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Searching for Life on Zaire's Ituri Forest Frontier

Numerous scenes and images depict the various pressures being placed on Zaire's northeastern forests: a local Kumu woodcutter wielding a whining chainsaw atop a recently felled Afromosia, the open blade four inches away from his bare foot; Mbuti hunter-gatherers turned porters, carrying 50-pound packs of bottled beer over muddied and gorged trails, three days' walk into a Wild West-style gold camp of 3,000 people; the discovery of yet another elephant skeleton, bones strewn here and there, machete marks on the skull revealing the work of poachers; seven-ton trucks bearing bulging loads of charcoal to feed the growing cooking-fuel markets in the cities on the forest's edge; a wild-meat trader pushing a bicycle 120km to Kisangani, his seat taken by the 10 to 15 dead monkeys strapped ingeniously to the bicycle frame; row upon row of coffee trees sprawling across the region's undulating hills to end at the forest's line of retreat, a kilometer away. Commercial logging, gold panning, ivory poaching, commercial charcoal production, wild-meat trading, and the spread of plantation agriculture - all contribute to the rapid social and ecological changes taking place in this forest zone.

In the heart of this region lies the Ituri Forest, an area of approximately 70,000 km covering the upper watershed of the Ituri River. As the largest of the forest refugia left by the last glacial epoch, it contains the most diversity and greatest number of endemic flora and fauna of all Zairian forests (Wilkie and Finn 1988:308). Though still relatively intact and free from the large-scale commercial exploitation ventures that characterize other areas of Zaire's forests, the Ituri is experiencing a more subtle yet widespread pressure. Increasingly, the issue having the most critical impact on the Ituri's flora, fauna, and indigenous population is the spontaneous immigration and settlement of savanna-based cultivators onto the forest frontier.

Immigration in Historical Perspective

Immigration into the Ituri is nothing new. The groups of indigenous shifting cultivators inhabiting the Ituri today (the Bira, Ndaka, Mbo, Lese, Mbuba, and Budu) were themselves at one time immigrants from areas adjacent to the forest. Aided by the use of iron tools and the forest-compatible banana, or plantain, these groups began to penetrate the lowland forest as early as 2,000 years ago (Vansina 1984:141, 1986:432; Wilkie 1988:114). Here they began low-intensity shifting cultivation, adopting plantains as a staple. Farming was interspersed with hunting, trapping, some fishing, and gathering of various forest fruits and nuts as the farmers adapted to and became adept within their forest environment. Though these early movements and practices brought changes to the forest, the fact that settlements were small and dispersed limited the extent of environmental damage. Population densities were low enough to allow for a long fallow system of farming so that today throughout the Ituri one finds a mosaic of primary forest mixed with patches of various stages of secondary regrowth. Such a mosaic can in fact produce more fauna and flora than original rain forest (Bailey and Peacock 1988:92, 113).

In the forest, these Bantu and Sudanic cultivators encountered various groups of hunter-gatherers collectively known in the Ituri as Mbuti. Though it is thought that the Mbuti are descended form the earliest autochthonous inhabitants of the forest, no one yet knows for sure when humans first began living in the Ituri. However, Mbuti have been hunting and foraging in the Ituri for many thousands of years. Less clear is whether Mbuti have ever been able to live completely independent of cultivated foods obtained through exchange with forest cultivators. While this question is still being debated (Bailey and Peacock 1988; Hart and Hart 1986), sufficient evidence shows that hunter-gatherers and farmers have been interacting in the forest since at least 500 A.D. (Vansina 1986:432).

In the Ituri this interaction between farmers and hunter-gatherers has been characterized by a certain degree of symbiosis. At first, however, some tensions arose between the two groups, mostly over the raiding of gardens. There are some accounts of Mbuti-Bantu "wars" that in the end left both groups suffering from starvation (Hart 1979:34). Over time, the groups developed a more or less symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for materials they needed.

Although this relationship, known as kpara (Hart 1979:30), has changed under the influences of a Belgian colonial economy, civil war, and a modernizing state, it still persists today. Maintenance of the kpara relationship has become hereditary and Mbuti and Bantu extended families remain linked over time. Exchanges are not limited to material goods alone, but also hold religious and ritual significance. As the first inhabitants of the forest, Mbuti are considered to play important and necessary roles in various Bantu ceremonies. Similarly, various Mbuti ceremonies do not deny villagers a role, even if it be only to provide the necessary starch for the feast (Hart 1979:34, 35; Turnbull 1965).

