Development in the Ituri Forest of Zaire


The Ituri Forest, located in northeastern Zaire just above the equator and near the Ugandan border, is approximately 70,000 square kilometers in area. It is bounded by open savanna to the north and east and is contiguous with lowland forest on the south and west where its rivers drain into the Zaire River Basin. Situated on the lip of the basin, the altitude of the Ituri is 700-1000 meters, and its terrain is very hilly, even mountainous in its northern regions. The predominate vegetation of undisturbed areas of climax forest are tall leguminous hardwood trees forming a discontinuous canopy above a thick mid-story and open understory(1).

Most of the Ituri region is sparsely settled by Bantu and Sudanic speaking slash and burn agriculturalists living in dispersed villages of 30 to 200 inhabitants. Most "villagers" live along the few roads which were built by the Belgians in the 1940s and 1950s and which have deteriorated badly since the Simba Rebellion in 1964-1965. The villagers are largely subsistence farmers who sell surplus peanuts or rice to local firms for shipment to nearby towns.

In association with the agriculturalists are approximately 40,000 Mbuti pygmies living in bands of 10 to 70 people. A Mbuti band often has a long-term relationship lasting several generations with a particular village whereby the Mbuti supply labor and forest products, especially meat, in exchange for iron implements and cultivated foods. The relationship between villagers and Mbuti, often called "patron-client" but probably more accurately called symbiotic, has existed for at least 2000 years and continues today in all but the most populated areas of the Ituri. These locations no longer have sufficient forest to support the Mbuti in their role as providers of protein.

While most of the Ituri has fewer than 3 inhabitants per square kilometer, the forest is surrounded on all sides by districts which support the highest population densities in all of Zaire outside of its capital, Kinshasa. Pressure on the forest from these districts comes in many forms; people move in to clear and cultivate unclaimed forested land, and entrepreneurs exploit the forest for its abundant but limited resources, especially wood and meat. Since the late 1940s when Belgians opened up the forest with a network of roads, and particularly during the last fifteen years, people from neighboring districts have migrated into the Ituri not only to meet their subsistence needs, but also to export products. Consequently large areas of primary forest are being cleared and many of the resources, especially the large mammals, are being depleted. In addition to having adverse consequences for the Ituri forest as a habitat, this process is disrupting the beneficial aspects of the interdependent relationship between the villagers and the Mbuti.

Commercial Exploitation of the Ituri

Due to its rugged terrain and remote location, there are no large-scale commercial logging operations in the Ituri forest. To date the costs of building and maintaining suitable roads and the expense of transport to the Atlantic coast prohibit profitable logging ventures. There are, however, six small saw mills in the Ituri region which supply planks for nearby towns. These have minimal impact on the forest and its inhabitants since they entail small-scale selective cutting, each have fewer than fifty employees, and do not require access roads which can open new areas of forest to settlement.

Coffee plantations have had the greatest impact on the Ituri forest and its indigenous peoples. Unlike most coffee-producing countries where production comes from small holdings, most of Zaire's coffee is grown on plantations of 100 to 800 hectares owned by corporations (societés) with central offices in the large cities. The plantations in the Ituri are no exception. Most were cleared, planted and operated by Belgians and Greeks in the 1950s and 1960s and then expropriated in the 1970s to be given to politically well-connected Zairois living in Kinshasa or Kisangani. Many of these plantations were poorly managed by their absentee Zairois owners and so have been given back to their original European owners, or Europeans have been invited back to manage the holding for a share of the profits. Today new plantations are being cleared - although at a reduced rate due to the decline in international coffee prices - and old plantations reopened and expanded.

When a new plantation is opened in the Ituri its effects on the forest habitat go beyond the area which is cleared for coffee planting. Because the Ituri is sparsely populated, there are seldom sufficient numbers of local villagers for clearing and maintaining a plantation. Workers from the surrounding populated districts migrate to the vicinity of the plantation lured by the prospects of acquiring virgin land and constant employment. Coming from many different tribes the immigrants are feared by the indigenous people whose land they come to occupy.

Each newcomer clears approximately one hectare of forest each year for his own and his family's subsistence. In addition, some laborers plant 1-10 hectare patches of coffee to supplement their incomes. Consequently, after only a few years, for each 100 hectares of forest cleared for a plantation, approximately 700 hectares are cleared for subsistence gardens and small coffee holdings. Unless the plantation fails and is abandoned, the forest is never permitted to regenerate beyond early successional growth. Land in the vicinity of the plantation becomes a limited resource and no patch is allowed to lay fallow for more than a few years. At that point it can no longer be considered forest.

