The Complexities of Deforestation and Indigenous Rights: perspectives from Central Africa

21 April 2009

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, Central Africa), the provinces of Northern and Southern Kivu are amongst those most affected by deforestation and soil degradation, writes Joseph Itongwa from the Shirika La Bambuti organization. This is due, amongst other things, to:

    - an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries;
    - mining activities that accelerate deforestation and degradation, and that are further exacerbated by the presence of armed bands and rebels;
    - the expansion of road infrastructure;
    - slash and burn agriculture, where soils, exploited without fallow periods, lose the major part of the minerals that ensure soil fertility and are exhausted to the point of preventing tree re-growth;
    - growing demographic pressures;
    - high demand for wood and charcoal for domestic use, including demand from urban areas;
    - illegal wood cutting, in particular along rivers and roads.

It is important to note, says Joseph, 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.

The Bambuti, Batwa and Babuluko pygmies are the indigenous and first inhabitants of the provinces of Northern and Southern Kivu in eastern DRC. As the traditional inhabitants, their presence in the Kivu forests 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 due to their designation as integral protection zones, such as the National Parks of Virunga and of Kahuzi Bièga.

It should be noted that in Northern Kivu, 1900 families, some 9500 persons, 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. These forests are still intact and the presence of indigenous peoples has never constituted a threat. Under the forest reform programme of the DRC, however, some of these areas will be distributed as mining, forest and agricultural concessions, which will result in large-scale deforestation and undermine current indigenous forest use.

On the one hand, the Shirika la Bambuti organization has a number of concerns with respect to REDD, notably 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 integral 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;
    - and finally, the absence of any reference in REDD to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On the other hand, the organization also recognizes that REDD could create some new opportunities. They believe that REDD should assist indigenous peoples with the protection of their traditional lands and the avoidance of 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.

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?

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