The Indigenous World 2024: Gabon

Gabon's total population is estimated at 2,397,368. The percentage of Indigenous Peoples in Gabon is thought to be less than 1% of the national population, or between 18,000 and 20,000 people.[i] This estimate will become clearer when the final report of the 2023 general population census is published.

Indigenous Peoples are mainly hunter/gatherer communities comprising nine ethnic groups (Baka, Babongo, Bakoya, Baghame, Barimba, Akoula, Akowa, Bavarama, Bakouyi) with different languages, cultures and geographical locations. They live both in the towns and in the forest. Their livelihoods and their cultures are inextricably linked to the forest, however, which covers 85% of Gabon. Gabon's Indigenous Peoples continue to live in precarious poverty. There is no recent specific data on this population, and it would be good to see Gabon make greater efforts to obtain reliable statistics on its Indigenous Peoples.

Gabonese legislation does not recognize the concept of “Indigenous people” but certain texts do provide for the concept of “Indigenous and village communities”. These benefit from customary rights, particularly in land and forestry matters.

The Gabonese Republic has ratified several international treaties and conventions protecting various aspects of Indigenous Peoples' rights, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The country has still not adopted ILO Convention 169, however.


Indigenous Peoples and land rights

Article 28 of the Transition Charter of 2 September 2023[ii] specifies that: “The right to property is guaranteed. No land may be expropriated except in the public interest, under the conditions and in the form prescribed by law, and subject to prior and fair compensation.” The charter makes no mention of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and gives no specifics regarding their land rights or their free, prior and informed consent. It is therefore essential that a new legal framework is designed that will protect the ancestral lands and territories of Indigenous Peoples in Gabon.

Article 13 of the Forestry Code[iii] states that: “All forests form part of the national forest estate and are the exclusive property of the State.” However, Ordinance No. 005/PR/2012 establishing the land ownership regime[iv] indicates that such land may belong to a private individual or legal entity if they have completed the formality of registration. Forest-dwelling peoples have never owned any land through formal registration, however, because the communities who have lived there for generations are not familiar with this highly administrative process. They are only aware of the practice of ownership by occupation (the land belongs to the first occupant) or common forms of transmission (gift, bequest, sale, inheritance).

Since the colonial era, Indigenous populations have lost virtually all rights to ownership they had over their traditional lands, to the benefit of either the state or large foreign concession holders. Customary ownership does still exist in rural areas of Gabon, acquired by successive inheritance over generations, but this is not formally recognized by the state. Customary uses and ownerships have been sporadically permitted or tolerated in Gabon, even with the possibility of registering land under customary tenure. Land rights thus acquired were, however, called into question by Ordinance No. 52 of 3 October 1970[v] on the expropriation of insufficiently developed land. Through this mechanism, many local communities that were once the traditional owners of their land, especially those whose occupation and use of the land may not have been so apparent, became tenants living from day to day at the whim of the State and large landowners.

The Constitution of the Gabonese Republic[vi] sets out the fundamental principles of property rights, as well as the conditions of application and the general rules governing expropriation. Paragraph 10 of Article 1 on fundamental principles and rights contains the following principle: “Everyone, whether individually or in community, has the right to own property. [...].” And yet the principle of “ownership” as affirmed by the constitution is not defined. According to Article 1 of the Constitution: “[...] No one may be deprived of their property except when legally established public necessity so requires, and subject to fair and prior compensation. However, expropriation of property for public utility, due to inadequate or non-existent development, and involving registered properties, is governed by law. Private property, whether individual or collective, is inviolable.”

Consequently, “public utility” and “inadequate or non-existent development” can result in expropriation, an act whereby the landowner is deprived of their property against their will. The constitution nevertheless stipulates that these expropriations can only be carried out “subject to fair and prior compensation” for the owner. It should be emphasized, however, that only those in possession of a title deed can receive compensation for the expropriation of their land, and very few formal title deeds exist in rural areas, as these are mainly issued for properties within the boundaries of organized urban centres.