Current Immigration: Nature and Causes

Today, a strikingly different type of immigration is taking place. Rather than a gradual movement of scattered groups of people, which allowed time to adapt to a forest environment, current immigration involves greater numbers of people and is taking place much more rapidly. Though routes and origins of immigration are widespread and ethnically diverse, a majority of immigrants come from the densely populated areas bordering the forest to the north and east. Furthermore, unlike immigrations into the Ituri during the Belgian colonial era, which were a government-sponsored means of supplying labor for mines and plantations, current immigration is spontaneous and leads to permanent settlement.

The forces driving immigration are diverse. Rich volcanic soils in the highlands east of the forest have pushed population densities there to above 100 people per square kilometer. These conditions have contributed to soil exhaustion, severe erosion, a dearth of arable land, and high urban unemployment, all of which impel people to seek new areas such as the Ituri where resources are more abundant.

The primary resource the Ituri has to offer is agricultural land, and in the minds of many immigrants it is land that is both abundant and fertile. Furthermore, the Ituri's low population density makes land in many areas very easy to acquire. Many immigrants are getting primary forest land for free, establishing claim to the land simply by clearing it. As they continue to settle on the frontier, immigrants contribute to rising population densities and bring with them both more extensive and intensive land use patterns, which increase the rate of primary forest conversion and contribute significantly to environmental degradation.

However, rather than culprits, immigrants are themselves victims of deeper structural factors back home. Another important cause of immigration is the growing unequal distribution of land in immigrants' areas of origin. In the highlands of Kivu, home of a principal immigrant group, the Nande, and expanding entrepreneurial class is buying up land from village chiefs to convert it into cattle ranches and plantations. A study by a Nande anthropologist found that as early as 1980 25 percent of Nande farmland in the zones of Beni and Lubero was owned by wealthy businesspeople and private cash croppers (Vwakyanakazi 1982:329). Land put into cattle ranches is often very inefficiently used or left unexploited, thus locking up land that could be used more efficiently and sustainably for food production. The resulting land scarcity leaves few choices for Nande rural producers; increasingly, it is leading to their dispossession and immigration onto the lowland forest frontier.

Social and Environmental Impacts

Comparisons among the village study sites of Badengaido, Tobola, and Eringeti - representing early, intermediate, and advanced stages of immigration, respectively - reveal social and environmental impacts in four areas: impacts on land and forest use paterns, land tenure systems, labor supply and organization, and the farmer/hunter-gatherer exchange relationship.

Land and Forest Use Patterns

In general, immigrants practice both more extensive and intensive agriculture than the Ituri's indigenous farmers, for whom agriculture is just one among several forest-based means of subsistence, along with trapping, fishing, and gathering. These activities, coupled with exchanges with Mbuti, allow the indigenous farmers to survive on relatively small fields. In contrast, for many immigrants coming to the Ituri, agriculture is their primary economic activity. Immigrant farmers are also more inclined to engage in commercial agriculture. Although Nande immigrants have adopted varieties of the forest banana, they grow them primarily for resale. Nande also grow more manioc than indigenous farmers - a food crop that is developing a lucrative market.

The fields that immigrant farmers cleared for the 1989 growing season are an average of 10 to 25 percent larger than those of local farmers; this is especially significant when the areas cleared are virgin forest. Larger garden plots, coupled with rising populations in villages experiencing immigration, increase the extent of primary forest clearing dramatically. In Eringeti, the study site experiencing the most advanced immigration, garden clearing has been extended from 5 to 15 km on each side of the road in less than two years.

In addition, immigrants such as the Nande are accustomed to rich volcanic soils that generally allow for more intensive farming. The same field in Nandeland can be farmed for five to ten years and still produce adequate yields. When such practices are applied to the less fertile, lateritic soils of the Ituri, however, soil exhaustion ensues, inhibiting the soil-replenishing secondary regrowth taking hold once the field is finally left to fallow. Even immigrants from northern areas without rich volcanic soils are accustomed to more intensively using the same field due to the scarcity of land in their home villages. The use of longer farming periods per field, with shorter or no use of fallow, may reduce the extent of mature forest clearing (Wilkie and Finn 1988:319) but can also cause the soil to deteriorate to the point of permanently preventing the forest from regenerating naturally.

Irrespective of ethnic differences in farming practices, reduction of the fallow period is also driven by the population growth generated by immigration (Boserup 1965). In Eringeti, the village with the highest population density, both indigenous and immigrant farmers are using the same field for up to 10 successive years, since new agricultural lands are located three to four hours' walk from the road.

