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First estimate of Pygmy population reveals their plight

Marginalized indigenous hunter-gatherers in the Congo prefer living in remote forests—but their lifestyles are under threat.
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Forest-dependent Pygmy communities have played a key role in human history, but are now facing cultural extinction. Jerome Lewis/CIFOR
Forest-dependent Pygmy communities have played a key role in human history, but are now facing cultural extinction. Jerome Lewis/CIFOR

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Increased deforestation and road building in Central African rainforests will intensify threats to the lives and lifestyles of indigenous Pygmy communities, a new study suggests.

The study, which provides the first measured estimate of the population and distribution of these increasingly marginalized indigenous groups, found that the forests of the Congo Basin could be home to up to 920,000 Pygmies.

Until now, it has not been possible to determine the numbers and actual geographic ranges of Pygmy communities, because of their location in remote forest areas, mobility, lack of census data, and imprecise and partial sources of information.

“Pygmies are of great significance to humanity’s cultural diversity, as they are the largest group of active hunter-gatherers in Africa, and possibly the world,” said one of the study’s leaders, John E. Fa from Manchester Metropolitan University and senior research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Yet this was the first study to use robust scientific methods to predict how many Pygmies are likely to be found in the vast expanse of tropical forests in Central Africa,” he added.

Pygmy communities live in rainforests across nine countries in Central Africa—an area of some 170 million hectares—where they make up a very small minority of the total population. They identify closely with the forest and many still depend largely on wild forest products. Most Pygmy groups move around, for social and nutritional reasons, within a specific territory or group of territories to which they have affiliations through clan or marriage relations.

This was the first study to use robust scientific methods to predict how many Pygmies are likely to be found in the vast expanse of tropical forests in Central Africa

John E. Fa

FAVORING THE FOREST

As well as giving the best estimate of populations to date, the study maps Pygmy communities’ distribution, and identifies which areas are of ecological importance for them.

In particular, the researchers found that Pygmy communities prefer to live in rainforest areas, away from roads. By contrast, those settlements in unfavorable areas—that is, those with less forest cover—do tend to be along roads.

“What our research indicates is that Pygmy settlements in roadside areas—who were often relocated there in government programs—are in conditions that are environmentally suboptimal for them,” Fa said.

“This is hardly surprising, given that roads can have an array of deleterious effects on tropical forests and their wildlife, and particularly in diminishing hunting resources.”

The authors note that Pygmy groups that have been relocated as part of official sedentarization programs set up by governments may have failed to adjust to the new living conditions, often with severe consequences to their way of life.

Reasons for displacements may range from relatively indirect causes—such as deforestation for agriculture, logging or mining—to forced displacement under programs that, according to the study, “impose European development models which argue that indigenous groups and the protection of areas for nature conservation are incompatible.”

“This is a very underprivileged and neglected group of people, many of whom have already lost their forest land and livelihoods and whose rich cultural traditions are seriously threatened in many regions,” said Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist at University College, London, who has worked extensively with Pygmies and supported them to better defend their rights.

“Information on their locations and population numbers are crucial for developing appropriate human rights, cultural and land security safeguards for them, as for other indigenous peoples,” he added.

It’s important for all of the countries involved to come together to help support Pygmies’ cultures and human rights to make sure they are respected and understood

Jesús Olivero

COLLABORATIVE SUPPORT

Understanding the nature and extent of the threat to this already marginalized group was a major motivation for the involvement by what is an unprecedented number of researchers for this type of study: evidence was provided by a total of 26 contributors, including anthropologists, conservation biologists and biogeographers from the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan and Cameroon, active human rights groups, and bilateral and livelihood organizations.

“Thanks to the information provided by these contributors, we were able to generate what is now the largest-ever database of the locations of Pygmy camps,” Fa said.

In the absence of any known accurate censuses of Pygmies, the researchers predicted where they live by using statistical methods, developed by Jesús Olivero, an expert biogeographer at the Biogeography, Diversity and Conservation research group of the University of Malaga in Spain, and his team. The techniques were based on species distribution modeling (SDM) methods that investigate the relationships between environmental conditions and the distribution of organisms.

The study is the first to apply this method to human societies and their cultural diversity.

“By using tried and tested animal and plant distribution models, we hope to raise greater awareness of the importance of these too often ignored and marginalized groups in this region,” Olivero said.

“Pygmy communities depend on the forest but their access to forest areas is becoming increasingly difficult because of industrialization and the expansion of market-led initiatives, displacement, forced sedentarization, disease and deforestation.”

Understanding where and how Pygmy communities live is an important first step in supporting them and safeguarding their rights, Fa added.

“It’s important for all of the countries involved to come together to help support Pygmies’ cultures and human rights to make sure they are respected and understood,” he said.

“At the end of the day, 900,000 people living in small groups in such a vast area can very easily be ignored, leading to their cultural extinction, and given the extraordinary role they have played in the human story since well before antiquity, we don’t want that.”

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For more information on this topic, please contact John E. Fa at jfa949@gmail.com.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
This research was supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Leverhulme Trust.