In the Congo Basin, deforestation is threatening indigenous peoples, hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the resources provided by nature. On the occasion of the International Day dedicated to them every year on August 9, takes stock of the dangers facing these minority populations.
They are the first guardians of the forest. The indigenous peoples of the Congo Basin, known as Pygmies, have been living among the trees for centuries. Today, there are estimated to be a few hundred thousand of them living in the forest and relying on the resources of nature.
But with the acceleration of deforestation, their rights are being violated. Every year, on August 9, the UN dedicates an International Day to these indigenous peoples who are minorities and threatened worldwide.
Considered as the second green lung of the planet after the Amazon – or possibly the first according to a recent study whose preliminary results still need to be confirmed – the Congo Basin is home to 200 million hectares of forest, spread across six countries. About 60% of its area is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The remaining 40% is shared between Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea.
Historically, this region has had a low deforestation rate. But over the past two decades, improved forest accessibility has changed the situation. “The countries of the Congo Basin have benefited from significant development investments, including road construction,” explains Marine Gauthier, an expert in indigenous peoples’ rights and forest governance. “These roads have improved access to indigenous peoples’ villages, but they have also facilitated access to the forest for people who want to engage in agriculture, logging, or other activities.”
It is estimated that two million hectares of forest are destroyed each year in the Congo Basin. In 2022 alone, the Democratic Republic of Congo lost over half a million hectares, a figure similar to previous years, according to a report by the NGO Global Forest Watch published on June 27. The country accounted for 13% of global losses, behind Brazil (43%).
To protect the forest, Central African countries have made commitments, but they are not always respected due to insecurity in certain areas and political governance issues.
Estelle Ewoule Lobe, co-founder and executive secretary of the Action for the Protection of Internal Displaced Persons and Environmental Migrants in Africa (Apadime), denounces the illegal logging in the Congo Basin in Cameroon.
“In addition to violating the law and international agreements, traffickers who exploit forests without permission greatly violate the rights of indigenous peoples,” she laments, denouncing “corruption” within institutions responsible for forest management. “Some indigenous populations live in extreme poverty because logging companies do not always fulfill social contracts involving the construction of schools or water points,” says Estelle Ewoule Lobe.
Peoples “destined to disappear”
Lack of schools, lack of water… Pygmies can also face great difficulties in feeding themselves and receiving medical care. “Their traditional pharmacopoeia depends entirely on the forest,” emphasizes Marine Gauthier. “Cutting down this forest means depriving these peoples of their habitat, pharmacy, source of food, and everything that makes up their way of life. These are peoples destined to disappear.”
By continuing to exclude indigenous peoples from their own ecosystem, according to the two experts, the risk is the loss of identity. “Many of these indigenous peoples have already left the forest,” says Marine Gauthier.
“In Kinshasa [the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo], we find them in slums. When they leave their environment, there is inevitably a loss of identity. We are talking about a minority with an extremely fragile way of life. Today, we cannot assume that they are safe from cultural extinction.”
The mobilization of civil society and non-governmental organizations has allowed indigenous peoples to regain some of their fundamental rights, including recognition of their status. Marine Gauthier remembers that when she started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011, the term “indigenous peoples” was still difficult to use.
“Some people said that we should talk about Congolese people in general and not indigenous peoples, as that would be discriminatory. Even the government had difficulty acknowledging the presence of indigenous peoples on its territory. There was a desire to completely deny any different ethnic belonging.”
“Things must change with the Pygmies”
Marine Gauthier affirms that “the rights of indigenous peoples are less violated today than they were a decade ago.” The expert is pleased that these rights are now taken into account in the majority of international agreements. She also indicates that international organizations financing and supporting international forest preservation policies are increasingly sensitive to the rights of indigenous peoples. “But we should not do things for the Pygmies without involving the Pygmies. Things must change with them.”
The most recent example is the law on indigenous peoples promulgated in November 2022 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thanks to the mobilization of a national network of indigenous Pygmy organizations called Dynamique des groupes des peuples autochtones (DGPA). Thanks to this law, the Pygmies can benefit, among other things, from free healthcare and legal fees.
“Activists have supported this law for over ten years, organizing demonstrations and defending their project in the Assembly. It is a great advancement,” says Marine Gauthier.
The improvement of indigenous peoples’ rights is primarily a fight led by civil society and non-governmental actors. In villages, Estelle Ewoule Lobe is particularly involved in training community leaders “capable of acting as representatives of their community to the state and associations to raise awareness of the difficulties they face,” explains the Cameroonian.
“They need to be equipped, sensitized, and trained in forest legislation to enable them to be protection agents fighting against environmental crime.”