Gabon's rapidly disappearing pygmies live on the fringes of society, often working in conditions akin to slavery and without basic health care, education or voting rights.
There are between 15,000 and 20,000 indigenous pygmies left in the jungles of the central African nation, according to rough estimates by the United Nations, and they are becoming a dying breed due to a high mortality rate.
A recent report by the U.N. children's agency criticized the conditions under which pygmies live, evoking "daily discrimination."
It said not only were they were being robbed of the resources and riches of the forest - their traditional home - but also faced unemployment, servitude, abysmal poverty and no access to either health or sanitation.
The report went so far as to speak of a "negation of human rights."
The pygmies have largely abandoned their hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle and often live in huts abutting Bantu villages, working for a pittance and often under pitiful conditions.
Helene Nze, head of the Edzengui non-governmental organization - which means the "Genie of the Forest" in the local Baka language - said she faced an arduous task in protecting the timid and peaceful little people of the jungle.
"Here the Bantus often exploit the pygmies," she said. "When they employ one of them, they call him 'my pygmy'," she said.
"They belittle us because we come from the forest, and (they) treat us like animals," she said.
Severin Cecile Abega, an anthropologist from nearby Cameroon, said government projects to improve the pygmies' lot had failed because they aimed at turning a traditionally nomadic people into farmers.
"Pygmies are neither settlers, nor farmers. To settle down implies eating animals and cutting down trees which are against what they believe in," Abega said.
Tensions between the pygmies and the local Bantu villagers had heightened because their earlier roles now overlapped.
"In the past, the pygmies furnished the produce of the forest to Bantu farmers in exchange for food and metal objects. Now they have become competitors and this is leading to increasing violence."
No birth records
The pygmies also do not have birth certificates, which deprive them of several basic rights, including that of suffrage.
Gabon, a former French colony, has inherited the legacy of copious paperwork and one's rights can be severely curtailed if one does not have identity papers.
Alain Ntsoumba Adombo is the sole pygmy in a village of 60 to have a birth certificate, essential for obtaining an identity card and voting.
"Our traditions are threatened and will soon disappear if we leave the forest," he said. "Our culture comes from the forest."
UNICEF says the mortality rate of the estimated 700,000 pygmies living in central Africa is unusually high: between 20 to 30 percent of children do not live to the age of five.
This is in part explained by the fact that they often live in remote villages far removed from hospitals and clinics.
"When they fall ill, they treat themselves with their plants. They only come to town when it gets serious and often it is too late," said Marcel Ngouambe, a doctor associated with a UNICEF-sponsored vaccination and registration campaign targeting pygmies.
Some pygmies have been harmed by their brush with the outside world: alcoholism is on the rise and is rapidly becoming a serious social problem.
But Gabonese authorities rebuff suggestions that the gentle people are being marginalized and oppressed.
"They are Gabonese citizens like the others," said Pierre Moudouma Koumba, the local head of Gabon's Minvoul district, dismissing complaints of a "cultural genocide," leveled by some pygmies.