Coffee and the Local Villagers

The opening of a coffee plantation in the Ituri forest has far reaching consequences on the lives of local villagers. The people themselves consider the plantation and its related developments of great benefit, for it finally brings goods and services never before available to people who previously considered themselves backward and inferior. Local chiefs achieve new stature as the representatives in discussions with white foreigners and important government bureaucrats. Each villager that works on the plantation suddenly acquires a pretentious title in French and a hoe and machete he can call his own (until of course he must return them to the plantation). Medicines are available; the plantation dispensary is stocked with anti-malarials and antibiotics previously obtainable at great distance and expense. Colorful cloth, salt, soap, kerosene and trinkets can be purchased at the plantation store; and, because they attract scarce labor, these goods are offered on credit at wholesale prices. Moreover, often for the first time in the history of the tribe, an education becomes possible for village children at the plantation school.

These changes are not insignificant; they are truly beneficial to many of the local villagers, bringing them closer to the mainstream of the economic development in Zaire. However, for most they have devastating consequences because ultimately the affect maximum dependence on external economic resources and political institutions. The results are economic insecurity little known to forest subsistence agriculturalists along with and exacerbated by a disruption of kin ties and other traditional means of social collaboration.

The process of dependence develops through disruption of the traditional systems of food production and meat consumption. Before a plantation is founded and outsiders move into the area, villagers can plant their yearly gardens close to their village. After approximately five years they move their village to a new area of primary or late successional forest where soils are richer. This system of long-fallow, shifting agriculture creates a patchwork of varying stages of successional forest where there is a greater density of mammals than in primary forest. These areas are great sources of protein in the form of wild meat for the villagers and Mbuti.

As the population around the plantation increases, land becomes a limited resource; villages can no longer move except to remote areas outside the working range of the plantation. Meat becomes scarce, available only to those able to walk long distances and willing to spend several days in the forest. Villagers now become tied to a small area where they must compete for land with immigrants from other tribes. As tribes and clans become geographically mixed, traditional patterns of reciprocity and cooperation based on kinship are eroded. While allegiances do develop between individuals, they are not as deep as traditional ties based on long term proximity and kinship.

Meanwhile the villagers abandon the practice of growing surplus cash crops for sale to external markets. Because they are working on the plantation, they have less time to devote to their gardens. Besides, there is less land available and they can acquire the goods they need on credit at the plantation store. In this way, the villager becomes dependent upon the plantation for all but the bare essentials for subsistence. Now if he becomes ill or some unforeseen crisis befalls him or a member of his family, the villager has few resources to fall back on. In fact, when a villager cannot work, plantation authorities, who may come to supersede or control the authority of the local chief, may see that the villager is fined or eventually imprisoned for his inability to pay his debts.

Once the villager becomes part of the plantation system he has few prospects for leaving since invariably he is indebted several weeks wages to the company store and has little hope of finding income from other sources. These limitations are perpetuated across generations by the lack of educational opportunity for workers' children. If a plantation is small or isolated, its school, taught by teachers sporadically and poorly paid by the government, has only two grades. If it is large or in a more highly exploited area, the plantation school has six grades. Further education requires leaving home for a strange and highly populated area several hundred kilometers away. Even if a young person has the courage to go to an area where he has no kin nor fellow tribesmen, the annual costs of tuition and expenses are equivalent to six months wages on the plantation. Such conditions insure that the child of a plantation worker will himself be a plantation worker.

Population Pressure and the Mbuti Pygmies

Although villagers and Mbuti have to a large extent an interdependent system of subsistence, external influences do not effect the two groups equally. The Mbuti are insulated somewhat from the initial stages of development by the fact that their subsistence is garnered from the forest either by direct consumption of forest products which they gather and hunt or by trading those products plus labor for cultivated foods. As long as large areas of forest remain, the Mbuti can pursue their strategy as specialists exploiting forest resources.