Mining and Indigenous Peoples

In 2023, the Ministry of Mines conducted a census of local Gabonese people (mainly Indigenous Peoples) engaged in artisanal mining activities in order to regularize their activities in the gold, diamond and quarry material (sand or gravel) sectors. To this end, a campaign to regularize these actors was launched on 11 October 2023, with a view to issuing artisanal exploration cards. As a result, artisanal miners were told to “present themselves individually to the administrative teams in charge of mines, by area of operation, with a dossier and the sum of 50,000 FCFA (approx. 76 euro). Teams from the Ministry of Mines were deployed across the country from 16 October 2023 to issue artisanal exploration cards.” The campaign was launched three weeks after the temporary suspension of gold-panning activities in Gabon was lifted. This measure had been taken in 2018 to combat the development of unregulated and illegal gold mining sites. This illicit activity had become “of concern” in many parts of the country's interior. However, this regularization campaign does not take into account the specific rights of Indigenous Peoples, who now have to pay a sum of money they do not possess.

In November 2023, for example, ClientEarth, in association with Essono Ondo pour le social et l'environnement (CEO-SE), published a study[vii] on implementation of the provisions of the Mining Code (Law No. 037/2018 of 11 June 2019 regulating the mining sector[viii]) and the Hydrocarbons Code (Law No. 002/2019 of 16 July 2019 regulating the hydrocarbons sector[ix]) with regard to profit-sharing in these sectors in Gabon. Starting in 2019, the mining and hydrocarbons sectors have undertaken to devise a profit-sharing mechanism and, to this end, both laws establish local community development funds (FDCL). Although the establishment and running of FDCLs has yet to be defined, the right to profit-sharing has definitely made its mark on the mining and oil and gas sectors.

Forests and Indigenous Peoples

On 17 August 2023, the Republican Guard (GR) paraded a team of trackers attached to the GR's forestry section made up exclusively of members of Indigenous Peoples. These men have been incorporated into the ranks of a special unit of the GR known as the “forest section”. The community contingent will harness the traditional skills of these peoples for the protection of Gabon's natural resources. This initiative has contributed to a positive change in attitude towards these peoples, and to official recognition of their role in preserving Gabon's environmental heritage.

The One Forest Summit,[x] held in Libreville on 1 and 2 March 2023, was co-hosted by France and Gabon at the request of the French and Gabonese presidents. It brought together 13 Heads of State and Government and 27 ministers from around the world, as well as a large number of leaders from international organizations, financial institutions, the private sector and civil society, including international NGOs and Indigenous leaders. The theme of the summit was tropical forests, with a focus on the Congo Basin, and it was aimed at advancing a collective ambition to preserve and sustainably manage its tropical forests. During the summit, an initiative was launched by Uganda, France and Gabon: the “One Forest Guardians” coalition.[xi] This has the intention, by 2024, of bringing together those countries wishing to call for Indigenous Peoples’ cultural practices relating to emblematic tropical forest animal species to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

From 18 to 20 September 2023, the Regional Post-University School for Integrated Land and Forest Management (ERAIFT) took part in a regional forum co-organized in Kinshasa by the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD) and the Centre for Support to the Sustainable Management of Tropical Forests (CAGDFT), with the support of the Tenure Facility (TF). This forum focused on Nature Conservation and the Land Rights of Local Communities (LCs) and Indigenous Peoples (IPs) in the Congo Basin.[xii] It was attended by over 100 participants, including religious leaders, local and Indigenous communities, technical and financial partners, universities and research institutions, government departments and the media, etc. The recommendations made were as follows: (1) To secure customary land rights with a view to aligning with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and (2) To ensure that the Congo Basin governments promote a rights-based conservation model and strategies through the Roadmap for Nature Conservation. The forum ended with a pooling of the work done in the workshops, which agreed on the need for a framework for exchange or a task force to share experiences at sub-regional level, to monitor and advocate for the legal protection of the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples, and to act as a catalyst for reflection on other mechanisms such as community forestry, which directly empowers communities to contribute to global biodiversity objectives.

