PEOPLES' TAKE STOCK
WORLD RAINFOREST MOVEMENT
PEOPLES' SEARCHING FOR A FUTURE
from all corners of the African continent have met for the first time
to take stock of their situation and organise for their future.
By Marcus Colchester
When John Hardbattle, a /Kwe
'Bushman' from the Kalahari, was a young boy his mother explained to
him about the variety of peoples. 'God made us all. We are all the
same. But, we are different' she told him, thus encapsulating one of
Africa's great dilemmas: how to recognise the continent's cultural
diversity while at the same time ensuring equality for all humanity.
Today, John is a spokesperson for the 'First Peoples of the Kalahari'
an indigenous organisation that is attempting to articulate the common
demands of the numerous so-called 'Bushmen' scattered across the
drylands of Botswana. He was one among a large number of indigenous
representatives who had travelled to Copenhagen for a conference on
'The Question of Indigenous Peoples of Africa'.
A unique event, the
conference brought together for the first time African peoples as
diverse as the desert-dwelling Tuareg of the Sahara, the
cattle-raising Maasai of East Africa, traditionally forest-dwelling 'pygmies'
of Rwanda, so-called 'Bushmen' from the Kalahari, as well as exiles
from Sudan, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. These together with
academics, lawyers, environmentalists, development specialists and
human rights advocates and some Government officials, ensured a
searching debate on the situation and prospects of Africa's diverse
The conference was held
from 1 - 3 June as a contribution to the United Nations'
'International Year of the World's Indigenous People' and was
organised by the Denmark-based International
Working Group on Indigenous Affairs in collaboration with the Danish
Centre for Development Research and with funds from DANIDA.
The puzzle of
But what does the concept
of 'indigenous peoples' mean in the African context? The consensus
that developed was that it implies peoples with strong ties to their
lands, who have been in their
region since before colonisation, were now dominated by other peoples
from whom their cultures were markedly different and who identify
themselves as 'indigenous'. Self-identification was the key. Indeed
the right to self- identification is upheld in international law by
the International Labour Organisation's 'Tribal and Indigenous Peoples
Convention', which came into force last year. Why though should anyone
*want* to identify themselves as 'indigenous'? The question had
puzzled one of the Tuareg invited to attend the meeting. What
relevance, he wondered, has a conference on indigenous peoples got for
A similar question
troubled those not from discriminated groups. Alice Mogwe of the
Botswana Centre for Human Rights noted that a common response of those
from dominant ethnic groups in
Africa was to ask the question: 'if they are 'indigenous' what does
that make me?'
For those in
French-speaking Africa the concept of indigenous peoples is even more
problematic. The French word 'indigene' implies primitiveness and
backwardness - conjuring up images of folklore and curiosity. The
awkward term 'autochthone', used in French translations of
international law, is obscure. However, the discussants made clear
that words are what we make of them. Labels are assumed for
convenience and evolve suitable connotations through use. Indeed, as
Professor of International Law from California, noted, international
lawyers are still not agreed on a definition of the term 'peoples',
which has been a key word in the work of the United Nations since its
process didn't wait for a definition before proceeding. If it had the
colonials would probably still be there' he remarked. Besides, other
terms were even more problematic. The notion of 'minority' was broadly
rejected as unsuitable, assuming a subordination to the Nation State,
whereas what many peoples are looking for is a greater measure of
autonomy in their own areas where they are the majority. The Berber
peoples of Algeria have a saying, 'the only minority is the regime',
the conference was told by Salem Mazhoud of Anti-Slavery
African States, are, however, fearful of any concept that apparently
promotes ethnic chauvinism, conjuring up images of secession and what
Charles Lane of the International Institute for Environment and
Development called 'the bogey of ethnic violence'. However, as various
speakers from IWGIA reminded the meeting, the whole aim of asserting
indigenous peoples' rights is to provide an alternative to ethnic
conflict, opening up ways of resolving conflicts, based on negotiated
agreements between States and the peoples that comprise them.
The Tuareg, after a bitter
two year war in Mali, managed to secure just such a Treaty with their
government in April last year. The aim should be to ensure that
'indigenous' peoples can secure
their future within the African context without resort to arms. The
key is to develop accepted rights for 'indigenous' peoples.