Immigrants also bring with them the cultivation of cash crops, most notably coffee and, to a lesser extent, oil palm and beer bananas. In the central Ituri, coffee fields are still relatively small, but in areas experiencing more immigration (the southern Ituri) coffee plantations of several square kilometers have deforested the area extensively. In both situations, cash-crop agriculture means that the forest is permanently converted to agricultural fields.

Earnings from coffee, even under a currently depressed market, also increase the disparity in socioeconomic status between immigrants and indigenous farmers, since few indigenous farmers are as yet cultivating coffee actively. All tin-roofed houses in Badengaido and Tobola are owned by immigrants. IN general, immigrants are also able to afford a greater number and variety of garden tools, small livestock, and manufactured goods than indigenous farmers. Such disparity in wealth eventually may lead to further disparity in political power. Towns in the southern Ituri such as Oicha, once a Bira village, have now become politically and economically controlled by a Nande majority.

The use and knowledge of forest products among immigrant farmers is far less extensive than among indigenous cultivators. Immigrant farmers would often respond to interview questions on their use of forest products with statements such as: * The only benefit of the forest is land to farm and food that is grown to sell and eat. * We do not go to the forest. I do not get one thing from the forest. The profit of the forest is farming. * There is nothing in the forest that one can live on. * The only food of the forest is that which I put into it. * I don't know about the things of the forest. Things like forest fruits, we are not accustomed to.

Members of one indigenous household, on the other hand, listed 41 different items obtained from the forest.

Such statements are understandable for savanna-based immigrants unfamiliar with a forest environment. Yet they indicate how little value the immigrants give to the forest's natural resources compared to the value of cleared agricultural land. Thus there is little incentive or tendency to want to conserve areas of intact forest since there is little demand for forest products.

Land Tenure

As would be expected, systems of land tenure in the Ituri become more formal and institutionalized as immigration and population density increase (Boserup 1965). In villages with low population density and an abundance of uncultivated land, indigenous people are receiving very little compensation for their land. Customary land tenure based on members of a patriclan having rights to certain corridors of forest does not prevent immigrants of different ethnic groups from getting land for free.

In Badengaido and Tobola a majority of immigrants are acquiring virgin forest garden plots through other members of their ethnic group who have settled before them; rarely do they consult indigenous village authorities. They establish claims by clearing, with no payment necessary other than the back-breaking work of felling the towering primary forest trees. Only secondary forest plots are bought an sold. However, at times these lands are also obtained by immigrants without payment through pledging: indigenous farmers will lend fallow land to an immigrant with the guarantee that it will be returned to them once it stops producing. In most cases, indigenous leaders have little involvement in and control over the means by which land transactions take place.

As immigrants continue to comprise a greater percentage of the population in villages still having land available, indigenous farmers' claims to the land are increasingly weakened. In Tobola, 65 percent of the households are headed by immigrant Nande. Nande have become the dominant ethnic group to the point where they have successively filled local level political positions. This has also made it easier for immigrants to obtain primary forest, and at times even followed land, for free.

However, moving closer to the source area of immigration, where population density is higher and land is growing scarce, land tenure systems become more formal, the state becomes more involved, and indigenous people tend to receive greater compensation for their land. In Eringeti, immigrants must pay for both primary forest and fallowed land. In June 1989, the going price was between US $6.25 and $9.40 per hectare, paid to the head of the lineage having customary rights to the land. On top of the original purchase price, immigrants are required to pay a yearly tax, or ngemo, which is set by the state but again paid initially to the local lineage head. In 1989 the ngemo in Eringeti was around US $7.50, a third of which would be kept by the local lineage head, a third sent to the village head, and the final third to the chef de groupement (the next highest political administrative division above the village).

Though the indigenous Mbuba of Eringeti receive greater compensation for their land than the Bira or Mbo of the central Ituri, the system is also creating a land market offering greater incentives for indigenous people to sell off their land rights for quick earnings. Although some Mbuba speak of keeping enough of their forest for their children, others are losing their land base by selling most of their land to immigrants, leaving little for their children to inherit and leaving only old, worn-out land for themselves.

The informal "real estate management" systems used by Mbuba are also revealing. Mbuba will speak of selling land to immigrants, using such phrases as "putting our men on the land" or having their Nande immigrant "representative." This person lives out in the new forest fields, parcels out garden plots to other incoming immigrants, collects the payment for the plots as well as the yearly tax, and turns it in to his Mbuba "patron," often getting a cut for his services.

