• 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 2023: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

The Democratic Republic of the 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 organizations (CSOs) in the DRC and 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 per cent of the Congolese population)[1] but CSOs give a figure of up to 2,000,000 (3 per cent of the population). They are widely acknowledged as the first inhabitants of the national rainforests[2] and 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]

There is, however, little recognition 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 has 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.


New law promulgated to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous people

Indigenous people remain one of the most marginalized and poorest groups in the DRC.[4],[5] To remedy this situation, on 15 July 2022, DRC President Felix Antoine Tshisekedi promulgated the first national law No. 22/030 on the protection and promotion of Indigenous Pygmy people’s rights,[6] which is planned to take effect in February 2023.

The result of nearly 15 years of tireless advocacy by Indigenous Pygmy people and their representative organizations, this adoption marks a major turning point for these threatened communities and for the preservation of their ancestral habitat, namely the forests of the Congo Basin.

The DRC is taking another step forward in protecting the world's second largest tropical forest. The promulgation of this new law fulfils the commitment expressed by President Tshisekedi to legally secure the ancestral lands and territories of the Indigenous Pygmy in the form of large natural, ecological and community reserves, according to the will and under the control of these people.[7] In this regard, the law guarantees, in particular: easy access to justice and basic social services; recognition of the uses, customs and pharmacopoeia of the Pygmies where not contrary to the law; and full enjoyment of the customary lands and resources contained in their living environments.

Developing the law's potential and impact now that it has been enacted requires long-term financial, technical, and political commitment and support, both nationally and internationally. Having the text is one thing; enjoying the rights contained in it is another, and it is therefore important to ensure the law is properly implemented. This means tools need to be worked on from the very start that will facilitate awareness and implementation of the benefits and guarantees contained in the law, and the law needs to be integrated into other policies and legal frameworks that impact the lives of Indigenous Pygmy people. The reforms underway must also be consistent with this new legislation in order to guarantee the full enjoyment of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It is hoped that this law will serve as a model for Indigenous Peoples in neighbouring countries that aspire to national legal protection, such as Congo Brazzaville.


Successful community conservation model

The Equator Initiative, led by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), aims to identify exceptional local solutions for the climate, people, and planet. This 13th round of the UNDP Equator Prize focused on local communities and Indigenous groups in rural areas who have developed innovative, nature-based solutions in order to create a global safety net and help redefine prosperity, development, and our relationship with nature.[8]

The 2022 prize was awarded to 10 laureates who stood out for their initiatives to protect biodiversity and fight global warming, one of which was the DRC non-governmental organization Mbou-Mon-Tour, (MMT) based in the province of Mai-Ndombe.[9],[10] The award ceremony took place on 30 November 2022.

MMT's programme is original in that it was initiated by the local populations themselves, whereas many of the conservation initiatives carried out in the DRC have been primarily the work of the State or international organizations. The population has been kept away from Protected Areas for a long time, some having even suffered humiliation by being evicted from their land without any compensation. The local communities have thus had the impression of being sacrificed for the benefit of animals. MMT's approach, on the other hand, is to find a delicate balance between human and animal interests, a sort of peaceful coexistence between the two species. To do this, local people have, through participatory mapping, defined the areas reserved for bonobo conservation and those for human activities. In the past, such work was done in an air-conditioned office in the city and was imposed on the villagers.



Patrick Saidi Hemedi is the National Coordinator of the Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) and Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the Réseau des Populations Autochtones et Locales pour la Gestion Durable des Écosystèmes Forestiers de la RDC (REPALEF-RDC).

Jean-Christophe Bokika is Chair of the Executive Committee of the NGO Mbou-Mon-Tour.

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 Peoples’ programme.

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


This article is part of the 37th 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 2023 in full here.


Notes and references

[1] 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.p

[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. ERND, 2017, pp. 25- 27.

[3] Barume, Albert K. “The Indigenous World 2017: The 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] “Gestion durable des forêts par les peoples autochtones – RDCongo.” Initiative pour la forêt de l´Afrique Centrale, cafi, https://www.cafi.org/fr/pays-partenaires/democratic-republic-congo/support-indigenous-peoples

[5] 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

[6] Journal Officiel de la République Démocratique du Congo. “Loi No22/030 du 15 Juillet 2022 Portant Protection et Promotion des Droits des Peuples Pygmées.” 14 November 2022, https://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/cng213451.pdf

[7] Democratic Republic of Congo. “Discours du chef de l´État à l´occasion de la Journée Internationale des Peuples Autochtones (JIPA).” 8 August 2020, available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FJPqk9MR7UxOuBPFpA6EKRB2cNM7r4Tv/view and https://gitpa.org/web/RDC%202021.pdf

[8] PNUD. “Appel à nomination: Prix Equateur 2022.” 14 March 2022, https://www.undp.org/fr/news/appel-nominations-prix-equateur-2022

[9] PNUD. “Dix peuples autochtones et communautés locales de neuf pays remportent le Prix Equateur 2022.” 8 August 2022, https://www.undp.org/fr/press-releases/dix-peuples-autochtones-et-communautes-locales-de-neuf-pays-remportent-le-prix-equateur-2022

[10] “L´ONG Mbou-Mon-Tour remporte le prix Equateur 2022.” 5 December 2022, https://pfbc-cbfp.org/actualites-partenaires/Mbou-Mon-Tour.html

Tags: Global governance



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