Human rights were
conceived as a means of securing the individual's rights in relation
to the State and internationally have developed from the original
Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 into a large body of
international law. Protection of these rights, however, assumes a
benign State but when the process of government discriminates between
peoples, on grounds of their culture or through failing to appreciate
the significance of cultural differences, individual human rights
provisions provide little defence.
Reluctantly after years of
argument, the United Nations bodies have begun to realise that group
rights must also be recognised and protected. The rights of "people's"
to self- determination, peace and subsistence are now recognised and,
in addition, 'indigenous peoples' rights to their lands and
territories, to their customary laws and to represent themselves
through their own institutions have also been made law.
African Governments have
gone farther than most in recognising collective rights. The 'African
Charter on Peoples and Human Rights' agreed by the Organisation for
African Unity in Banjul notes, in Article 19, 'nothing shall justify
the domination of a people by another'. The Charter establishes an
African Human Rights Commission to look into abuses of human rights in
Africa, which while its has not yet considered group rights provides a
hopeful mechanism for resolving conflicts between peoples.
The problem comes, though,
when the State asserts itself as the holder of collective rights, as
when the Algerian Government claimed that 'the entire Algerian State
is a league for the defence of human rights', at the same time as it
was systematically discriminating against the Berber.
Indeed, as many speakers
repeatedly noted, the very notion of the State is foreign to Africa.
Sharif Harir recalls how the ninety-five peoples of Darfur identify
their problems as beginning with the annexation of this remote Islamic
Sultanate of west Sudan by the British in 1914. Dating their troubles
to 'when the government came', the locals note the collapse of
traditional systems of resource use and self-government all came about
through the colonial impositions. Legal norms, especially those
requiring the registration of land, were instituted that took no
account of customary rights. The new adminstration imposed leaders who
became tools of the State, no longer answerable to their own people.
All power was centralized and removed to Khartoum.
It was an experience
repeated throughout Africa and which has left an indelible mark. The
colonials may have left - in theory at least - but their laws,
administration, institutions and their values remain behind - and fit
their subjects no better today than when they were imposed.
Independence has brought further problems. Peoples remain arbitrarily
divided by national frontiers. The Tuaregs for example, now find
themselves in Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Chad. Many
'indigenous' peoples now find themselves the subjects of new masters
but still not masters of their own destiny. The riverine Sudanese who
now rule from Khartoum are as alien to the people of Darfur as were
the British. Many speakers noted that conditions under the
independence governments have got worse.
Indeed, in a now famous unguarded moment President Nimeiry admitted to
a visiting ex-colonial governor 'the Sudan is not as efficiently run
as when you were here.'
Mohamed Salih, of the
institute of Environmental Policy and Society of the University of
Uppsala, noted that a process of 'internal colonialism' has replaced
colonialism, and has led to economic stagnation and collapse,
widespread famine, ethnic partiality and a failure of Government even
to retain power. Misrule in Africa has led to ethnic conflicts, many
of which can be seen as the continuation of the colonial wars, as the
new African States attempt to incorporate those peoples which the
colonial States never successfully subjugated. As under the colonials,
the independent regimes continue to apply what Salih refers to as 'systematic
state policies to erode or get rid of
A study by the World
Rainforest Movement on the situation in Equatorial Africa highlighted
the ecological consequences of such inappropriate policies - the
devastating effects of logging and the wildlife trade resulting from
policies which deny the rights of forest-dwelling communities. Many of
the problems of post-colonial government in the area had been
compounded by covert and overt interventions by ex-colonial powers. In
Equatorial Africa, the French had repeatedly meddled with the
political process to secure access to natural resources - timber, oil,
uranium and other minerals. French paratroops still remain encamped in
Gabon, twenty-eight years after they intervened, 'where they share a
hill-top with the fabulous palace of President Haji Omar Bongo - an
unforgettable symbol of the coincidence of interests between the
French and the ruling elite'.
Forced relocation, the
conference learned, has been a common problem faced by 'indigenous'
peoples in Africa. The Batwa of Rwanda noted how some of the last
forest-dwelling pygmies of the country have been forced to relocate to
make way for the Gishwati forest conservation project financed by the
World Bank. Destitute through loss of their land they have been
reduced to beggary. But resettlement has not just been a means to make
way for development - dams, mines, irrigation schemes and conservation
zones - but has also been a central plank of Government's
In Equatorial Africa,
systematic torching of forest settlements hastened the people down to
road-side villages; a policy continued by the independence governments
into the mid- 1970s. Under Nyerere's 'ujamaa' ideology, 'villagisation'
was imposed on the dispersed homesteads and settlements in Tanzania,
totally undermining customary systems of land use and leadership.