United Nations initiatives for Indigenous Peoples

In its “Equality, Inclusion and Enhanced Social Protection” component, the United Nations Framework Plan for Gabon (2023-2027)[xiii] includes improved access to social safety nets and universal health cover for children, particularly in periurban areas, for children with disabilities and children of Indigenous Peoples.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) organized a sub-regional meeting of the multidisciplinary team in Yaoundé, Cameroon, from 14 to 16 November on: “Improving food systems and strengthening the resilience of vulnerable populations in Central Africa”. The aim of this meeting was to identify innovative solutions and formulate concrete recommendations with which to sustainably bring food and nutrition security problems to an end in Central Africa.

A National Food Security Policy is being implemented in Gabon for the period 2017 to 2025.[xiv] An analysis of all the strategic areas of this document highlights the following land-related actions:

  • Facilitate secure access to agricultural land for family farms and private investment through the implementation of tools and mechanisms for the responsible governance of land tenure systems in the context of food and nutritional security;
  • Facilitate women's access to land;
  • Mark out buffer zones between protected areas, forestry permits, mining concessions and agricultural land;
  • Characterize and map out the country's agricultural lands;
  • Finalize and implement the National Land Allocation Plan; and
  • Improve the governance of natural resources, in particular by supporting access to and security of agricultural land tenure through integration of the relevant provisions of the Voluntary Guidelines for Responsible Governance of Land Tenure, Fisheries and Forests in the context of national food security.

On 29 September 2023, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organized a consultation with 40 young people in anticipation of a series of national consultations with all sectors of Gabonese society. This consultation was not inclusive, however, as none of Gabon's Indigenous Peoples’ associations were in attendance. Organizing this consultation formed part of the UNDP’s desire to create a space for exchange, providing Gabonese youth with the tools to take ownership of key concepts linked to civic engagement and citizen participation. This will enable the role to be played by young people in the political transition period to be formulated. The consultation recommended the creation of a commission for young people, women and Indigenous Peoples in order to support the development of strong institutions capable of promoting good governance, with checks, balances and control mechanisms.

Indigenous women's rights

The Gabonese government has drawn up a programme for the UN Decade for Women (2015-2025).[xv] Unfortunately, this plan did not take into account the real problems faced by Indigenous women in Gabon.

The first forum of Indigenous women from local communities in Central Africa and the Congo Basin[xvi] was held from 8 to 12 May 2023, in Brazzaville, Congo. The forum focused on environmental preservation. The meeting brought together some 150 women from a dozen African countries, including Gabon, as well as from other continents and from donors. The aim of the forum was to draw attention to and promote the essential role played by women in preserving their natural environments, whether they be Fulani, desert nomads or Pygmy women from the equatorial forest. Indigenous women play a vital role in protecting the environment and have specific systems of protection and adaptation that are passed on from mother to daughter. Indigenous women are marginalized and face problems of illiteracy and a lack of access to direct funding. As a result of the forum, a roadmap was drawn up to develop their environmental protection activities over a three-year period, with pledges of funding.

 

 

Pouaty Nzembialela Davy has been President of L’Association pour le Devenir des Autochtones et de leur Connaissance Originelle (A.D.A.C.O) since its creation in 2016. He holds a degree in English, a diploma in business management and a diploma in diplomacy. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here

 

Notes and references

[i] CIA World Fact Book. “Gabon.” Updated 6 February 2024. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/gabon/

[ii] “Transition Charter.” Citizenship Rights Africa, 4 September 2023. https://citizenshiprightsafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/Gabon-Charte-Transition-Journal-Officiel_n225-Bis-du-4-septembre-2023.pdf