In fact the Mbuti gain some initial advantages from the influx of new peoples into their area because there became a greater number of potential exchange partners and a greater abundance of cultivated foods. Demand for the Mbuti meat, honey and labor rises while the items of exchange for these products - cultivated foods and goods from the plantation store - become more abundant. The Mbuti find themselves in a sellers market whereby they can demand more for their goods and services; if their traditional villager exchange partner cannot meet their price, often an outsider can. Under the traditional Mbuti-villager subsistence system villagers adopt strategies to maximize the Mbutis' dependence upon the social and economic aspects of villager life. As the number of "outsiders" and the quantities of agricultural products increase in the area, the Mbuti acquire options which undermine the villagers' strategies and facilitate Mbuti independence.

While these developments may broaden the Mbutis' economic and social options, they do not come without costs. Under the traditional system, a villager often provides services important to a Mbuti's health and security. He does this by representing the Mbuti in relations with other villagers - including the local authorities - and by extending credit - usually in the form of food - during times of crisis. For example, should a Mbuti be fined by the villager chief (usually for fighting, stealing or adultery) his villager will pay; or should he fall sick, his villager will buy medicine and often feed and care for him; or should he have a run of unsuccessful hunting, his villager will often supply him with food. Of course, none of these services is extended freely; it is made clear that the Mbuti will reciprocate later with an equivalent or greater amount of meat, honey or labor. Indeed a villager enjoys a great deal of leverage over his Mbuti by ensuring that the Mbuti is in chronic debt to him. If the Mbuti does not repay the debt, the villager may threaten to have him imprisoned or otherwise punished by the villager chief. Nevertheless, because Mbuti and villager families have reciprocal relationships which may extend back several generations, the villager is almost always willing to aid his Mbuti in a time of crisis.

When new agriculturalists move into the area, however, the Mbuti is understandably tempted to shift away from his long-term exchange partner in order to seek the highest possible price for his forest products. As the Mbuti turns to this broader market, his villager no longer views him as a reliable exchange partner worthy of credit and is consequently less likely to come to his aid in a time of crisis. While the Mbuti has gained an independence rarely attainable under the traditional system, he has lost a great measure of the security that same system provided.

Disruption of the traditional Mbuti-villager relationship is occurring in all but a few isolated areas of the Ituri resulting both from the establishment of coffee plantations and the increased demand for meat from the populated districts on the edges of the Ituri forest. A commercial meat trade has developed whereby traders from town travel to Mbuti forest camps with cultivated foods which they exchange for meat. This trade bypasses local villagers altogether and puts severe strains on relations between the Mbuti and villagers. Even more disturbing in the long term is the strain the commercial meat trade puts on the forest mammal populations and therefor the Mbuti subsistence base. Game populations cannot sustain the levels of cropping demanded by the commercial traders. Already in many areas near the edges of the Ituri the meat trade has collapsed because the forest animals have been so depleted and the Mbuti have either moved to less populated districts where sufficient areas of unexploited forest remain, or they have shifted out of their traditional subsistence culture to become agriculturalists and laborers on the plantations.

The Mbuti subsistence culture has shown great resilience at many points in the past, but it cannot withstand excessive pressure on the forest and its resources. Evidence has shown that the Mbuti fare best where populations of agriculturalists are present, but where these populations are neither too sparse for effective production of starch, nor too dense for the maintenance of sufficient forest resources.

In many areas throughout Central Africa Pygmy populations have been adversely affected by exploitation of the forest habitat. The Tsua of central Zaire, the Twa of Rwanda, and many others have intermarried with the Bantu, turned to agriculture and day labor, lost most of their cultural heritage and retained very little of their independence. This has not yet happened in most of the Ituri where Mbuti can still exercise choice in their contacts with outside populations because they still retain command over valuable meat resources. However, there are significantly large areas of the Ituri where Mbuti subsistence culture has completely disappeared - particularly in the northwest near Isiro and Wamba - and it is very unlikely that it can long withstand the growing populations pressing on all sides and already reaching into the center of the forest. As greater areas are cleared for coffee and food production and as more resources are extracted from the forest, increasing numbers of Mbuti will have no choice but to adopt a more generalized agriculturally-oriented subsistence. Unless sufficient areas of forest are set aside, a unique subsistence culture based on hunting and gathering forest resources will be lost in the Ituri and throughout central Africa forever.,/P>

(1) The climax forest vegetation can be classified under three types, each characterized by a different dominant legume in the subfamily Caesalpineaceae. In the upper streams of the Ituri River in the northeast, Cynometra alexandri predominates. In the northwest and central areas Cynometro grades into more dominant stands of Brachystegia laurentii, and in the southwest Ituri there are pure stands of Gilbertiodendron dewevrei.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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