November 2022 update: On November 16, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo signed and promulgated the new law recognising the rights of the Indigenous Pygmy Peoples. Patrick Saidi, coordinator of our Congo Basin Programme partner Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA), writes for Mongabay about the importance of this new law and what needs to happen next.
April 2021 update: We are delighted to report some excellent news from our Congo Basin partner Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) regarding the campaign mentioned in this article: On 7th April 2021, the National Assembly finally adopted a law to promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a majority of votes for and only one against, this is an incredible victory for hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Peoples who will now have the same rights as other Congolese citizens, including access to free healthcare and education. Our partner DGPA and its collaborators are optimistic and getting ready to prepare the next steps and help implementing this law.
Walks in the forest always have an incredibly peaceful and refreshing effect on my mind. When I was a child, I learnt how to identify wildlife species and track their signs with my dad – patience and observation were the key to seeing a roe deer or a pine marten. And what a magical moment and privilege to witness a beautiful animal for a few seconds before it disappears under the protective shelter of its forest! It is therefore not surprising that my conservation work and aspirations were so often guided by these two things: observing nature and learning from local people.
Throughout my career as a conservationist in Africa, I have learnt so much from local people living in the bush or in the forest: I have always considered them as the “guardians of nature”. All of them started to develop special bonds with their natural environment during their childhood, so it is natural for them to care for and protect it.
Patrick Saidi, DGPA coordinator. Image © Chris Scarffe
The Congo Basin
In the Congo Basin, Indigenous Peoples – also known as ‘Pygmies’ – are a very good example, as they have lived for generations in incredibly diverse, but also challenging environments. Their culture and traditions are intimately related to the forest and its biodiversity. But, in this part of Africa – also known as the world’s second largest river basin and the second largest rainforest on the planet – forest peoples have been persecuted for decades and – most importantly – denied access to their home. How has such an injustice happened?
Reversing the legacy of colonialism
Let’s take the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – this country is home to 60 per cent of the Congo Basin forests. To understand we need to go back to colonial times, when local communities and Indigenous Peoples living in the region had systems of land rights to solve potential disputes and conflicts on their territories. Over time, the recognition of these customary land rights was entirely excluded from laws established by the colonial state and its postcolonial successors so subsequently these customary lands became the exclusive property of the state. Land and resource rights were transferred to third parties as concessions – in this system, local communities and Indigenous Peoples were then considered as illegal occupants on their ancestral lands.