Congo's pygmies take on World Bank to save rainforest from loggers

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The Independent Online

The rumble of giant machinery heralds the arrival of loggers deep in the heart of the Congo rainforest. For the pygmy tribes which have inhabited this thick jungle for millennia, the sound of the advancing column is the sound of encroaching hunger and the loss of a way of life stretching back hundreds of generations.

"They bring with them huge machines which go deep into the forest and make noise which frightens all the game animals away," says Adrian Sinafasi, the man seeking to alert the outside world to the plight of central Africa's pygmies. "When the loggers arrive, they bring with them many workers who are needed to fell the trees. They also need to eat and start hunting but, rather than use traditional weapons in the right season, they hunt with firearms and don't care about seasons or how much food they take."

Mr Sinafasi, who was displaced from his ancestral home in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is leading a delegation of pygmies to meet the new head of the World Bank in Washington this week. He hopes the talks could lead to deal to safeguard the world's second-largest rainforest. There is mounting optimism that when the representatives of some of Africa's most remote tribes arrive in the US capital today, they can capitalise on international outrage over the bank's plan to turn 60,000 sq km of pristine forest over to European logging companies.

Forty million people in the Congo depend on the rainforests for survival. Among them are up to 600,000 pygmies who are engaged in a David and Goliath battle over plans to allow millions of hardwood trees to be felled, many to make garden furniture and flooring for European homes. As well as retaining nearly eight per cent of the world's carbon dioxide, the rainforest is home to a vast biodiversity, including the bonobo apes unique to the Congo river basin.

The indigenous tribes scored a victory last month when their complaints about logging were upheld by the bank's independent experts. Observers believe the bank's board of directors is poised to accept the principle that forest peoples should have a final say in any future development.

The panel, which visited Congo to investigate the pygmies' claims, accepted evidence that the economic value of the trees had been wildly overstated and officials had failed to consider other sustainable uses for the wood. It also concluded that locals were not consulted and the necessary environmental checks were not carried out before the chainsaws started buzzing.

It is claimed that, far from bringing development and riches, logging is causing widespread malnutrition, especially among children. Felling of trees is also blamed for re-igniting violence in the region, which is still recovering from years of civil war in which more than four million people died. Six people were killed last week in clashes between locals and loggers. Mr Sinafasi, who leads a coalition of 12 pygmy groups, said he would call on the new bank president, Robert Zoellick, to deliver on the promises made by his predecessor Paul Wolfowitz. He claimed that his people only learned that their homelands were to become logging areas when bulldozers rumbled into their villages and that, with the arrival of the outsiders, their rights have been taken away.

He said: "When the logging companies arrive, they restrict on our right to use the forest and forbid us access to vast areas. They cut pell-mell, with no consideration for the trees we depend on for caterpillars to eat, or the places where we can find mushrooms or get honey. We have no say about whether a tree should stand or whether it should fall."

Plans to allow industrial logging in the Congo were drawn up after the World Bank moved back into the country in 2002, aiming to turn it into Africa's main timber producer. While the bloody civil war cost millions of lives, peace has brought with it a new threat as western companies return to exploit the nation's new-found stability. Roads are being driven through the eastern forest and, to the west, railways and ports are being upgraded around Kinshasa, the sprawling capital.

Campaigners fear that over-development, coupled with the widespread corruption in regional politics, signals the beginning of the end for the rainforest.

Simon Counsell, of the Rainforest Foundation – a British charity which is backing the pygmies in their fight against the loggers – said: "The board of the bank has the chance to avert a major environmental and humanitarian disaster. It should insist on an end to industrial logging of Congo's forests and work with the Congolese government to find non-destructive ways of managing them for the benefit of Congo's people." As well as the World Bank, pressure for change is also mounting on its third-largest donor – the British government, which has a permanent seat on the bank's board. In August, more than 200 MPs signed an early day motion calling for an end to destruction of the forest and the "devastating threat to those who live in and depend on it".

A spokesman for the Department for International Development said Britain had spent £50m protecting the communities and biodiversity of the Congo basin and was urging the bank to continue with a moratorium on the granting of further logging concessions.

The hunter-gatherers whose size matters

* It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 pygmies living in the Congo rainforest

* The word pygmy refers to a variety of peoples which have inhabited central and west Africa since the Stone Age

* The average height of an adult pygmy is 150cm, or 4ft 11in

* In many countries, pygmy tribes have no rights and do not appear among official statistics

* Pygmy groups usually rely on hunting and gathering from the forest

* Many pygmy lands have yet to be fully mapped, making their forests vulnerable to exploitation

* Hand-held satellite tracking devices are being used to help save sacred pygmy sites from the loggers' bulldozers

* Pygmies speak a variety of languages, including Swahili and French

In July, officials in the Republic of Congo apologised for housing visiting pygmy musicians in a zoo, while other performers were given lodgings in hotels

* In 2003, the United Nations investigated claims by some pygmies that their tribesmen had been eaten by Congolese rebel troops. The pygmies later retracted the claim, however