Pastoralists were sedentarised in the Sahel with the assistance of the
International Labour Organisation.
Resettlement of the
'Bushmen' remains the policy of the Government of Botswana and a
recent attempt to expel /Kwe groups from the Central Kalahari Game
Reserve was only stopped after concerted protests by the human rights
groups Survival International and IWGIA. In a subsequent meeting with
the local administration the /Kwe were warned: 'You think that these
outsiders will always help you. Well, one of these days they will be
gone and there will only be us, and we own you and we will own you
till the end of time and you will not achieve what you want.'
Controls on the expression
of culture have been a major means of obliging 'indigenous' peoples to
assimilate. The Berbers continue to be denied the right to use their
language in Morocco. The /Kwe told the meeting how their children are
frequently and repeatedly beaten if they fail to understand Tsetswana
in school. The Tuareg noted how education has long been used to break
down cultural differences and cited a French colonial official of 1917
remarking: 'We only have at our disposal a limited number of means to
transform the primitive peoples of our colonies and render them
devoted to our aims and amenable to our enterprises and the most sure
is to take the indigene in his infancy, and ensure that he frequently
visits us and submits to our intellectual and moral customs during the
following few years. In a word, to open up schools where his spirit
can be moulded to suit our goals.'
Saroni ole Ngulay of the organisation Inyuat e-Maa told the meeting
how in the 1970s in Tanzania 'we were forced to adopt western dressing
patterns and those who did not were refused transport, education and
medicine'. Young warriors were sometimes forcibly shaved of their
plaited hair and the Kenyan government has sought to abolish 'warrior'
age grades and prohibit the coming-of-age ceremonies 'when we ordain
the young men to be priests of the community'. Even the Christian
Churches have played a part in this process, by seeking to prohibit
Maasai prophets - the traditional leaders - 'as they have learned that
they cannot win our souls without first removing them'.
hunter-gatherers are widely despised by urban groups. Their wandering
lifestyles appear aimless, as if they trail around randomly without
purpose. Johannes Aron of the 'First Peoples of the Kalahari'
emphasised how this incomprehension was based on lack of consultation.
wondered 'were we not asked before why we move around? People appear
aimless but if we had been asked they would have found out long ago
why we do it.'
'It appears that even now
it is said that the 'Basarwa' (which means 'those who do not own' in
Tsetswana) never had rights and that they don't have rights now or a
mind or intelligence of their own. This culture that God gave us has
kept us strong through all these centuries, doesn't that show that we
are a people with intelligence? If the government wants to help our
people now - since it has
assumed this responsibility - they should give the people their rights
to land, not handouts. It is not respectful to take everything and
then settle them and give them what they need - that way the people
don't have self-respect. The Government should ask us what we want.
The other thing that hurts is that the /Kwe are disappearing. We need
our land and we want our culture.' 'We have been hearing about
development for a long time but it seems the word is there but not the
will. We hear the word 'development' but we see our lands disappear
and our people dwindle. The government has in some way abandoned us.
They say they are our fathers and mothers yet we are being
discriminated against. It is our own government that does this. This
is painful for us.... It is a pain to me that when I go home, I sit
there and wonder, do I have a government or not?'
The central concern for
all 'indigenous' peoples is to retain control of their customary lands.
As Kxao Moses =Oma of the Nyae Nyae Farmers Cooperative of eastern
Namibia told the conference:
'Daily life in Bushmanland
revolves around n!oresi. Bushmanland is our large n!ore. It is like a
territory for all our families. The large n!ore consist of our small
n!ore which are territories of an extended family. N!ore means
basically the place where you were born and your parents and
grandparents were born. In Eastern Bushmanland, we have 200 of such 'family
n!oresi'. The n!ore is not just a piece of land. It is a piece of
nature. It is our natural resource. We find our entire livelihood in
such n!ore: the vegetables, the wild food plants, the water, the game
and material for our houses, tools and so on. Each n!ore does not
provide the same natural resources, therefore, the Ju/hoan families
have learned to share them. We have learnt to help each other in order
to survive in such a harsh environment. In short, the n!ore is our
backbone for survival, and therefore the foundation for our culture.
