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How an Illegal Caterpillar Tax Left Twenty People Dead in Congo

Clashes broke out after an illegal caterpillar tax was imposed on the marginalized Pygmy population.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MARTHE BOSUANDOLE
This photo taken on July 9, 2014 shows caterpillars on sale in a street of the Ngaba district of Kinshasa. At Gambela market in Kinshasa, people can find insects for all tastes : big weevil larvae leaving a smoothness feeling in the mouth, slightly crunchy caterpillars or termites cracking between your teeth. These affordable pleasures are a source of protein at a lower cost, but the real fans defend their gastronomic qualities. AFP PHOTO / JUNIOR D. KANNA        (Photo credit should read Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MARTHE BOSUANDOLE This photo taken on July 9, 2014 shows caterpillars on sale in a street of the Ngaba district of Kinshasa. At Gambela market in Kinshasa, people can find insects for all tastes : big weevil larvae leaving a smoothness feeling in the mouth, slightly crunchy caterpillars or termites cracking between your teeth. These affordable pleasures are a source of protein at a lower cost, but the real fans defend their gastronomic qualities. AFP PHOTO / JUNIOR D. KANNA (Photo credit should read Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

For the marginalized Pygmy population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, collecting and eating caterpillars isn’t a boutique crop or delicacy — it’s a source of life. Harvested in the forest, Pygmies will often cook and eat caterpillars there, or bring them to market towns to sell for a reasonably high price.

But this weekend, the same caterpillars that help Pygmies survive in isolated forests proved themselves deadly: At least 20 people were killed in fighting after members of the larger Bantu population tried to impose an illegal tax on the insects. By the time all was said and done, four Bantu and 16 Pygmies were dead.

Pygmies from across the country, who are often easily identifiable by their smaller stature, have complained that both the Congolese government and neighbors who do not belong to the ethnic group have marginalized, embezzled, and targeted them in attempts to steal their natural resources. Deforestation has displaced many Pygmies, some of whom have been forced to relocate to makeshift camps outside of official camps for those displaced by violence in Congo’s volatile eastern region.

In the Tanganyika region where this weekend’s violence took place, a priest anonymously told Agence France-Presse that “the Pygmies believe they now have the same rights as citizens as the others.”

“They refused to pay this illegal tax and shot two Luba people dead with arrows when they demanded payment,” he said.

This is the second time in recent years that violence between the two communities has escalated into significant killing sprees. In 2013, after a Bantu man took a Pygmy woman as his mistress, the opposing ethnic groups attacked each other in a series of revenge killings. And over the next two years, some 200 people were killed and thousands displaced as the two communities continued to clash — in part over demands from Pygmies that they be treated more fairly after reports the Bantu were exploiting them for cheap labor.

Photo credit: Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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