Indigenous World 2020: Republic of the Congo
Situated in Central Africa, at the heart of the second largest forest in the world and straddling the equator, the Republic of Congo covers 341,821 km2. The Congolese population numbered 5,279,517 million in 2018 with an annual growth rate of 3.68%. It comprises two distinct groups: the Pygmies and the Bantu. The Pygmies are generally nomadic or semi-nomadic hunger/gatherers although some have now settled on the land and are working on agricultural or livestock farms, in commercial hunting or as trackers, prospectors or workers for the logging companies.1
The last national census, conducted in 2007, estimated that the Pygmy population accounted for 1.2% of the population, or 43,378 individuals. A UN study dating from 2013 has a figure of 2 per cent, or approximately 100,000 individuals. The government itself gives a much wider possible range, between 1.4 and 10% of the population.
In actual fact, we do not know precisely how many Pygmies there are in the Congo. The government has never made any effort to find out. It justifies this lack of action by warning of the possible consequences that an ethnic census could have.
These people’s name varies according to the department in which they live: Bakola, Tswa or Batwa, Babongo, Baaka, Mbendjele, Mikaya, Bagombe, Babis, etc. Although they are found throughout the Congolese territory, the Pygmies are more concentrated in the departments of Lékoumou, Likouala, Niari, Sangha and Plateaux.
The Congo is a highly forested country (23.5 million hectares of forest, or 69% of the national territory) with a low rate of deforestation and forest degradation, only 0.05% or around 12,000 hectares being felled per year (CNIAF 2015). Forest cover is not uniform across the whole country but varies according to population density, transport infrastructure, forest wealth, historic exploitation and the existence of urban areas.2
While not an exhaustive list the following are some of the texts that form the legal framework applicable to Indigenous populations:
- the Law on Wildlife and Protected Areas (28 November 2008)
- the Law governing the Forest Code (20 November 2000)
- the Law on Environmental Protection (23 April 1991)
- the Law setting out the general principles applicable to private and state-owned land regimes (26 March 2004)
- the Law establishing the agricultural land regime (22 September 2008)
- the Decree establishing forest management and use conditions (31 December 2002)
On 25 February 2011, the Republic of Congo became the first country in Africa to enact a specific law on Indigenous Peoples: the Law promoting and protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the Republic of Congo.
Support for the Indigenous population
In 7 February 2019, the World Bank approved additional funding for the Lisungi project, a project that provides cash payments to households, particularly Indigenous families, to help them access health and education services. This project extension will enable direct cash payments to be made to refugees and local households on the condition that they send any children under the age of 14 to school and have their health monitored.3
On 22 February 2019, the Minister of Justice, Human Rights and the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples, Aimé Bininga, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NGOs working in the area of human rights. The aim of this agreement is, among other things, to improve dialogue, exchange and consultation between the Ministry and the NGOs and to encourage joint actions to promote and protect human rights. The coordinator of the Congolese National Network of Indigenous Populations (RENAPAC), Jean Nganga, considers “this framework for exchange to be highly beneficial for all. Signing this partnership does not mean that we are siding with the state, as this document was drawn up in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice to ensure there is no bias”.4
On 3 September 2019, the government signed a letter of intent for the funding of an investment plan for the REDD+ strategy in the Republic of Congo. This funding provides, in particular, for the implementation of projects and programmes that will encourage the sustainable management of forest ecosystems; a land tenure system that favours recognition of traditional rights to land; the protection and sustainable management of the country’s peatlands, banning all drainage and drying out; carbon stock enhancement through reforestation and agroforestry together with the development of renewable energies.5
On 19 September 2019, the French Association of the Order of Malta decided to extend its medical and social assistance projects for Indigenous and Bantu peoples in Likouala department, northern Congo, to cover the 2020-2023 period. This second phase of the project is also aimed at improving the Aka people’s living conditions by offering agricultural income-generating activities through the inclusion of a Congolese association for the promotion and enhancement of forest and related products. It will be responsible for communicating with and training the people in peasant strengthening and organisation.6
Exemplary legal framework but little progress
On 24 October 2019, concluding a visit made at the invitation of the Government of Congo, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, presented her report in Brazzaville on the current situation of the country’s Pygmy population. The aim of the mission was to assess progress made in promoting and protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights, particularly the efforts made nationally to implement the recommendations of the report of her predecessor, James Anaya, at the end of his visit to the Congo in 2010.
The UN Special Rapporteur noted that there had been no major changes in the Pygmies’ situation since this 2010 report, despite the “exemplary” legal framework adopted in 2011. “Law No. 5-2011 on the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples establishes a solid legal basis for enabling Indigenous Peoples to enforce their rights, protect their culture and their livelihoods, access basic social services and protect their civil and political rights,” she emphasised.
In 2015, the promotion and protection of Indigenous Peoples was recognised in Article 16 of the Constitution. In July 2019, six draft decrees out of nine were adopted to implement the 2011 law on Indigenous Peoples, anticipating special measures to facilitate their civil registration and their access to basic social services and education. A Department for the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples was created with offices in 11 of the country’s departments. “These developments have established an impressive legal and administrative architecture since my predecessor’s visit in 2010. Most of my concerns thus focus on the speed, scope and effectiveness of the measures aimed at implementing these legal provisions to respect, protect and achieve Indigenous Peoples’ rights in practice,” the Special Rapporteur noted.
