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How civil society is protecting forests and Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Congo

20 March 2020

How civil society is protecting forests and Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Congo

Nina Cynthia Kiyindou is a lawyer, and head of Natural Resources and Forest Community Rights at Fern’s partner, Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l'Homme (OCDH). OCDH was created in Brazzaville in 1994 by a group of journalists, lawyers and teachers, with the aim of promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Congo. Nina works with forest peoples and Indigenous communities promoting their collective rights, and has been with OCDH since 2008. Before then, she was a consultant and researcher specialising in Indigenous Peoples’ laws. 

Here she outlines how OCDH is tackling the deep-seated, complex problems many forest communities face when conservation and logging operations arrive in their areas, as vividly highlighted in Laudes Martial Mbon’s accompanying article

 

Q: How did you come to work on the challenges facing Indigenous Peoples and forest communities? 

A: Initially, OCDH wasn’t interested in forestry issues. Its mandate was solely to promote and defend ‘classical’ human rights. But our work on Indigenous Peoples’ rights began when we then published a report in 2006 in which the extent of the problems communities faced - particularly from the forestry companies - was strikingly evident. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges Congo’s forest communities face? 

A: One big challenge for Indigenous Peoples and local communities, is that they cannot effectively participate in forest management and forest processes. Forest management is at the local level. The forest processes are the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA), Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). 

Communities don’t have effective access to protected areas. There is a law on wildlife and protected areas that protects the rights of use, but it’s not enforced. There are many conflicts between forest communities and the agencies that manage the parks. 

People rely on these areas for non-timber forest products (NTFP), including game and bark, leaves and bones. 

Securing customary land rights is another big hurdle for communities. Beyond customary rights, the law requires registration [land titling] and imposes various conditions. The challenge for communities facing complex and unjust laws, is comparable to the land grabbing phenomenon, which emanates from forestry projects, as well as mining, agro-industrial and infrastructure ventures. 

When a company signs an agreement with the state, it must take certain measures in favour of the communities. The implementation of these obligations requires regular monitoring. But many companies make social obligation commitments but do nothing. And communities have a real problem in tracking these commitments. 

Another problem is the management of Local Development Funds (LDF): they are only present in developed areas. It is a profit-sharing mechanism where the company collects 200 Central African Francs (0.3 Euro) per cubic meter of timber and pays it to the LDF. Normally, communities can tap into this fund to carry out economic activities, but it is very difficult for them to develop projects that meet the FDL's requirements. Funds are also widely misappropriated. 

 

Q: How does OCDH help build the capacity of forest communities? 

We do this in many ways: 

  • Helping communities know their rights. The better a community knows their rights, the better they will defend them. 
  • Capacity building on legal means to defend their rights, especially when they are facing companies who do not involve them or listen to them. OCDH have developed petition / complaint templates for the communities. 
  • Support in legal remedies. OCDH provides both court and pre-court assistance when community members are prosecuted. 
  • Institutional support for community-based organisations (CBOs). These are organisations that do not have a legal existence or legal status. OCDH helps CBOs become recognised and acquire legal capacity. Once this is achieved, communities can easily participate in decision-making processes at the local level. 

Q: To what extent do forest communities in Congo participate in the VPA process? Are they able to make decisions about the natural resources they depend on? 

Communities are absent in decision-making processes about forests, be they VPA, REDD or CAFI. 

Decisions are taken at the central level in Brazzaville. It is difficult to bring communities to sessions of the Joint Implementation Committee of the VPA. 

Q: Are there any specific problems faced by women in forest communities? 

Women's opinions often do not count. They are marginalised in the community, relegated to the background. This means that they are often absent in forest governance as well as in the governance of all resources. 

They are excluded, even though they are the most impacted by forestry activities. 

In the Congo, women play a leading role in the survival of the family: they bring food into the home. They go into the forest to harvest NTFPs and are under pressure from businesses. For example, their small fields are destroyed by forestry or infrastructural activities. 

Q: How can Congo’s forests be better protected, and the lives of those who survive off them be improved? 

It should begin by taking into account the human rights dimension in all public policies in forestry. 

If we strengthen the rights of communities, it will improve many things: we will strengthen the means of survival instead of destroying them. It would also improve the living conditions, that means the drinking water, housing, access to public lighting, access to school and health. 

Conservation policy, for example, does not consider the human dimension - it protects animals more than forest communities. 

There must also be greater involvement of local and Indigenous communities in forest management, regardless of the type of project (whether logging or conservation). There is no framework for consultation: communities are not listened to or informed. 

Finally, the legal framework should be strengthened: to carry out the necessary reforms in forest laws. We must insist on harmonisation with international conventions ratified by the State: for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Nagoya Protocol on Genetic Resources, or the Human Rights Charter. 

Read 'Pitfalls and Promises of Congo's New Forest Eldorado' 

Categories: Blogs, Forest Governance, Community forestry, Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), The Republic of Congo

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