Logging Jobs Benefit Pygmies, but Imperil Their Forest Home
OKOLA, Congo Republic (AP) — For Pygmies logging the rain forests of central Africa, the chain saw's whine signals the promise of work — and threatens a way of life.
As the Congo Republic's timber industry picks up after years of ruinous civil war, international logging companies are cutting swaths deep into the heart of the huge Congo basin.
The boom puts the Pygmies in a wrenching dilemma: tree by tree, the jobs it gives them are destroying the forest home where they have lived for millenniums.
"It's out of a need to survive that I work with the timber companies," said Bekou, a Pygmy logger. "Our life is impossible outside the forests."
Loggers say they offer jobs and schooling, and want to save Pygmy culture. But the Pygmies say each tree felled means less leafy cover for the striped antelopes they hunt and brings them closer to losing their heritage.
"Our only hope is that our forests not be totally destroyed," said Daniel Kaya, one of about 160 Pygmies working for the Swiss-German company Congolese Industrial Wood, known by its French acronym, CIB.
The Congo basin holds about one-fourth of the world's tropical forests and is the largest stretch of unbroken forest in the world aside from the Amazon. Each year, logging eats up 3,125 square miles of lush woods, an area twice the size of Rhode Island.
It is already changing the way of life for the Pygmies, believed to be the earliest inhabitants of central Africa. While many survive by hunting and gathering deep in the jungle, others have already left the forests in search of jobs.
"Today, we need to travel great distances, or simply emigrate, to find something to eat," said Florent Bekou, another Pygmy who works for CIB.
Between 5 and 10 percent of the Congo Republic's 2.9 million citizens are Pygmies, many of whom stand less than 5 feet tall. Over the centuries, the legendary hunters retreated deep into the jungle to keep away from more powerful Bantu tribes.
During the 1990's, three civil wars devastated the Congo Republic and silenced the chain saws in the jungles. An insurgency still rages in the south, but as peace spreads through the north, so do the lumber companies.
In recent years, logging companies have contributed about 7 percent of the country's foreign earnings, second only to the oil industry.
"In the long term, the situation risks becoming critical for the population, because all the forest in the northern Congo Republic has already been assigned to the logging companies," said Paul Elkan, an official for the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society based in the Congo Republic.
The logging has denuded swaths of the forest, and conservation groups say it endangers rare animals including gorillas, whose numbers have dwindled to only a few thousand in the Congo Republic and Rwanda.
But conservationists say companies are trying to help the Pygmies and reduce the environmental damage. Selective logging allows companies to fell choice trees without denuding whole tracts of woodlands.
In January, the United States announced a four-year, $53 million donation to help protect the forests in the Congo basin. France has offered a similar amount.
In July 2001, about 100 square miles of the Congo Republic's rain forest were declared protected land in an agreement reached by government officials, the Wildlife Conservation Society and CIB, the largest logging company in the country.
But that is not much compared with the size of the entire basin — 840,000 square miles. It spans parts of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Congo Republic.
Pygmies make up about 10 percent of CIB's work force of 1,600 here, said Patrick Geffroy, a top company official in Pokola, 720 miles north of the capital, Brazzaville.
The company has built housing for its employees, although many Pygmies have shunned it in favor of their own huts — squat shelters of sticks, leafs and mud. CIB has also built a school in Pokola, with about 1,100 pupils, although only two are Pygmies, Mr. Geffroy said.
The company is trying to help protect Pygmy culture, he said.
"The Pygmies have remarkable artistic talent," he said. "When they sing in the open air with their clear voices, you think that you are in front of the best cathedral chorus in Europe.
"They are human beings who have the right to live in their natural space."