Pygmy lives neglected in forests of the troubled Congo

Posted: 24 April 2009

The provinces of Northern and Southern Kivu are amongst those most affected by deforestation and soil degradation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the 'pygmies' who live there are most at risk from international efforts to combat the problem, writes Joseph Itongwa from the Shirika La Bambuti organization which is fighting for pygmy rights and survival.

The causes of deforestation are many. They include an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries, mining activities, and the presence of armed bands and rebels. In addition, the local inhabitants of the forest are affected by the expansion of road systems, slash and burn agriculture, the growing demand for wood and charcoal for domestic use, and illegal wood cutting, especially along rivers and roads.

It is important to note that while the indigenous 'pygmy' peoples of DRC are not by any means responsible for this deforestation, they are nevertheless the ones who suffer from it the most.

Ba Aka pygmy family, DR Congo
Ba Aka pygmy family, DR Congo
A family from a Ba Aka pygmy village, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Credit: USAID
As the traditional inhabitants of the Kivu forests in the eastern Congo, the Bambuti, Batwa and Babuluko pygmies and their way of life have contributed importantly to the existence and maintenance of these forests. Yet some of these indigenous communities have been forcibly evicted from their territories once they have been designated as 'protection zones', such as the National Parks of Virunga and of Kahuzi Bièga.

In Northern Kivu, 1900 families, making up a population of around 10,000, live in the forest territories of Walikale, Lubero and Beni. The Walikale territory is the largest forest area of Northern Kivu province. In Southern Kivu, Mwenga territory is the only forest area occupied by the Batwa indigenous peoples.

Reform programme

These forests are still intact and the presence of indigenous peoples has never constituted a threat. But under the forest reform programme of the DRC, some of these areas will be distributed as mining, forest and agricultural concessions, resulting in large-scale deforestation and undermining indigenous forest use.

The Shirika la Bambuti organization has many concerns about UN efforts to curb deforestation in the region through its collaborative REDD programmme [REDD aims to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries]. Its main concern is the lack of information available to the indigenous peoples of Kivu, and of the DRC in general, despite the fact that REDD discussions are moving rapidly ahead. These concerns are also triggered by:

  • the limited access to REDD funds by indigenous peoples;
  • the creation of new protection zones by REDD that exclude indigenous peoples, as already experienced with national parks;
  • the protection of forests for their monetary value, rather than the cultural values recognized by indigenous peoples;
  • the absence of well-defined and operational policies that fullfil social obligations to indigenous peoples in cases where REDD projects have impacts on their milieu and interests;
  • the absence thus far of legal provisions that guarantee the protection of indigenous rights in FPCF (Forest Carbon Partnership Facility) contracts with the State and the private sector;
  • the absence of any reference in REDD to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Traditional lands

However, the organization does recognize that REDD could create some new opportunities. It believe that REDD should assist indigenous peoples with the protection of their traditional lands and help to prevent their destruction. It should also enhance recognition of the indigenous practices that have maintained the current state of forests.

Finally, REDD should provide funding to the indigenous peoples of Kivu and the DRC to establish and manage community forests, as the core problem remains the insecurity of their rights to forests and traditional lands.

Two key questions need to be answered. Does REDD provide an effective response to the diverse sources of deforestation and forest degradation? Can REDD live up to the expectations that it has generated amongst indigenous groups world-wide?

Source: This article was made available by On the Frontlines of Climate, a forum for indigenous peoples, small islands and vulnerable communities. To share your views on this topic write to . All responses will be posted on the forum website at www.climatefrontlines.org To join the forum click here