[iii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Faolex Database. “Forest Code in the Republic of Gabon.” https://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/gab29255.pdf

[iv] Ecolex. “Ordinance 005/PR/2012 of February 13, 2012 establishing the regime of land ownership in the Republic of Gabon.” https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/ordonnance-005pr2012-du-13-fevrier-2012-fixant-le-regime-de-la-propriete-fonciere-en-republique-gabonaise-lex-faoc144594/

[v] ClientEarth. “Ordinance No. 52/70 of October 3, 1970 relating to the expropriation of insufficiently developed land – Gabon.” https://www.clientearth.fr/actualites/ressources/ordonnance-n-52-70-du-3-octobre-1970-relative-%c3%a0-l-expropriation-des-terrains-insuffisamment-mis-en-valeur-gabon/#:~:text=Ordonnance%20n%C2%B052%2F70%20du%203%20octobre%201970%20relative%20%C3%A0,%C3%A0%20l%E2%80%99expropriation%20des%20terrains%20insuffisamment%20mis%20en%20valeur

[vi] National Assembly, Gabon. “Constitution of the Republic of Gabon.” https://www.assemblee-nationale.ga/object.getObject.do?id=188

[vii] ClientEarth. “Technical sheet: study on the implementation of the provisions of the mining code and the hydrocarbons code concerning profit sharing in the Republic of Gabon.” 29 November 2023. https://www.clientearth.fr/actualites/ressources/fiche-technique-etude-sur-la-mise-en-oeuvre-des-dispositions-du-code-minier-et-du-code-des-hydrocarbures-concernant-le-partage-des-benefices-en-republique-gabonaise/

[viii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Faolex Database. “Acts of the Republic of Gabon.” 19 July 2019. https://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/gab196942.pdf

[ix] Droit Afrique. “Hypdrocabon Code.” 16 July 2019. https://www.droit-afrique.com/uploads/Gabon-Code-2019-hydrocarbures.pdf

[x] One Planet Summit. “One Planet Summit: the results.” 2023. https://oneplanetsummit.fr/en/one-planet-summit-results-170

[xi] One Planet Summit. “One Forest Guardians Coalition.” 2023. https://oneplanetsummit.fr/en/coalitions-82/one-forest-guardians-coalition-252#:~:text=One%20Forest%20Guardians%20Coalition%20Launched%20by%20Uganda%2C%20France,tropical%20forests%20on%20the%20UNESCO%20World%20Heritage%20List

[xii] ERAIFT. “Regional Forum on Nature Conservation and Land Rights of Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples in the Congo Basin.” 25 September 2023. https://eraift-rdc.org/fr/allcategories-fr-fr/80-blog/news/429-forum-regional-sur-la-conservation-de-la-nature-et-droits-fonciers-des-communautes-locales-et-peuples-autochtones-dans-le-bassin-du-congo

[xiii] United Nations Gabon. “UNITED NATIONS SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT COOPERATION FRAMEWORK PLAN IN GABON 2023-2027.” 14 March 2023. https://gabon.un.org/fr/223150-plan-cadre-de-cooperation-du-developpement-durable-des-nations-unies-au-gabon-2023-2027

[xiv] Scaling Up Nutrition. “National Food and Nutritional Security Policy.” May 2017. https://scalingupnutrition.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Version-finale-de-la-PNSAN-Gabon-Mai-2017.pdf

[xv] United Nations Population Fund Gabon. “Decade of Gabonese Women 2015-2025.” 22 March 2018. https://gabon.unfpa.org/fr/publications/decennie-de-la-femme-gabonaise-2015-2025

[xvi] Rights and Resources. “The first forum for Indigenous women and local communities in Central Africa and the Congo Basin.” May 2023. https://rightsandresources.org/fr/forum-des-femmes-autochtones-brazzaville/

Tags: Land rights, Women, Business and Human Rights , Conservation

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