• Republic of Congo

    Republic of Congo

    Located at the heart of the second-largest mass of forest cover in the world, the Republic of Congo covers 342,000 km2 of Central Africa.
  • Peoples

    2,000,000, or 3 per cent of the population, are indigenous, according to civil society organisations’ estimates
  • Rights

    It is noteworthy, that The Democratic Republic of Congo’s climate change-related programmes refer to indigenous peoples’ rights.
  • Challenges

    Land rights and poverty are among the main challenges

The Indigenous World 2021: 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%, 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 peoples’ 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.


2020 was marked by the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken by the Government of Congo to address it.

On 24 June, the World Bank approved USD 50 million in funding from the International Development Association (IDA) to help the Republic of Congo improve household resilience to the COVID-19 crisis.[3]

The Lisungi Project for the Emergency Response to COVID-19[4] (PLRUC) will provide temporary financial support to poor and vulnerable households affected by the COVID-19 health and economic crisis in certain areas of the country.

Nearly 200,000 households will benefit from a one-off emergency cash payment of 50,000 FCFA and a campaign publicising hygiene and sanitation measures. The project will use electronic payments via mobile phones as well as a number of payment service providers to expand the project’s coverage. It will also support income-generating activities for women and marginalised groups, particularly through training in small business management. The project does not explicitly mention Congo’s Indigenous Peoples but does imply that marginalised groups are largely Indigenous.

“Because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on household incomes, it is important to put social safety nets in place to protect the poor and vulnerable at this time of crisis,” explained Jean-Christophe Carret, the World Bank's Director of Operations for the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Burundi.[5]

On 25 January, as part of the second phase of its project in the Republic of Congo, the Order of Malta announced the refurbishment and equipping of the Enyellé health centre, located in Likouala department, where its medical teams are providing medical care to the population.[6] Likouala is the region that is home to the largest Indigenous population, according to Guy Steiner, project leader of the Order of Malta France in Congo, who stated that the population would benefit from medical care once the work on the health centre was complete. “Once it is up and running, we hope by the end of the year, we will begin to do amazing things... We will set up a pharmacy, a laboratory, an operating theatre for essential surgery such as Caesarean sections, hernias, etc.,” explained Guy Steiner.[7]

Thanks to its mobile clinics, the Order of Malta's teams are able to treat people living in remote areas of Likouala, where they provide care to patients suffering from leprosy and other diseases. “The fight against leprosy is at the heart of our work. We travel out to the population using vehicles or canoes. More than 400 cases of leprosy have been discovered,” said the Order of Malta's project leader in Congo.[8]

The Order of Malta will implement this project, which is highly anticipated by the local population, over a three-year period. It is working in partnership with the Congolese Ministry of Health, the French Development Agency, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) and other structures.

Mechanisms for sharing the benefits of using the genetic resources and exploiting the knowledge of local communities and Indigenous Peoples[9]

In August 2020, Cynthia Nina Kiyindou Yombo, Programme Officer for Forest Communities’ Rights and Natural Resources at the Congolese Human Rights Observatory (OCDH), gave an interview to ERA Environnement on the mechanisms in place in Congo.

She explained that Indigenous Peoples’ genetic resources include roots, plants, sap, bark, leaves, as well as those derived from wildlife products such as animal skin and bones. Genetic resources are fundamental to Indigenous communities because their lives depend on them, they are the resources that they use for their pharmacopoeia, for their rituals in the forests or at sacred sites.

She noted that if these resources were managed properly today, there would be no issue over their use. Now, however, with the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people were making use of these resources. Proper regulation by means of a law was therefore needed to ensure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are protected.

 Cynthia Nina Kiyindou Yombo had been involved in some of the work to review the Congolese Forestry Code and, in the latest version adopted by the Council of Ministers on 20 July 2020,[10] a number of provisions were included on resource management and benefit-sharing by and with Indigenous populations. Given that there have since been amendments, however, it is difficult to know whether these provisions have been retained. There have also been delays in enacting the new Forestry Code.

Access to these resources is currently not prohibited for local communities and Indigenous Peoples because they have use rights. These same populations retain these rights of use in logging zones and protected areas: they have the right to take genetic resources for their food security, health and cultural needs.

Cynthia Nina Kiyindou Yombo hoped that the government would take the necessary steps to ensure that these unknown resources receive special attention because they are fundamental to Indigenous communities. There is currently a text protecting Indigenous pharmacopoeia and this is positive. The government must, however, find a solution that is satisfactory to the country’s Indigenous peoples with regard to all genetic resources so that their use will benefit their communities, who have traditionally been the custodians of these resources since time immemorial. Greater legal guarantees are needed because the Nagoya Protocol, to which the Republic of Congo is a signatory, states that all signatory states must take legislative and regulatory measures at the national level to ensure the “benefits arising from the utilization of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources are shared in a fair and equitable way with indigenous and local communities holding such knowledge.”[11]

She therefore called on all authorities and on the financial and technical partners to implement the Nagoya Protocol nationally, which stipulates that there must be “procedures for obtaining prior informed consent or approval and involvement, as appropriate, of indigenous and local communities and establishing mutually agreed terms including benefit-sharing”.[12]

Suspension of US funding of World Wide Fund for Nature and the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Congo Basin[13]

In November, the US government cut more than USD 12 million (approximately EUR 10 million) in funding to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other conservation NGOs, dealing a major blow to the conservation industry. The decision follows a cross-party US investigation into whether federal conservation funds had supported anti-poaching rangers involved in human rights abuses in Africa. WWF and WCS are behind the creation and management of protected areas in Africa and Asia, which have reportedly displaced and negatively affected the lives of thousands of Indigenous and local people[14].

