In the current civil unrest, which has been blamed on an “institutional white racism” that led to a slavery which somehow persists nearly two centuries after its abolition, a number of people from Thomas Sowell to Baroness Caroline Cox have drawn attention both to a more complete history of slavery, and to the widespread existence of black slavery in Africa today.
Since in my book The Generations of Heaven and Earth I wrote a few pages on the Bantu expansion and the historic ill-treatment of the pygmy tribes, especially the Batwa, I was interested to hear someone claim that there are 3/4 of a million enslaved pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A brief search was unable to confirm that number. But it did show that various pygmy tribes, the aboriginal inhabitants, comprise between three and ten percent of the population, and that they are a despised caste, often regarded as subhuman by the Bantu majority, and that many are indeed enslaved. This is despite recent efforts by the government there to ameliorate their condition. The Global Slavery Index affirms a total of 873,100 slaves in the present-day republic. The enslavement of the Batwa is only one part of this.
This slavery predates the colonial enslavement of millions by the Belgians under King Leopold, who is said to have treated the Congo as his private fiefdom and cash-cow. That is a history fictionalised in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But the enslavement of the pygmies in Central Africa is an ancient tradition, probably dating back to the original cultural colonisation by the Bantu millennia ago. The pygmy slaves are treated as property, or even as “pets” (though of the treadmill-dog, not the lapdog, variety) and they remain enslaved to the same families for generations. That doesn’t sound much different from the slave states in 1830, except that in that case over 3,000 blacks were also slave-owners, whereas the Batwa are universally deprived of their natural rights.
It would be nice to see more concern about such present day slavery from the churches, in particular (expecting Black Lives Matter to be interested is futile, for ideological reasons), rather than increasing their current obsession about equating Christian justice with accepting critical race theory and baptizing the victim mentality. But my main point today is an incidental finding in my reading on the Congo Batwa.
One of the largest and most shameful incidents of injustice they have suffered in recent decades was that 6,000 of them were evicted from their ancestral home in what is now the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the east of the country, in the 1970s. They have spent forty years struggling for recognition of their rights, but to no avail.
Right up to the present day “eco-guards” in the park treat them with violence. In August 2017 a Batwa father took his son Christian Mbone Nakulire into the park to find herbs to treat his diarrhoea. They encountered four eco-guards, who shot the father in the arm, and killed the boy as he tried to hide. There was no gold casket, nor were there worldwide demonstrations or handwringing bishhops for him, even though he was neither high on drugs nor resisting arrest.
The organisation negotiating for the Batwa has withdrawn from discussions with park authorities, saying:
Our observation of the process is that the park authorities have shown no willingness to meet any of the commitments they have made to communities in previous discussions and instead have taken the route of violence and intimidation in order to keep Batwa people out of the Park by force.
Kahuzi-Biéga National Park was not a local initiative. It was founded and, during the 1970s, run by Belgian “photographer and conservationist” Adrien Deschryver, who “acted as a one-man force for law and order within the park during a civil war around Bukavu.” It is clearly his dominating influence that led to the eviction of the Batwa, in favour of creating an undisturbed habitat (except for tourists, wildlife cameramen and western environmentalists) for a subspecies of gorilla, whose endangerment was, it seems, more important than the possible extinction of the Batwa people from the Congo.
Wikipedia explains that if you have watched the 1974 documentary Gorilla, you will have seen Deschryver boldly facing down a large silverback gorilla. You won’t, I suppose, have seen him engineering the eviction of small people, who were not threatening him, from their ancestral land.
Conservationism is, like science, one of those “What’s not to like” activities that gets a free pass from being judged by universal moral standards. But when “save the planet” means “damn the people” it’s as ambiguous a message as “Black lives matter.”
As I described in God’s Good Earth, Yellowstone National Park began by kicking out the native Americans to make a playground for white hunters. As environmentalism matured, a more nature-orientated approach developed, culminating in the reintroduction of the wolf, an ecological success story. But (and I stand to be corrected by American readers) I’m not sure that anyone has yet invited the human inhabitants back.
Then, of course, there is the case of the arch-environmentalist of the UN (and moving force behind the IPCC) Maurice Strong, who as I describe in Seeing Through Smoke, used his wealth and power to build a large hotel within the Gandoca-Manzillo Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rico, without consulting the Kekoldi Indians who live there and are the responsible authority.
Even in Britain, there is a history of tension in the management of National Parks, where often the livelihoods of the people who dwell there seem to be subordinated to the concerns of the naturalists who don’t.
So, in our modern self-righteousness, we decry the mediaeval aristocrats who owed their standard of living to serfs and who evicted them from their homes so they could enjoy hunting uninterrupted. But we are quite happy, whilst virtue signalling about the past, to spend our time on i-Pads manufactured from cobalt mined by forced labour, and to evict the same impoverished people from their homes in order create reserves for rich people to hunt with video cameras.
Now, best conservation practice is beginning to realise not only that one ought to consult the locals about conservation, but that if you do you’re far less likely to get your elephants or tigers poached. But when you know best because you are of the True Green Religion, that’s a bit of an effort when they might be too ignorant to comply. I suppose it’s a bit like consulting people about what they want before imposing facemasks or quarantine on them by law.
Maybe this environmental fascism is down to white privilege, again – but then again, considering the longstanding abuse of the Batwa by the Bantu, maybe it’s down to what happened in that first special reserve in Eden.