• Indigenous peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    Indigenous peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    The Mbuti, the Baka, and the Batwa peoples are the indigenous peoples of The Democratic Republic of Congo. Although the concept of “indigenous peoples” is accepted and endorsed by the government, the Mbuti, Baka and Batwa peoples remain challenged in relation to their ancestral lands and natural resources, ethnic conflicts and violation of human rights.

Indigenous World 2019: Democratic Republic of Congo

The concept of “indigenous peoples” is accepted and approved by the government and civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the DRC, the term refers to the Mbuti, Baka and Batwa peoples, who consider the generic denomination of “Pygmies” to be derogatory and discriminatory.

The exact number of indigenous peoples in the DRC is unknown. The government estimates it at around 600,000 (1% of the Congolese population) but CSOs give a figure of up to 2,000,000 (3% of the population). They live in nomadic and semi-nomadic groups throughout virtually all of the country’s provinces. Indigenous peoples’ lives are closely linked to the forest and its resources: they practise hunting, gathering and fishing and treat their illnesses through the use of their own pharmacopeia and medicinal plants. The forest lies at the heart of their culture and living environment.1

 Kahuzi Biega National Park: World Heritage Committee ignores indigenous Batwa communities’ rights

In January 2018, the Forest Peoples’ Programme (FPP) and several other indigenous and CSOs in the DRC and elsewhere sent a letter2 to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre raising the situation of the Batwa and drawing attention to the violation of their human rights as exemplified by their longstanding expulsion and permanent exclusion from the Kahuzi Biega National Park. The letter particularly noted a case from 2017 when a young Batwa (17 years of age) was shot and killed by park guards for having entered the park. The young man’s father, who was with him at the time, states that they were in the park to gather forest produce.

Having received no response to this first letter, the same organisations sent a second letter3 to the World Heritage Committee prior to its 42nd session. This letter urged the Committee to bring its decisions into line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and called on the Congolese government to embark on positive dialogue with communities that have ancestral links to the park.

This second attempt to bring serious human rights concerns to the attention of the World Heritage Committee also received no response. Two statements were subsequently published in solidarity with the Batwa of KahuziBiega. The first4 was issued by World Heritage Watch (WHW), a civil society gathering that meets prior to the sessions of the World Heritage Committee. The second was officially submitted to the Committee by the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage (IIPFWH).

During its 42nd session, the Committee again decided to overlook these serious concerns and ended the discussion on the conservation status of the KahuziBiega National Park without mentioning the human rights concerns of the indigenous Batwa once.

3rd International Festival of Indigenous Peoples (FIPA)

This festival, organised by the Congolese Indigenous Peoples Network (DGPA), took place from 7-9 September with the aim not only of promoting the cultural diversity of indigenous Pygmies around the world but of offering a framework of endogenous knowledge and exchanges on environmental issues, biodiversity and climate change.

Patrick Saidi, DGPA coordinator said: “This festival should enable concrete solutions to be identified that will put indigenous issues back on the agenda. FIPA is intended as an international framework of reference for the promotion and defence of indigenous peoples’ rights and an appreciation of their traditional knowledge.”

The ministers or their representatives present at the event spoke on their ministries’ commitment to advancing the indigenous Pygmy peoples’ cause, above all with regard to the discrimination they face:

  • The Minister for Culture and Art, Astrid Madiya Ntumba, undertook to “ensure their sustained support until we can co-exist side by side without discrimination, and until indigenous peoples’ culture is integrated with those of other peoples.”
  • The Minister for Land Planning, Félix Kabange Numbi, stated: “Personally, I have always supported the indigenous peoples and will continue to do so. In terms of the forest reform, land reform and land planning reform underway, we will take local communities, and particularly indigenous peoples, into account.”
  • The Minister for Customary Affairs said: “Indigenous peoples are our fellow citizens; my Ministry undertakes to continue efforts to integrate ”
  • The representative of the Ministry for Environment and Sustainable Development said: “The forest forms the indigenous peoples’ supermarket, we want effective measures taken to protect We want to help them benefit more from this supermarket.”5

Lethal conflict between the dominant Luba community and Batwa indigenous peoples in Tanganyika Province

Over the course of the last seven years, the lethal conflict between the dominant Luba community and the indigenous Batwa peoples of Tanganyika Province has persisted. The causes include conflict over natural resources, land and customary practices, and the indigenous Batwa having suffered human rights violations for years.

In August 2017, a comprehensive report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) entitled, A silent crisis in Congo: The Bantu and the Twa in Tanganyika, described the structural and circumstantial causes of the conflict and made recommendations to the authorities on how to bring the conflict to an end. In the introduction, it notes: “This conflict illustrates how marginalization of the Twa minority group due to a combination of limited access to resources, exclusion from local decision-making and systematic discrimination, can result in large-scale violence and displacement.” The document goes on to examine the opportunities and threats and gives a list of practical recommendations, from the viewpoint of transforming and resolving the conflict.6

On 13 April 2018, a conference was held in Geneva on humanitarian assistance in the DRC at which the disastrous results of a “‘forgotten’ conflict between the Bantu (majority African population) and minority Pygmy militia” were deplored. According to figures published by Voice of America (VOA), some 500,000 to 650,000 people have been displaced by the violence caused by this conflict around the shores of Lake Tanganyika (southeast) since 2016/17.

Around the provincial capital of Kalemie, located between the lake and the fertile plans of Rugumba, 67,000 displaced Bantu are trying to survive in twelve displacement camps, having fled raids, pillaging, and other atrocities such as the burning of villages, rapes, etc. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), more than 80% of the people living in the displacement camps have no access to clean water and 75% have no access to latrines. Furthermore, most have no shelter other than a mosquito net.