The news was revealed in a leaked government document. It explains how conservation organisations such as WWF have failed to inform the US government that the programmes it is funding are responsible for serious human rights violations in many countries. WWF has been working in the Congo Basin for more than 20 years and supports teams that have committed violent abuses against Congo’s Indigenous Peoples.

The government document heralds unprecedented rules on how environmental projects can be funded, including:

  • Conservation organisations will no longer receive federal funding unless they have obtained the Free, Informed and Prior Consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Peoples.
  • The US will no longer fund eco-guards, law enforcement or community relocation activities, voluntary or not.[15]

The news came just days after the UN Biodiversity Summit at which many government leaders supported WWF’s and WCS’s call to establish protected areas over 30% of the world’s lands by 2030. The revelations contained in the leaked report show how dangerous this would be.


Patrick Kulesza is the Executive President of GITPA and co-author, with Marine Robillard, of the book: Quel avenir pour les Pygmées à l’orée du XXIe siécle? published in 2019 in the Collection “Questions autochtones du GITPA”, L’Harmattan.

This article is part of the 35th 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references

 [1] Population Data. “Congo.”16 March, 2020. https://www.populationdata.net/pays/congo/

[2] République du Congo. “Forest Reference Emission Levels - Submission to the UNFCCC Secretariat.” January, 2016. https://redd.unfccc.int/files/2016_submission_frel_republicofcongo.pdf

[3] La Banque Mondiale. “La République du Congo renforce la protection sociale face à la pandémie COVID-19.” 24 June, 2020. https://www.banquemondiale.org/fr/news/press-release/2020/06/24/republic-of-congo-lisungi-emergency-covid-19-response-project

[4] See Congo Article in GITPA’s French translation of IWGIA’s The Indigenous World 2020:

Bayeni, Emmanuel, and Patrick Kulesza. “République du Congo.” GITPA, 2020. http://gitpa.org/web/CONGO%20en%202019.pdf

[5] La Banque Mondiale. “La République du Congo renforce la protection sociale face à la pandémie COVID-19.” 24 June, 2020. https://www.banquemondiale.org/fr/news/press-release/2020/06/24/republic-of-congo-lisungi-emergency-covid-19-response-project

[6] Elion, Christian Brice. “Santé : l’Ordre de Malte France va rénover l’hôpital d’Enyellé.” Agence d’Information d’Afrique Centrale. 25 January, 2020. https://www.adiac-congo.com/content/sante-lordre-de-malte-france-va-renover-lhopital-denyelle-111932

[7] Agence d'Information d'Afrique Centrale. “Santé : l’Ordre de Malte France va rénover l’hôpital d’Enyellé.” Ordre de Malte. 25 January, 2020. https://www.orderofmalta.int/fr/in-the-news/sante-ordre-de-malte-france-va-renover-hopital-enyelle/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Nzikou-Massala, Marien. “Congo-Brazzaville : «Il faut veiller à ce que l’utilisation des ressources génétiques soit bénéfique aux communautés» – 27 août 2020.” Logging Off. Interview, 27 August, 2020. https://loggingoff.info/library/congo-brazzaville-il-faut-veiller-a-ce-que-lutilisation-des-ressources-genetiques-soit-benefique-aux-communautes-27-aout-2020/

[10] ATIBT News. “La République du Congo promulgue le nouveau Code forestier.” Timber Trade Portal, 29 July, 2020. https://www.timbertradeportal.com/action/news/item/24/la-r-publique-du-congo-promulgue-le-nouveau-code-forestier/?language=3

[11] Convention on Biological Diversity. “Text of the Nagoya Protocol.” 21 May, 2019. https://www.cbd.int/abs/text/

[12] Ibid.

[13] Les Scoops d’Afrique. “Au Congo,les États-Unis suspendent le financement du WWF et de la WCS.” 17 November, 2020. https://www.lescoopsdafrique.com/a-la-une/au-congoles-etats-unis-suspendent-le-financement-du-wwf-et-de-la-wcs/

[14] World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “Embedding Human Rights in Nature Conservation: From Intent to Action. Report of the Independent Panel of Experts of the Independent Review of allegations raised in the media regarding human rights violations in the context of WWF’s conservation work.” 17 November 2020. https://wwfint.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/independent_review___independent_panel_of_experts__final_report_24_nov_2020.pdf

[15]  Les Scoops d’Afrique. “Au Congo,les États-Unis suspendent le financement du WWF et de la WCS.” 17 November, 2020. https://www.lescoopsdafrique.com/a-la-une/au-congoles-etats-unis-suspendent-le-financement-du-wwf-et-de-la-wcs/



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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