For the country’s Indigenous pygmy people, this is the first time that they are legally recognized as a distinct people with rights and access to free, prior and informed consent before the government and industries can exploit their land. But not everything will change in the blink of an eye and implementation of the law will take time, says Patrick Saidi, one of the Indigenous coordinators that worked to get the protections enshrined into law.
After five months of waiting, the Indigenous pygmy peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have secured a major victory. Earlier today, the president of the DRC, Felix Antoine Tshisekedi, signed and promulgated the new law on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Indigenous Pygmy Peoples, the first legislation in the country that recognizes and safeguards the specific rights of the Indigenous pygmy peoples, such as their land rights.
Earlier this year, a commission of the two chambers (National Assembly and Senate) of parliament harmonized the different versions of the legislation and the final version of the law was sent to the president for his signature and promulgation. Now, the Indigenous communities living in the tropical forests of the Congo Basin can receive the legal protections that the bill’s authors intended—and that the responsibilities of the government in enforcing these protections are clear.
We, a network of 45 Indigenous organizations in the DRC, worked for 14 years to get these protections enshrined into law, pushing for recognition as the DRC continues to recover from war, civil strife, Ebola epidemics, and internal population displacement. The government has always looked at the forests of the Congo Basin—the DRC contains 60% of these woodlands, the world’s largest carbon sink—as a natural resource to jumpstart the country’s economy. But in doing so, it has overlooked not just the ecological importance of the Basin’s ecosystems but, most importantly, that these lands are our home.
A history of fortress conservation
It is no secret that the DRC is rich in natural resources including fertile soils, immense water resources, and enormous mineral wealth. Forests cover approximately 62% of the country’s land area, making its biodiversity an indispensable global asset in the fight against climate change.
It is also home to Africa’s first national park—the Virunga National Park—created in 1925. However, the park’s creation established a problematic precedent that persists both on the continent and around the world to this day. In formal legislation and in the implementation of conservation projects, human presence and the protection of biodiversity are often presented as being in contradiction with one another. As a result, conservation policies and legislation tend to criminalize and exclude Indigenous Peoples and local communities from their customary lands. We are hopeful that this new law will change this.
In the DRC, 13% of the country’s land area is already under some form of protection. If the total area targeted for formal conservation between now and 2030 is successful, it is estimated that 29% of the country’s population will live in protected areas by the end of this decade.
But “protecting” nature in this way is unsustainable if we have any hope of halting climate change, preventing biodiversity loss, and protecting human rights. We have lived in and with these tropical forests for generations; our stewardship extends further back than the DRC’s governments or colonial rule. Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled the country for more than three decades, decreed that the pygmies were the first citizens of the country—but only to enlist us in the army, not to recognize our rights.
Many of us have been expelled from our lands, despite or perhaps because of our success at preventing deforestation. Scientific research shows that territories owned, managed, or occupied by Indigenous peoples see less deforestation and forest degradation compared to protected areas maintained by governments or private interests, in Africa especially. Yet the environmental arguments to keep us on our lands have no traction with people who would displace us and violate our basic human rights just to make money.
There are many times when Indigenous and local communities have been displaced from their lands not for resource extraction, but for the establishment of “protected” areas. The “discovery” of important troves of biodiversity—on the lands of communities, like the Batwa people in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Iyaelima people of Salonga National Park—has led to dislocations and massacres.
In Salonga, the massacre of local villages inside the park came from rival communities under the protection of provincial authorities. In Kahuzi-Bienga, the massacre was carried out by militarized park rangers choosing to purge the park of its traditional communities. In both locations, the communities are now looking to the new legislation with great hope.
Read more: What went wrong with conservation at Kahuzi-Biega National Park and how to transform it (commentary)
What the law says
Importantly for the country’s Indigenous pygmies, this is the first time that we are legally recognized as a distinct people with rights. Before, Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the DRC were diluted into a single group, creating a legal loophole for government and private industries to exploit our lands without free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).
Land has always been a point of strife in the DRC, as rival powers both within our country and outside of our borders have had their roots in the land and the resources it contains. Since the 1960s, many of the wars that we have suffered have been about land, from tropical hardwood timber to the rare earth metals that drive today’s environmentally sustainable economies, to the rush for oil and gas exploration and newly minted carbon markets.
Before these resources were discovered, however, we valued our lands for the wealth that the forests and peatlands contained. Scientists talk about the importance of biodiversity and the wealth of species that tropical forests contain. But we see this wealth as coming from the natural world, to be cherished and sustained—not extracted or leveled.
And yet, our forests are still under siege. Deforestation in the DRC increased 3% in 2021, despite government commitments to end deforestation by 2030, made at the UN climate change talks in Glasgow last year.
Our requests seem fairly straightforward. If we have been dispossessed of our lands, there must be compensation that must equal the original lands taken from us. But before there is compensation, there must be dialogue. There must be consultations and consent. The mechanisms that provide compensation must be determined collaboratively, not unilaterally.
For projects that have yet to begin—whether they are resource developments or the establishment of new protected areas, or even the marketing of carbon rights—there must be consent. That consent must also come after dialogues that provide us information on the short- and long-term impacts of the project, and we must be allowed the opportunity to decline if the terms are not acceptable to us.
Now that the president has signed and promulgated the bill, we are hopeful that the new law will safeguard FPIC for the Indigenous pygmy peoples. But we know not everything will change in the blink of an eye and implementation of the law will take time, but certainly from this point forward we will have many more tools available to implement our rights. This is a victory, but it is only the beginning of the journey.
Patrick Saidi Hemedi is the coordinator of the Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) in the DRC, a network of 45 Indigenous organizations and those working to secure the rights of Indigenous Peoples and improve recognition of their role in protecting forests.
Banner image: Patrick Saidi Hemedi (center left), coordinator of the Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) in the DRC. Image courtesy of Rights and Resources Institute.