Among the underlying causes of a conflict that has been ongoing since 2013, Jean Omasombo, lecturer at Kinshasa University and researcher at the Royal Central African Museum in Tervueren, notes: “The declining standard of living among Bantu, which has pushed them into the forest for their survival, forests on which the Pygmies depend.” Numerous agreements aimed at ending the conflict have failed to resolve it.7

Organic law on indigenous peoples in the DRC

During its Universal Periodic Review in 2014, the DRC accepted the following recommendations, which it aims to implement or is in the course of implementing:

  • Continue to work for the recognition of indigenous peoples nationally;
  • Guarantee indigenous communities’ – particularly Pygmies’ – land rights in the protected natural parks;
  • Harmonise projects to reduce greenhouse gases, deforestation and forest degradation, in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous

A procedure for adopting a specific law on indigenous peoples has been in place for the past few years. This initiative was launched by a consortium of non-governmental and indigenous peoples’ organisations in 2003, coordinated by the DGPA.8

Four years on, questions have been raised as to the outcome of this draft law within the Congolese parliament, despite repeated investigations into violations of indigenous peoples’ rights. In an interview dated 21 August 2018, Kone Lassana, lawyer and head of the FPP’s Legal and Human Rights Programme, believed the delay in the adoption of the law to be unjustified, particularly in a country such as the DRC, which has signed the African Human Rights Charter and many other human rights instruments: “For us, this political reticence is unjustified. During the last parliamentary session, we had hoped there would be some courageous decisions taken in terms of adopting this draft legislation. There were no such positive developments. […] They think adopting a specific law on indigenous peoples will create division, because they have a fixed vision of the nation, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”9

Review of the Land Law

With World Bank support, the DRC has been implementing a land reform process since a start-up workshop was held in Kinshasa from 19-21 July 2012. This workshop formed the starting point for a process of reflection on sustainable and appropriate responses to the different land issues noted across the country.

A National Land Reform Commission (CONAREF) was created by prime ministerial decree on 30 May 2013.10

The 4th National Steering Committee meeting for the land reform process took place from 26-27 June 2018. At the end of the meeting, the Minister of Land Affairs, Lumeya Dhu Maleghi, announced that the DRC could have a new and realistic Land Law by 2019, incorporating all the country’s specific features and replacing the law enacted on 20 July 1973 and amended in 1980. For its part, the UN Habitat delegate, one of the main technical and financial partners, repeated their organisation’s commitment to support the DRC until completion of the process.11 On 17 and 18 December 2018, several experts and Pygmy delegates met in Kinshasa to study the outlines and possibilities of including indigenous peoples’ rights within the new draft law. The representative of the Support to Forest-Dependent Communities Project (REPALEF), Joseph Itongwa, acknowledged that some progress had already made in this regard: “Indigenous peoples’ land issues are a major concern for Pygmies when advocating for defence of their rights. In addition to land issues, REPALEF is also involved in other reforms with the aim of ensuring that indigenous rights are taken into account,” he stated.12

On the occasion of the National Dialogue on including indigenous peoples’ rights in land reform, held on 17 and 18 December 2018, the Indigenous Peoples’ Ambassador to the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Kapupu Diwa Mutimanwa, spoke on behalf of indigenous people to welcome the Congolese government’s stated commitment to restore equality. He noted that 92 essential options had been validated with the aim of guiding the final drafting of the national land policy document.13

Notes and references

  1. Albert K. Barume IWGIA Indigenous World 2017
  2. See Forest Peoples, “The Letter to UNESCO re designation of PNKB as World Heritage site,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IHYl1P
  3. See Forest Peoples, “Kahuzi-Biega follow-up letter,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IRHIk2
  4. See Forest Peoples, “WHW Resolution on Kahuzi-Biega National Park,” available at http://bit.ly/2IFPoWQ
  5. See Enviro News, “FIPA 2018 : Voici les engagements ministériels en faveur des peuples autochtones pygmies,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IG7yHV
  6. See International Rescue Committee (IRC), “A silent crisis in Congo: The Bantu and the Twa in Tanganyika,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IRHVUm
  7. See Media Terre, “RDC : les affres humanitaires des conflits Pygmées et Bantou,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IEMC41
  8. IWGIA Indigenous World 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2EkcFrA
  9. See Enviro News, “Environnement: Loi sur le droit des peuples autochtones en RDC, où en sommes-nous 4 ans après?” Available at: http://bit.ly/2IQFxh0
  10. See the DRC, Decree no. 13/M on 31 May 2013. Available at http://bit.ly/2IRIduq
  11. See IMCongo, available at: http://bit.ly/2IGnOZe
  12. See Digital Congo, “Réformes foncières : les pygmées sollicitent leur prise en compte dans la loi en cours de revision,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IHN6q8
  13. See Digital Congo, “L’Ambassadeur des peuples autochtones auprès de la CEEAC salue l’engagement du Gouvernement à restaurer l’équité,” available at: http://bit.ly/2IIf84V

Patrick Kulesza is the Executive Director of GITPA, Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones www.gitpa.org, he has recently published a book with Marine Robillard: Quel avenir pour les peuples pygmées a l’orée du XXI eme siecle? [What future for the Pygmy peoples at the dawn of the 21st century?] L’Harmattan, 467p [http://www.editions-harmattan.fr/index.asp?navig=catalogue&ob- j=livre&no=61891]



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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