Throughout her visit to the departments of Sangha, Lékoumou, Pool and Plateaux, access to land and resources, primary health care and education as well as employment were recurring topics of conversation. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz also noted her concern at the limited involvement of Indigenous Peoples in public decision-making as well as the sexual exploitation of young Indigenous women.
With regard to the widespread discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation of Indigenous Peoples from Congolese social, economic and political life more generally, Ms Tauli-Corpuz noted:
My predecessor’s observation that Indigenous Peoples occupy non-dominant positions in Congolese society and have suffered and continue to suffer threats to their distinct identity and their fundamental rights clearly remains valid, to an extent not experienced by the Bantu majority.
Most government officials rejected this comment, stating that there was no discrimination towards Indigenous Peoples and that the challenges facing them were not exclusive to them.
“I cannot agree that there is no discrimination or exclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the Congo,” continued the Special Rapporteur. She quoted the National Action Plan for Improving the Quality of Life of Indigenous Peoples (2019-2022), which indicates that Indigenous Peoples
… still suffer marginalisation and discrimination in all areas of social life; their access to basic social services is a bottleneck, particularly in the most remote areas, including education, health, culture, sport, water and energy, but also lands and resources and civil and political rights.
Illiteracy is widespread. According to the statistics of the Ministry for Primary and Secondary Education and Literacy, Indigenous teenagers represent only 0.05% of pupils in lower secondary and 0.008% of pupils in higher secondary school. Girls are particularly excluded from education. Ms Tauli-Corpuz revealed that:
Eight years on from the adoption of Law No. 5-2011, illiteracy remains widespread in the Indigenous communities, including in Sangha. The UNFPA indicates that 65 per cent of Indigenous children aged 12 to 16 do not go to school, as opposed to the national average of 39 per cent. Better school registration levels are needed to ensure they are included in decision-making spheres.
“Mockery and discrimination of Indigenous children at school, a lack of motivation due to a school programme that is not representative of their culture plus wider and systematic discrimination that offers children few opportunities to succeed in society, are all contributing to school drop-out rates,” noted Ms Tauli-Corpuz’s report.
A lack of financial resources remains the primary reason for poor school attendance and progress among Indigenous children, hence the need to establish culturally appropriate educational programmes that will encourage Indigenous Peoples to continue their studies, particularly giving them the means to disseminate their rights and their own traditional knowledge.
The report concluded that:
Indigenous Peoples must not be considered a burden or obstacle to development or as backward and primitive people. They should be considered as human beings with the dignity and the same rights as any other person. Moreover, they play an extremely important role in safeguarding and protecting the biodiversity and forests. They are a reference point given their traditional knowledge with regard to natural resource management, climate change mitigation and natural and traditional medicine, and they improve the cultural and linguistic diversity of our countries.
Notes and references
- “Congo”. Population Data, 1 August 2019: https://www.populationdata.net/pays/ congo/
- Forest Reference Emission Levels Submission to the UNFCCC Secretariat January 2016 https://redd.unfccc.int/files/2016_submission_frel_pdf
- “La République du Congo étend l’accès aux services de protection sociale aux réfugiés et habitants de la Likouala”. The World Bank, 8 February 2019: https://banquemondiale.org/fr/news/press-release/2019/02/08/republic-of- congo-expands-access-to-social-protection-services-for-refugees-and-host- communities-in-the-likouala-region
- Pepy-Alchie Koussoukama, “Le Gouvernement s’engage à dynamiser le dialogue avec les ong des droits de l’homme”. Vox Media, 22 February 2019: http://www.vox.cg/le-gouvernement-sengage-a-dynamiser-le-dialogue-avec- les-ong-des-droits-de-lhomme/
- “Forêt : le Congo signe la lettre d’intention de financement du Redd+”. Agence d’information d’Afrique Centrale, 4 September 2019: http://www.adiac-congo. com/content/foret-le-congo-signe-la-lettre-dintention-de-financement-du- redd-105145
- “Action humanitaire : l’Ordre de Malte France poursuit ses actions au Congo”. Agence d’information d’Afrique Centrale, 12 September 2019: http://www.adiac- congo.com/content/action-humanitaire-lordre-de-malte-france-poursuit-ses- actions-au-congo-105543
Emmanuel Bayeni is an expert in protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights working with international organisations (UN agencies, European Union, etc.) and non-governmental organisations. He is a graduate in international and European law on fundamental rights (Nantes University), political science and international relations (Jean Moulin University, Lyon III) and human rights and humanitarian action (Catholic University of Central Africa in Yaoundé), He has also qualified in History and Journalism (Marien Ngouabi University in Brazzaville). He runs the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CDHD). He coordinated the drafting of Congo’s Law No. 5-1022 of 25 February 2011 on the promotion and protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and facilitated the different tasks of drafting successive plans to improve the quality of life of Indigenous populations (2009-2013; 2014-2017), and the plans to create the Congolese National Network of Indigenous Populations (RENAPAC).
Patrick Kulesza is Executive Director of GITPA (Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones www.gitpa.org)
This article is part of the 34th edition of the 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 2020 in full here