THE FIRST scientific estimate of the pygmy population in central Africa will help to provide support for the hunter-gatherer communities to overcome the varied threats they face according to a Manchester study
Around 920,000 pygmies are still living in forests in central Africa, according to what is the first measured estimate of the population and distribution of these indigenous groups who are often faced with disease, displacement, marginalisation, discrimination and deforestation.
However, there are considerable challenges to determining the numbers and actual geographic ranges of pygmy communities, because of their mobility, lack of clear census data, and imprecise sources of information.
Pygmy communities live in rainforests across nine countries in central Africa — an area of some 178 million hectares — where they make up a very small minority of the total population. They identify closely with the forest and depend largely on wild forest products. Most pygmy groups move around, for social and nutritional reasons, within a specific territory or group of territories to which they have affiliations through clan or marriage relations.
Despite the pygmies’ significance to humanity’s cultural diversity as the largest group of active hunter-gatherers in the world, the new study, published in PLOS ONE, is the first to determine how many pygmies are likely to be found in the vast expanse of tropical forests in central Africa. The study also maps their distribution, as well as identifies which areas are of ecological importance for them.
The study, a first, was led by Prof John E. Fa from Manchester Metropolitan University, and senior research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Dr Jesus Olivero, an expert biogeographer at the Biogeography, Diversity and Conservation research group of the University of Malaga in Spain, and Dr Jerome Lewis, a prominent anthropologist at University College London, who has worked extensively with pygmies and defended their rights.
Prof Fa said: “The pygmy population faces a considerable range of challenges but our previous understanding of the populations was limited and this affected our ability to provide the necessary support.
“Understanding where and how pygmy communities live is an important first step in protecting them and safeguarding their rights. It’s important for all of the countries involved to come together to help support pygmies’ rights and make sure they are respected and understood. At the end of the day, 900,000 people in such a vast area can very easily be pushed towards extinction and we don’t want that.”
The greatest novelty of the study is the compilation of evidence collected by an unprecedented number of researchers, co-authors in the paper. The information generated by these co-authors allowed the researchers to generate the largest database of the locations of pygmy camps throughout their known range. Given that there are no known accurate censuses of pygmies in the countries where they are found, the researchers used statistical methods, developed by Dr Olivero and his team in Malaga, based on species distribution modelling (SDM) methods that investigate the relationships between environmental conditions and the distribution of organisms, in order to predict their geographic distributions.
The PLOS ONE study is the first to apply this method to human societies and their cultural diversity. As Dr Olivero reiterates that “just because we are using tried and tested animal and plant distribution models it does not mean that we are treating pygmies as mere animals included in impersonal equations”. Dr Olivero reaffirms that all the study’s participants, a total of 26, (including anthropologists, conservation biologists and biogeographers, from the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan and Cameroon, active human rights groups, and bilateral and livelihood organisations), have undertaken this study to help create greater visibility and understanding of an increasingly marginalised, discriminated indigenous people, threatened by disease, displacement, forced sedentarisation and deforestation.
Dr Jerome Lewis adds: “This is a very underprivileged group of people who are at risk of losing their livelihoods and lifestyles and information on their locations and population numbers are crucial for developing appropriate human rights and land security safeguards for them, as for other indigenous peoples.”