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!