The case of one Mbuba farmer is particularly interesting. A Nande immigrant had come to him looking for land. He agreed to sell the immigrant five forest plots on credit, each 200 meters square (20 hectares total), and take him on as his "representative." In this case the "representative," after a period of time, still owed the Mbuba farmer some money for the fields. To pay off his debt, he sold half of the original 20 hectares back to the Mbuba after having planted a third of it with coffee and plantains. The sale price was approximately the same as that of the original 20 hectares, which he had never finished paying for.

Labor Supply and Organization

Immigrants' more intensive agricultural practices require greater inputs of labor. Maintaining a coffee field, for instance, requires careful pruning and regular weeding around the trees, far more labor intensive than the area's traditional low-intensity shifting cultivation. Immigrants fulfill their increased labor needs in three basic ways. One option which increases the efficiency and extent of forest clearing is creating formally organized cooperative labor groups. Membership is open to everyone, but the majority - if not all - of the members in the groups are immigrants. Indigenous households, on the other hand, rely primarily on household members or on their informal relationship with Mbuti to fulfill labor needs. These arrangements can be less dependable, involve fewer people, and thus limit the size of fields cleared.

Immigrants also encourage other family members to settle on the frontier and help supply labor for their gardens. One immigrant farmer who left the densely populated Wamba area in the north writes, "I moved my family here once I saw that the work was becoming too difficult, and I was here alone." Now six brothers, four sisters, and their families have settled with him in Badengaido. All work cooperatively on a four-hectare family-owned coffee garden. Each family member has individual food gardens as well. Such means of meeting labor needs is another impetus for immigration and contributes to more forest clearing.

Hiring indigenous people to work on their farms is a third way in which immigrants satisfy their labor requirements, and it is primarily the Mbuti who are providing a cheap labor pool for immigrants' needs. Mbuti do garden labor and menial tasks such as hauling water and gathering firewood, as well as portering food and liquor into gold camps. This is creating significant changes in the Mbuti/villager exchange system, changes which are often detrimental to Mbuti culture and subsistence economy.

Mbuti/Villager Exchange System

The symbiotic character of the traditional Mbuti/villager exchange relationship stems in part from a mutual need and demand for the exchange products each partner has to offer. Such exchanges are also couched within a cultural context that includes ritual and spiritual exchanges which lend greater respect and permanence to the relationship. Furthermore, Mbuti supply villagers with garden labor within a shifting cultivation long fallow system characterized by higher output per person-hour and low labor demands (Boserup 1965). This leaves Mbuti more freedom to pursue their forest-based subsistence.

Most immigrants, on the other hand, have no experience or tradition of such interactions with hunter-gatherers. Their more intensive agricultural practices generate a greater demand for labor, the primary commodity they seek from the Mbuti. Although immigrants offer better compensation to Mbuti for tasks such as tree felling, which require their attuned forest skills, most garden labor is contracted on a short-term, day-to-day wage basis and includes menial tasks such as weeding. For this, Mbuti are often very poorly paid, receiving as little as half the daily wage Bantu laborers receive.

Furthermore, the rigidity and heavy labor demands of the wage-for-labor system do not allow Mbuti the freedom to "borrow" food from the villagers' gardens nor the flexibility to follow their own agenda of hunting and gathering. Neither can they count on the immigrants' support in the way of food and money in cases of emergencies, festivals, or religious rituals. In short, it is a more narrowly defined and rigid system that leaves the Mbuti alienated and less independent.

Part of the reason Mbuti become engaged in wage labor is that immigrants have less need for the various forest products they have to offer. In other areas of the Ituri, immigration has increased the market for Mbuti-procured wild meat (Hart 1978). Along the main Ituri road, however, immigrant cultivators and small-scale merchants are more inclined to fill their protein needs from other sources. The wealthier immigrants can afford the meat brought in via the road - dried salt fish and beef from the east or even canned meat sold in roadside shops. Others are more accustomed to beans or rely on the greater number of chickens or goats they can afford to keep. Less demand for wild meat and other forest products puts Mbuti in a position of having less bargaining power.

The Mbuti trading position is further weakened by the deteriorating forest resource base, a product of the more extensive and permanent conversion of forest to field that accompanies immigration. When the forest's faunal resources are depleted Mbuti are left with few alternatives other than selling their labor. One other option is to turn to more intensive harvesting of forest flora such as rattan, used for house building, which Mbuti sell in the village marketplace. With the money received they then buy their food in the same market, further entrenching them within a cash rather than exchange-based economy. Harvesting for market can also quickly deplete the supply of forest flora and compel Mbuti to shift, as in Eringeti, to an agriculturally based subsistence. Here, however, Mbuti are trying to play a game not their own in a village increasingly populated by people who do not respect their forest skills. The result is that they often cannot compete for good agricultural land and end up having only their labor to sell (Peacock 1984:17).

