• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

The Democratic Republic of Congo is inhabited by four major ethnic groups: the Bantu, the Nilotic, the Sudanese and the Pygmy. 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 750,000 (1% of the Congolese population)[1] 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.[2] 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 pharmacopoeia and medicinal plants. The forest lies at the heart of their culture and living environment.[3]

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 loss of ethnic identity 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.

Current situation of Indigenous Pygmy women in the DRC

Of the estimated 750,000 Indigenous Pygmy people, which represents around 1% of the national population, 57.3% are women and 99% of these women are illiterate. The Constitution of the DRC guarantees free education; however, the school program established by the government does not correspond to the Indigenous Pygmy people’s culture, nor to the socioeconomic realities of their lifestyle, accounting for this high rate of illiteracy.[4] For Indigenous Pygmy women, in particular, this high rate is exacerbated by the vulnerability of their position – including social denigration, risk of sexual exploitation, fear of rape, and lack of access to educational infrastructure due to their remoteness.

The Congolese government runs a healthcare program as well as several special programs to support healthcare institutions. In Nord-Kivu, of the 11,651 women established in 164 villages or sites, 4,217 across 67 villages/sites have access to these healthcare services, accounting for 36% of the female Indigenous Pygmy population. It is also worth noting that, of 19,719 children, only 4,761 (24%) have access to the government’s vaccination program.[5]

Healthcare institutions established by Indigenous Pygmy people within their environment often do not benefit from the government’s support, however, and most Indigenous Pygmy women have little or no access to maternal healthcare or antenatal check-ups, give birth at home, and suffer the consequences of this, including high maternal and child mortality, puerperal infections, postpartum haemorrhage and obstetric fistula.

It should be also noted that this issue of access is directly linked to a lack of access to information – for example, in 2021, in three territories of Nord-Kivu, 53% of Indigenous Pygmy people were unaware of the health education sessions organized at healthcare centres.[6]

In the DRC, Indigenous women produce 80% of the harvest yet own an infinitesimally small proportion of the land as most of them merely have usufruct rights. This is due to the aforementioned issues of illiteracy, backwards cultural context, and due to the lack of female landowners. This situation has a considerable impact on their access to bank credit and agricultural cooperative membership, both of which would enable them to benefit from agricultural inputs and services, often given as a condition of land ownership.

Nonetheless, progress has been observed among the authorities, as can be seen in the adoption of the law on the protection and promotion of Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights by the National Assembly and its current review by the Senate.

Furthermore, the document on national land tenure policy[7] recently validated in November 2021 takes Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights and concerns into account, and also has a specific focus on women.[8]

Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights in the DRC’s national land tenure policy

The DRC has at last developed a nationwide land tenure program and this was validated by ministers on 25 January 2022 in the Steering Committee of the National Commission for Land Reform (CONAREF) following national validation on 17 November 2021. Ten years after launching the land tenure reform in the DRC (July 2012), the issues raised in the alarming assessment published at the start of the millennium on deviations from land tenure laws and rights, and on multiplying land conflicts, have been largely addressed.

The hunter-gatherers referred to as Pygmy, first inhabitants benefitting from customary rights to their land and territories, have been the victims of land grabbing and evictions from their rightful lands for decades. This situation contributes to their vulnerability and mostly stems from an absence of measures to guarantee their land and environmental rights and accommodate their lifestyle. Furthermore, while local communities’ customary rights to rural land have some legal recognition, Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights do not – these are downright denied in multiple areas of the country, particularly in rainforest areas.

Their expectations and advocacy in the face of the social injustice inherited from previous land tenure policies were acknowledged and considered when developing the strategic themes of this new national policy. These include a component to improve the legal aspects of land ownership systems by focusing on recognizing, securing and transferring land rights; a component on social safeguarding to correct social injustices and harmonize the transition from traditional to modern land tenure systems; and a component to reinforce cross-sectoral coordination and develop an inclusive and holistic land governance system. Each of these areas entails recommended priority actions to facilitate its implementation and secure the corresponding expected changes in policy and practice.

Civil society organizations working to defend Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights should thus celebrate these important achievements in recognizing Indigenous Pygmy people’s land rights and henceforward focus on achieving a number of actions that lie at the heart of their advocacy work, such as:

  • Adopting land laws appropriate to local sociocultural contexts, clarifying all forms of social ownership, and improving the recognition and scope of Indigenous Pygmy people’s land rights to the extent necessary to ensure fair access to the land and proper benefit of their land rights. In cases of extreme vulnerability due to loss or denial of Indigenous Pygmy people’s land rights, the State should commit to compensating them in kind.
  • Certifying local communities’ collective land rights as they see fit by means of cartography and any accessible and available technology.
  • Restoring equitable access to land and organizing a legal review of past property titles to rural lands. The recovered lands could be subject to positive discrimination benefitting vulnerable or marginalized groups during the local implementation of land management policies.
  • Improving rates of public participation by legally defining the terms of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which is a right recognized to any individual or entity to give or refuse their consent in a context free from all pressure or intimidation.

These priority actions, among many others, are included in the National Land Management Plan, which forms a framework for implementing National Land Management Policy aimed at ensuring appropriate planning through different thematic programmes. These in turn will allocate roles and responsibilities to official, unofficial, governmental, and non-governmental actors representing relevant anchor points for the continuation of civil society organizations’ advocacy work.

