The Indigenous World 2021: Democratic Republic of Congo
The concept of “Indigenous Pygmy People” 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.
The exact number of Indigenous Pygmy People in the DRC is unknown. The government estimates it at around 700,000 (1% of the Congolese population)  but CSOs give a figure of up to 2,000,000 (3% of the population). They are widely acknowledged as the first inhabitants of the national rainforests. 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.
However, it is little recognised that their traditional knowledge and practices have significantly contributed to preserving the Congolese forests. Worse, Indigenous Pygmy People’s customary rights are blatantly ignored, and Indigenous groups are often evicted from their traditional territories with neither consent nor compensation. This tenure insecurity has dramatic socioeconomic consequences – from ethnic identity loss to lethal conflicts, as recently occurred in Tanganyika and around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Nevertheless, there is hope. In 2020, the DRC showed the world its commitment to protecting and promoting the rights of Indigenous people through several breakthroughs, including some major progress on the proposed Law on the promotion and protection of Indigenous Pygmy People’s rights.
The impact of COVID-19
While Central Africa has been relatively less affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than other regions of the world, its effects have been significant on local communities, especially the Indigenous Pygmy People. Restrictions on international and national travel have resulted in a scarcity of - and inflated prices for - essential goods, aggravating poverty in rural areas in particular. Due to the pandemic, there was limited local authority control of the commercial drivers of deforestation such as artisanal and industrial loggers, increasing the pressures on Indigenous Peoples’ home forests. Living in remote and sometimes barely accessible forest areas, Indigenous Peoples have remained poorly – if at all – informed about the pandemic and basic prevention, thus increasing their vulnerability.
Law on the promotion and protection of Indigenous Pygmy People’s rights
Since 2008, through their representative organisations at national and provincial level, Indigenous Pygmy People have been working with a group of members from the House of Representatives to propose an “Organic law on the fundamental principles of protection and promotion of Indigenous Pygmy People’s rights”. This was first tabled in the National Assembly in 2014 but had not been debated at a full session since. 2020 was a pivotal year for Indigenous Pygmy People: on 5 June, the proposal was deemed eligible by the honourable members of the 3rd Parliament of the 3rd Republic.
In November 2020, the proposal was sent for examination by the Sociocultural Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Political, Administrative and Legal Affairs of the National Assembly. It was then renamed the “Law on the promotion and protection of Indigenous Pygmy People’s rights”. It provides hope for the rehabilitation of Indigenous Pygmy People from the injustice and prejudice they have been enduring for many decades.
Based on the Constitution of the DRC established on 18 February 2006, this law highlights the protection and promotion of land rights, environmental rights and cultural rights. These are the guarantors of Indigenous Pygmy People’s well-being and development and will secure their effective participation in the DRC’s sustainable development.
The law was to be discussed – and hopefully finally adopted – at a plenary session of the National Assembly in December 2020 but political turmoil unfortunately meant that it was postponed to the ordinary sessions of 2021.
Strong message from the President of the DRC on guaranteeing the enjoyment of Indigenous Pygmy People’s fundamental rights and promoting their traditional culture and knowledge
In his speech for International Day of the World’s Indigenous People in 2020, His Excellency Sir Felix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, concurred with the legislative assembly in reinforcing the DRC’s commitment to recognising Indigenous Pygmy People. Important directions were given by the Chief of State for the coming years to “legally protect Indigenous Pygmies’ traditional lands and territories as large natural, ecological and collective reserves, according to these people’s will and under their control.”
Establishment of the National Indigenous People’s Development Support Fund (FONADEP) is a sign of the effective progress being made in the Chief of State’s commitment.
Support from faith groups to Indigenous Pygmy People to protect DRC’s rainforests
Gathered together in the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative of the Democratic Republic of Congo (IRI-RDC), religious communities, faith-based organisations, traditional leaders, local communities, Indigenous people and their institutions have all undertaken to protect the rainforests and the life these shelter and nurture. This initiative thus highlights the Indigenous people’s key role in forest protection through their traditional knowledge and practices.
In order to show its commitment, the IRI-DRC has allied with Indigenous Pygmy People to promote the adoption of the law on the promotion and protection of Indigenous Pygmy People’s rights. This commitment was further enhanced in the IRI’s Declaration of Support to the law on 20 October 2020.
Based on “the acknowledgement of the Dignity of Man created in God’s image” and the need to “reconsider the Democratic Republic of Congo’s view of and relations with its citizens,” this declaration is a powerful call from these religious and moral authorities to the decision-makers in various state institutions of the DRC to legally recognise Indigenous people.
Indigenous people, civil society organisations and committed parliamentary members are hopeful that this law will be finally adopted in 2021, during the coming ordinary parliamentary sessions. The prospect of such an adoption ahead of the next Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity would give strong international resonance to the DRC’s commitment to its Indigenous people.
Felana Rakotovao joined the Rainforest Foundation Norway in Kinshasa in 2019 as the coordinator of RFN’s Indigenous People’s programme.
Patrick Saïdi is the National Coordinator of the Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA), a large network of over 40 Indigenous Peoples’ organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Diel Mochire is an Indigenous activist and Provincial Director of the Programme Intégré pour le Développement du Peuple Pygmée (PIDP), a very vocal Indigenous organisation based in North Kivu.
Joseph Itongwa is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Indigenous Peoples’ Network for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Director of the National Alliance for Support and Promotion of Areas and Territories Conserved by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 World Bank. “République Démocratique du Congo cadre stratégique pour la préparation d’un programme de développement des Pygmées.” December 2009. http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/394761468247843940/pdf/511080ESW0FREN1Strategy0Egl0version.pdf
 ERND.“Rapport d’études, 2017, L’expulsion des populations Pygmées du Parc National de Kahuzi Biega: faits, conséquences et perspectives. ” pp. 25- 27.
 Barume, Albert K. IWGIA “Democratic Republic of Congo. ” In Indigenous World 2017, edited by Katrine Broch Hansen, Käthe Jepsen and Pamela Leiva Jacquelin, 470-477. IWGIA, 2017. https://www.iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/indigenous-world-2017.pdf
 Proposed Law on the promotion and protection of Indigenous Pygmy People’s Rights, November 2020, Ordinary session September 2020, 3rd Parliament of the 3rd Republic, National Assembly of the DRC, Chapter V, Art 42-50, Chapter IV, Arts.39-41, Chapter III, Section 3, Arts.28-35.
 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Art.51, page 16, chapter 3 relating to “Collective Rights“ and Art. 123 page 31, Title III, section 3 “On the relations between the executive and the legislative“
 Speech of the Chief of State during the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (JIPA), 9 August 2020.
 Interfaith Rainforest Initiative. “Declaration of Interreligious Initiative for the Rainforests of Democratic Republic of Congo.” Launch event, 3-5 December 2019. http://www.interfaithrainforest.org/s/declarations/declaration-iri-drc-en.pdf
 IRI-RDC support for the proposal of the organic law on the fundamental principles relating to the protection and promotion of Indigenous Pygmy People’s rights in DRC. 20 October 2020.