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One step closer: indigenous peoples’ rights in the DRC

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By Eunice Nsikak Olembo, Africa Legal Officer at Minority Rights Group

After nine years of tenacious advocacy by indigenous rights campaigners, recently the Senate of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) adopted a proposed bill bringing its indigenous peoples one step closer to legislation that formally recognizes and protects their rights. While the bill brings hope for the future, it comes at a time when indigenous peoples in the DRC continue to endure serious human rights abuses.

In the DRC, indigenous people’ refers to four main groups of people in ten of the country’s eleven provinces: Mbuti (Bambuti), Baka (Bacwa), Batwa of the West and Twa of the East. While the government estimates indigenous people to number at around 600,000, civil society organizations argue that the number is closer to 2 million people, totaling about 3 per cent of the total population. The exact number of indigenous people in the country remains unknown.

The DRC is approximately 65 per cent forest and the lives of its indigenous peoples are intimately connected to these forests. In the name of conservation, protected areas have been created; indigenous peoples are uprooted from their ancestral lands and traditional ways of life. Most are left in poverty and find their culture endangered. There is an inextricable link between the land rights of indigenous peoples and their ability to access their other human rights and live in equality to other citizens.

This has been the story of the Batwa, who have lived in the forests of Kahuzi-Biega for generations. In 1970, the National Park of Kahuzi-Biega (PNKB) was created, becoming one of the country’s biggest protected areas. Yet in 1975, the park’s borders were expanded, increasing its size tenfold. To do this, the government forcibly evicted 6,000 Batwa residents. They were not given any prior warning, compensation, or means of relocation and reparation. Rendered squatters at the park’s margins, they experience tremendous poverty, marginalization and human rights violations. Often, when they attempt to enter their forest to practice their culture, collect medicinal plants, search for food or hunt, they are often stopped, shot and killed.

The DRC refuses to include Batwa in the management of the park, despite mounting proof that recognizing indigenous land titles is critical in safeguarding ecosystems worldwide. Instead, Batwa have continued to face grievous human rights violations; in 2021, attacks were reported in six Batwa villages, with at least 20 killed, 15 raped, two burnt alive, several bodies mutilated and hundreds forcibly displaced at the hands of paramilitarily trained park guards and soldiers. This latest wave in a long history of violence suffered by Batwa is rooted in their original expulsion from the forests of Kahuzi-Biega.

This Bill will enable the DRC to work towards the protection of its indigenous peoples as vulnerable communities. The proposed Bill provides that: 

  • access to justice shall be guaranteed to indigenous peoples as per the Constitution; 
  • the State shall take into consideration the traditional customs and practices of the indigenous peoples;  
  • the State shall take appropriate measures to facilitate the exercise of indigenous peoples’ rights and ensure their implementation.

Affirmative action measures to address historical inequalities are also included in the proposed Bill. One measure would require the State to guarantee access, without discrimination, to free education and scholarships to indigenous children at all levels and for all courses organized by public institutions.

Interventions like these are an important first step to addressing the long-term, structural inequalities suffered by indigenous peoples. But the Bill fails to take into account historical injustices brought about by the theft of ancestral lands. The Bill neither provides mechanisms for the restoration of lands nor any means of reparation or compensation. For Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega, as for many indigenous peoples worldwide, their homeland is central to their economic, cultural, intellectual and spiritual life, even their very existence.

In Kenya, the Ogiek community have recently won a landmark case concerning their 2009 eviction from their own ancestral homeland, the Mau Forest. In 2017, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in their favour, recognizing the violations perpetrated against them. But instead of recognizing that judgment, on the grounds of the ecological importance of the forest, the Kenyan Government took a series of actions that further endangered the community. Just as with Batwa in the DRC, the name of conservation was wielded in the denial of indigenous peoples rights.

In addition to moral and material damages, the judgment in favour of the Ogiek people underscores that the government of Kenya must take all necessary measures, in consultation with them, to grant them collective land title and assure them unfettered use and enjoyment of their lands. With a complaint being brought to the Commission on behalf of Batwa, by MRG and the Congolese NGO Environnement, Ressources Naturelles et Développement, such a historic judgment by the African Court sets an important precedent for the Batwa of Kauzi-Biega to seek justice.

Unable to access the rights enjoyed by other citizens and marginalized from policies and decision-making, indigenous peoples in the DRC have been left behind. While the Government of the DRC is looking forward with this law, it also needs to take a moment to address current human rights abuses and look back to remedy the historical injustices that its indigenous peoples have suffered.

 

Photo: A Batwa village in the forests of Kahuzi-Biega, before the attacks of July 2019. Credit: Robert Flummerfelt.

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