Conservation - For Whom?

To maintain the subsistence and cultural base of the Ituri's indigenous people, it is crucial that some intact primary forest continue to exist. Beyond the biological reasons for conserving the Ituri's diverse flora and fauna lie social and cultural reasons; the complex interdependencies by which its indigenous human inhabitants survive. Thus there is an urgent need for legal protection for a part of the Ituri Forest. Conservation efforts are currently taking place under the direction of the Zairian Institute for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund, with support from a private Zairian company, Taba-Zaire. It is important that such efforts go beyond simply preserving a biological laboratory, instead making sure to include support for Mbuti and indigenous forest cultivators' rights to the subsistence use of the forest.

Equally important, conservation efforts must avoid immigration policies that "blame the victim." Though immigrants do generate certain social and ecological changes that can significantly disrupt indigenous forest societies, most immigrants are themselves facing severe crises. Analysis of the changes wrought by immigration must be placed within the broader context of the economic, social, and political structures fueling immigration in its areas of origin. Unless efforts to create areas of strict protection are coupled with initiatives directed at the root causes of forest destruction, the long-term success of conservation efforts will be jeopardized.

Thus the key to eliminating the adverse impacts of immigration lies in efforts undertaken in the source area of immigration. In addition, efforts to improve the lives of people remaining on already deforested land, outside of protected areas and in immigrants' native regions, are also crucial to slowing the rate of immigration into areas of intact forest. There is a growing body of knowledge gleaned from experiences with agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, diversification of the household economy, extractive reserves, and other types of ecodevelopment in the humid tropics. Such conservation/development initiatives merit further study to devise implementation methods for the peculiar cultural and environmental contexts of the areas bordering the Ituri.

Many pressures confront the Ituri and its indigenous populations. However the immigration of shifting cultivators and the deeper forces driving it are the most immediate and critical issues at hand. Immigration involves the greatest number of people and is spontaneous and therefore difficult to regulate and control. Yet it is also the pressure with the most human face. Unlike the number and gold concessionaires, most immigrants' stories are those of people simply struggling for a means to survive under a political and economic system that benefits only a minority. The deforestation which they engender needs to be seen as a desperate, last-choice response to the deeper causal factors of environmental degradation.


1. The impact of the colonial era and post-independence civil war on the Ituri environment and its indigenous societies is of great significance, though not the focus of this article. For information and treatment of such impacts and colonial agricultural policy, see Wilkie (1988) and Hart and Hart(1984).

2. This is true especially for the central Ituri and may be less characteristic of the Efe in the eastern Ituri, where most cultivated foods are obtained in exchange for labor on Lese gardens (Bailey and Peacock 1987:109).


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The Lure of Gold

One of the resources the Ituri offers is gold. In the early 1970s, the government liberalized mineral extraction, making it legal for individuals to prospect for the country's abundant minerals. The lure of liberalized gold prospecting in the Ituri draws people from as far away as Kinshasa, the country's capital 1,600 km to the southwest. For many immigrants, gold offers the means to gain a foothold on the frontier. Many begin their frontier venture as itinerant gold differs, living in boom-and-bust gold camps or renting temporary housing in the village. Most extraction is alluvial, using extremely labor-intensive, back-breaking techniques. Although intermediaries, who have license to the small-scale concessions, earn the greatest profit form gold extraction, private prospectors can still earn in a single day what constitutes a month's wages in the cities of Kisangani or Butembo.

However, the life of a gold digger is harsh and precarious, and immigrants are anxious to use their gold earning to move into a more permanent stage of settlement - that to buying a village house plot, building a house, acquiring land, and beginning to farm. Here is one immigrant's account of his immigration experience, typical of many:

My reason for leaving my home in Butembo was to come to look for gold. No one forced me, I myself came here on a truck. I came first without my family; now my family is beginning to follow me here. Here I live by cultivating my garden. My first work here was to prospect for gold but I saw that gold wasted my time for nothing. I began to farm. I got a field from the local elders which I bought with money... I cut the forest with a machete; then I burn it and plant crops. The field's harvest helps me in various ways - some I eat, some I sell to get money to buy clothes, etcetera. I chose to settle in Badengaido because it is a good place to farm. There are no animals to ruin the crops and the soil here is good for gathering in a harvest. I will not return again to our homeland. I will remain here. Here I am not experiencing many difficulties because my garden supports me well.

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