with them, realizing that when this generation dies, They might easily be the one of the last generations of people that knew the world like some of us only wish we knew.

    Let me assure you that as an Anthropologist, I have applied Cultural Relativism when adressing them and when discussing them.

    Our intention is not to either “colonialize, impose or force them into anything they dont want” but only to adress some of the issues that they have asked to be helped with in the hopes of making their lifes a bit more more abundant and making strong frienships and relationships along the way.

    Pura Vida!!

    Xavier

  8. “Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?”

    “Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the élite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.”

    “To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

    All quotas from Jared Diamond: https://www.mnforsustain.org/food_ag_worst_mistake_diamond_j.htm

    It is no wonder why these pygmies are reluctant in adapting to agriculture, as their ancient lifestyle and culture is superior to ours. We all live in a failed culture, the culture of agriculture!

  9. Mate – it’s got to be a tough gig heading to the Congo for anything let alone ‘permaculture’. Much power and respect for your work out there. Do good forget the rest.

  10. This raises some serious issues that we as permies need to talk about. Aside from the important humanitarian aid of providing food for people who have had the resource base stolen from them are we really doing them any favours teaching them to be farmers? Hunter Gathers have the smallest ecological food print of any other subsistence method. They also have the most leisurely lives. No wonder ‘laziness’ is a problem. These people know that living shouldn’t be so much work.
    Are we so indoctrinated with the cultural concept that humans should make their living ‘by the sweat of their brow’ that we can’t see that these people had what we want: a productive ecological sound system of meeting human needs; a harmonious integration of people into the landscape.
    Surely once their immediate need for food is satisfied the goal should be to find these people a land resource base that they can continue use in a culturally appropriate method. Maybe if we do we can arrange for those of us who have an interest to come and learn from them.

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