AFRICAN 'INDIGENOUS PEOPLES' TAKE
WORLD RAINFOREST MOVEMENT
AFRICAN 'INDIGENOUS PEOPLES'
SEARCHING FOR A FUTURE
'Indigenous Peoples' 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 peoples.
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
Working Group on Indigenous Affairs in collaboration with the Danish Centre
for Development Research and with funds from DANIDA.
The puzzle of definitions
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
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 me?
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
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 Howard Berman,
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 inception.
'The decolonization 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
States, particularly 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
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
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,
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
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
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'.
Policies of assimilation
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.'
Maasai representative 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'.
Pastoralists and 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. 'Why' he
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
'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 administration.'
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 discrimination.
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 globe.
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
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
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