Validation of the law on the protection and promotion of the Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights in the National Assembly

In addition to validation of the aforementioned national land tenure policy, the law on the protection and promotion of Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights was definitively adopted by the National Assembly on 7 April 2021 after validation by the Sociocultural, Human Rights and Legal and Administrative Policies Joint Commission. It is currently being reviewed by the Senate.

Once adopted by the Senate, it will be transferred to the President of the Republic for promulgation and publication in the Official Journal of the Republic. It will enter into force six months after publication.

Its implementing texts will then be developed and, together with the law itself, will represent the very pinnacle of protection and promotion of Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights.

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.

Chouchouna Losale is the co-founder and program officer of the Coalition of Female Leaders for the Environment and Sustainable Development (CFLEDD) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Passionate about the rights of girls and women, she focuses primarily on gender issues related to land rights and natural resource management.

Angélique Mbelu joined the Rainforest Foundation Norway in Kinshasa in 2019 as the Head of Advocacy and Communication.

Felana Rakotovao joined the Rainforest Foundation Norway in Kinshasa in 2019 as the coordinator of RFN’s Indigenous People’s programme.

Joel Ilunga joined the Rainforest Foundation Norway in Kinshasa in 2020 as the Junior Coordinator Advocacy & Communication.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[1] World Bank (Banque mondial). “Rapport No 51108–ZR. République Démocratique du Congo. Cadre Stratégique pour la Préparation d’un Programme de Développement des Pygmées: Etats Fragiles, Conflit & Développement Social Département pour le Développement Durable Région Afrique. “ La Banque mondial, Décembre 2009. http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/394761468247843940/pdf/511080ESW0FREN1Strategy0Egl0version.pdf

[2]. Busane, Wenceslas Ruhana Mirindi, Jean Paul Mashugalusa Rwabashi, Innocent Bashizi Balagizi, Innocent Ntakobanjira Bisimwa, Jean Marie Bantu Baluge, and Jacob Kaluka  Muhagarhe. “L’expulsion des populations pygmées du Parc National de Kahuzi-Biega: Faits, conséquences et perspectives.” pp. 25- 27. ERND, 2017.

[3] Barume, Albert K.  “Democratic Republic of Congo”. In The Indigenous World 2017, edited by Katrine Broch Hansen, Käthe Jepsen and Pamela Leiva Jacquelin, 470-477. Copenhagen, IWGIA, 2017. https://www.iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/indigenous-world-2017.pdf

[4] World Bank (Banque mondial). “Rapport No 51108–ZR. République Démocratique du Congo. Ccadre Sstratégique pour la Ppréparation d’un Pprogramme de Ddéveloppement des Pygmées: Etats Fragiles, Conflit & Développement Social Département pour le Développement Durable Région Afrique. “ La Banque mondial, Décembre 2009. P. 7.


[5] " Rapport alternatif au Rapport périodique de la République Démocratique du Congo au Comité pour l’élimination de la discrimination à l’égard des femmes. ’Examen Périodique Universel de la République Démocratique du Congo (2018). Les droits des femmes autochtones pygmées en RDC dans les oubliettes de l’arsenal juridique congolais: Impacts négligés." INT_CEDAW_CSS_COD_35169_F

[6] Data obtained from raising awareness and gathering information on COVID-19 in Indigenous Pygmy villages in Nyiragong, Masisi, and Walikale on the part of the Integrated Programme for Pygmy People’s Development in 2021 (Programme Intégré pour le Développement du Peuple Pygmée, PIDP).

[7] CONAREF. “Atelier National de Validation du Document de Politique Foncière Nationale Kinshasa, Pullman Hôtel, 15 au 17 novembre 2021.” CONAREF, http://www.conaref-rdc.org/atelier-national-de-validation-du-document-de-politique-fonciere-nationale-kinshasa-pullman-hotel-15-au-17-novembre-2021/

[8] “The State takes every measure, both legally and socio-culturally, to encourage the abandonment of restrictions imposed upon youths and women regarding land access and ownership, and the safe and complete enjoyment of their land and property rights. The customs and traditions marginalizing women in particular regarding land ownership are not currently acknowledged. To address this issue, the State will take the measures hereinafter (Document de Politique Foncière Nationale, page 47):

Line 7: On the acknowledgement and scope of women’s, youths’ and children’s land and property rights: In collaboration with customary authorities, local communication campaigns of many kinds shall be undertaken, including to inform and raise awareness on gender issues, in order to incite desirable changes in the perception of women’s and children’s land and property rights, particularly in rural areas.

Line 8: On land access and gender: In addition to a provision integrated in the law to invalidate the habits and customs that limit or impede upon women’s and children’s rights to land access, the State, through the National Tenure Plan, must adopt a programme that includes dialogue sessions and awareness campaigns to incite a change in perception of women’s and children’s land rights, particularly in rural areas and a few target urban areas (Document de Politique Foncière Nationale, page 62). http://www.conaref-rdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/CONAREF-DOCUMENT-DE-POLITIQUE-Version-consolid%C3%A9e-apr%C3%A8s-CelTech-draft-1-11-12-018.pdf



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