Indigenous communities, like the Batwas (also known as Pygmies*), in the Congo’s forest have been marginalized as long as they can remember. They had no land to call their own—with dire consequences—until 7 April 2021
NORTH KIVU, Congo — Sibazuri stands in the maize farm where she has taken refuge. Relief radiates from her face, shielded by a wall at the periphery of the village. Until now she has planted maize with trepidation, afraid that one of the militia groups in the forest might kill her. “I once went to gather firewood when an armed person found me and said that I have no right to live here, no right to touch others, no right to mingle,” Sibazuri recalls. “Because I am a Batwa.”
Forests are the primary source of life for indigenous peoples, their inhabitant par excellence.
Over the years, however, they have repeatedly been evicted from their lands due to the creation and expansion of protected areas (such as national parks), without their prior consent or compensation. Another reason is the granting of titles by the government to artisanal and industrial companies in the mining, timber and agriculture sector.
The continuous wars and occupation of areas belonging to indigenous peoples by armed groups have led to increasing insecurity in the area, forcing the marginalized community to leave in search of safety.
“I am lucky to be alive,” Sibazuri adds. On the morning of 14 January 2021, in the village of Masini, in Ituri Province, at least 46 Batwa men, women, children and the elderly were reported to have been massacred in an attack denounced by the International Land Coalition. The ADF/NALU and other militia groups in the region claimed responsibility for the killings. According to sources on the ground—including survivors—approached by the International Land Coalition members, the massacres were an attempt by the militia groups to control the land and ancestral territory of the indigenous people of Central Africa.
That morning, Sibazuri fled for her life.
Killings and massacres linked to land grabbing are sadly nothing new. Land conflicts opposing the indigenous Batwa (Twa) and the Bantus (Babuluba), such as the Tanganyika one, have been extremely violent. In the case of Beni and Ituri, it was “a war of occupation” by the militia ADF Nalu. In the territory of Monkoto, in Tshuapa, the conflict over land - and the occupation of the land belonging to the Batwas by the Bantu - were bloody.
By being forced out of the ecosystem they have depended on for millennia, the Congolese indigenous people lost the land they call their own. In a country that was torn by a civil war for more than 20 years leading to the death of 6 million people, the indigenous population (counting around 600,000 people) is considered at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
Twice a week, Sibazuri and other Batwas wake up at 6 a.m. and trek three hours into the forests of Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga. Above them looms the volatile volcano, Nyiragongo. In 1952, when the area became a park, the Batwas were evicted and it was declared illegal to hunt and gather in the area making it impossible for them to sustain themselves. Despite that, they continue to return to their ancestral territory to gather honey, potatoes, and medicinal plants—for their livelihoods.
In this scenario, it became urgent to protect the indigenous peoples of the Congo.
Their safety is constantly threatened by armed groups, oil companies, and poachers. Rangers are extensively trained to evict them from the park, and a community development program called the Virunga Alliance has become one of the area’s biggest employers. Tensions remain between those protecting the park’s two million acres—one-third of the world’s mountain gorillas call Virunga home—and communities that have relied on its ecosystem for centuries. Worldwide, it is estimated that 20 million indigenous people have been displaced in the name of conservation.
The Long Road to Recognition
“It all started with raising awareness among indigenous peoples on the challenges they face across the country,” says Diel Mochire, the Provincial Director of Program for the Integration and Development of the Pygmy People in North Kivu, an International Land Coalition Africa member. “These include discrimination, marginalization, social disrepute, and exclusion.”
Since 2015, the Program for the Integration and Development of the Pygmy People, the Union for the Emancipation of Indigenous Women, the Council for the Defense of the Environment through Legality and Traceability, and Environment Resources Naturelles et Développement—all International Land Coalition members—came together for local advocacy.
They started advocating for the promotion, defense and protection of indigenous peoples by organising meetings, capacity building sessions, educational workshops and by providing indigenous peoples with the legal instruments to participate in international frameworks. With support from the International Land Coalition, they documented the human rights situation of indigenous peoples in DRC. They also prepared and transmitted informational reports to human rights councils and treaty bodies during their periodical universal review. But they needed a legal framework to stop indigenous peoples from being abused, so they joined efforts to take the case to the Congolese Parliament.
“We convinced the parliamentarians who had formed a collective, but whose proposal unfortunately was not able to be endorsed during the past Legislature, that legal recognition is possible,” remembers Diel. “In our Legislature, only one member of the civil society had accepted the initiative by endorsing the law and presenting it to the National Assembly, and who had convinced his political allies to support it.”
After taking the issue to Parliamentarians, International Land Coalition members in the Democratic Republic of the Congo held consultation sessions across the country in order to inform and collect the opinion of indigenous peoples, local communities and local authorities. As a result, local voices were not only heard but they were able to actively contribute to designing the proposal. Finally, they formed alliances with other influential actors in the country, such as religious leaders, government officials and company executives to mark the United Nations International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples (held on August 9). “We also initiated several follow-up sessions after the deposit (of the future law) was done,” Diel says.
They held their breath until Wednesday, 7 April 2021.
Members of Parliament gathered, and voting began. Within an hour history was made, a very important step on the bill to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, almost one year after the law was initiated in the country’s National Assembly.
99% of the deputies present in the hemicycle-shaped building voted in favour of the law. “This is a significant step towards integration and equal opportunities for our fellow human beings and compatriots,” said Guy Mafuta, Member of Parliament, quoted by Ouragan FM, in Kinshasa.
The adoption of the law was preceded by a debate, which raised an amendment on the duration of its application, once it is promulgated by the head of state. According to Article 142 of the Congolese Constitution, a 30-day period is required. Garry Sakata, Member of Parliament, requested for 60 days instead of 30 days.
The amendment was accepted.
For the deputy Ruben Rachidi Bukanga, who carried the agenda of the law during the current Congolese Legislative, the adoption is historic. “I have to be sincere. Since I became a Member of Parliament, this is the first time that a law has been passed by all members of the Parliament, with only one no,” he says. “It means that the deputies understood the problems that we raised for these people.”
Diel Mochire could not contain his joy after the adoption. “I have been committed for more than 25 years to work on the issue of rights for the indigenous peoples,” he says with a smile, “with a view to fighting for the improvement of the conditions of their lives in all aspects.”
From her maize farm where she celebrates the news of the law, Sibazuri recalls how, before the its adoption, Batwa women “suffered acts of violence, and other cases of multiple abuse, just for being different.”
The law will not only protect indigenous communities as a whole, but it also marks an important step forward in terms of protecting women’s rights and wellbeing. The negative impact that the abuses have had on indigenous women’s health, education and sense of empowerment have been affecting the whole community.
The central role they play in the life of the community will hopefully be restored and finally protected. “Despite the denunciation of bad practices and violence against indigenous women, Bantu women hardly include them in their advocacy initiatives for the advancement of women in the DRC,” Diel says on the topic of how Batwas women have been affected by the alienation.