We wish to maintain and manage our n!oresi for our children and
grandchildren, so that we have something
valuable to offer them for their future. If you just look across the
border fence to Botswana where our brothers and sisters have lost
their n!ore rights, you might recognise that there the Ju/hoansi are
living in poverty and without any rights, oppressed by others who have
taken over the Ju/hoansi land. We, the Ju/hoansi, consider the right
to our n!oresi, the right to use and manage natural resources, to be
essential for our lives. I brought this to your attention to inform
you how we are depending on our n!oresi, and how our culture and well-
being are linked to this land system. We Ju/hoansi were
born here, we grew up here, we married here. Still, Bushmanland
belongs to the government - why don't we have the right to the land?
We know the animals, we know the bush food, we were taught how to use
these valuable natural resources for the best benefit of all our
people. We are afraid of people moving in, and taking away everything
from us. For us, land rights are a human right.'
However, the conference
learned that efforts to legalise land ownership in Africa were fraught
with problems. The tendency to give individual titles to those 'improving'
land is leading to deforestation in Central Africa where settlers
clear rainforests to stake land claims. Lack of precision in the law
about the legal entity that owns communal lands has also led to abuses.
On the one hand the State has found it easy to extinguish such titles.
On the other hand, as among the Maasai, titling has stimulated
improvident land sales, leading to the emergence of an indigenous
elite and the destitution of many others. One pastoralist researcher
had commented: 'I think the most important thing about a title deed is
that it is authority to sell. A title deed is an instrument of
alienation, not control...
Title deeds give you the
unilateral independence to dispose of land and the freedom to become
poor. They are a licence the destroy the future of your children.' The
dilemma for Africa, the World Rainforest Movement noted, 'is to find a
way of legally securing communal tenure in a form acceptable to local
communities without favouring the interests of indigenous elites and
outsiders, whose power and privilege give them unequal access to the
The key to overcoming such
problems lies in the emergence of the 'indigenous' peoples' own
organisations. While some groups have found powerful allies in
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), others have found them to be
all too fallible intermediaries which often run affairs for their own
gain. 'NGOs have not been very good to us' Kaetuai ole Katampoi, a
Maasai from Kenya, told
It was important for these
organisations to build on traditions but not to be shackled by them.
'The Maasai is his own worst enemy', one Maasai leader had noted. 'Our
society needs to be transformed to meet our contemporary challenges'
Saroni ole Ngulay observed. The meeting learned of diverse efforts to
set up new forms of schooling, health programmes, cooperatives, land
titling exercises, farming schemes - the most important of all being
efforts of awareness raising. Organisations have emerged which
transcend ethnic boundaries and far from being vehicles for 'tribalism'
have developed as a means of defence against ethnic chauvinism and
This encouraging trend
among 'indigenous' peoples to mobilise in the form of alliances has
also crossed international boundaries. The meeting was told that an
effort to create a network of 'pygmy' groups, who live scattered
between Cameroon and Uganda and as far south as Zaire and Burundi, had
recently been initiated with a regional conference in Mbaiki in the
Central African Republic in March this year. Batwa 'pygmies' from
Rwanda have linked themselves to the International Alliance of
Indigenous-Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests which spans the
The solutions don't lie
only with 'indigenous' peoples themselves, warned Mohamed Salih, who
emphasised that changes in the nature of the State were also required
and implied a wider mobilisation. Only thus could a form of government
develop that was responsive to African cultures and peoples' needs -
through decentralization and the creation of political accountability.
Concluding the conference,
Jens Dahl of IWGIA projected a note of optimism. When the conference
was first planned two years ago, it was considered impossible to find
an African country willing to host indigenous peoples from all over
Africa. Today the situation is changing. Political pluralism has now
been widely accepted, democratic institutions are being reasserted and
cultural pluralism is thus becoming a possibility.
The Government of
Botswana, which was represented at the meeting, announced that it was
planning a Regional Conference on the San People later in 1993 to
highlight the International Year of the World's Indigenous People.
Thus even the long mistrusted term 'indigenous' to refer to dominated
peoples has begun to find currency among African governments.
About the writer: Marcus
Colchester is an anthropologist and human rights advocate who works as
Forest Peoples Programme Director for the World Rainforest Movement.
4 June 1993