In June 2022, the EU announced that NaturAfrica, its new flagship conservation programme, will replace the Central African Forest Ecosystems Programme (ECOFAC). NaturAfrica is part of the European Green Deal’s global biodiversity strategy to protect wildlife and ecosystems, harness economic opportunities for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) in green sectors, and strengthen these communities and populations’ involvement in EU programmes that support biodiversity.
Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are concerned that the initiative might notstrengthen the rights of forest communities living on the periphery and in protected areas, especially as its development was surrounded in secrecy. Unlike other EU environmental initiatives such as the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Regulation, engagement with civil society organisation (CSOs) working on community rights has been limited.
Although they support efforts to tackle deteriorating biodiversity, NGOs want to ensure that the EU does not take a fortress conservation approach that excludes local forest communities and has even led to abuses in the past. One EU promoted example is the controversial project to turn the Messok - Dja area of Republic of Congo into a national park. A 2020 UNDP report concluded that efforts to establish the protected area had led to violence and threats against the local communities and Indigenous Baka populations. It is important to note, however that the EU revisited its conservation programmes after the Messok Dja abuses to include Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
The Congo Basin is home to approximately one million Indigenous peoples and local communities who have ages-long social, cultural, and economic ties to the land and nature. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), they have protected more than 100 million hectares of forest, as their practices and values guide their relationship to nature. According to Joseph Itongwa from Réseau des Populations Autochtones et Locales pour la gestion durable des écosystèmes forestiers d’Afrique Centrale (REPALEAC), these efforts are largely ignored in many international programmes; as a result, the programmes have taken away forest dwellers’ land and livelihoods.
Therefore, to successfully design and implement NaturAfrica, Europe must shepherd a new conservation model and address the human rights issues and land dispossession that have often accompanied its conservation initiatives.
Itongwa explains that the central question is how to guarantee the legal protection of the territories, livelihoods, and rights of IPLCs; how to support traditional conservation methods; and how to guarantee access and ensure fair distribution of benefits.
The DRC’s new law on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Indigenous Pygmy Peoples adopted by the national Senate in June constitutes a major step in this regard. The law – the second of its kind in the Central Africa region – will strengthen recognition of the uses, customs and pharmacopoeia of DRC’s Indigenous Pygmy peoples and improve their land tenure and resource rights. The Republic of Congo pioneered similar legislation in 2011, but its implementation is weak and patchy. To date, only six texts have been adopted, but CSOs continues to advocate for more.
The question many are now asking is whether NaturAfrica will be a game changer and champion an inclusive approach based on the rights of forest communities, which benefits both these communities and biodiversity.
“We are asking that NaturAfrica invests in traditional community conservation of Indigenous Peoples, not based on conventional protected areas, because ECOFAC has had problems,” Itongwa explains. “In the DRC, we don’t want ‘policed conservation’ anymore. We must put an end to the opacity of conservation programmes, and make sure that they benefit Indigenous Peoples and the state. We need to learn from good practices in other regions – for example, the transfer of taxes from protected areas to the state.”
To ensure that the EU’s conservation programmes do not violate human rights, and truly contribute to the fight against deforestation and biodiversity loss, it is crucial that NaturAfrica, as well as any European nature conservation initiative, is developed and implemented in consultation with local communities, Indigenous Peoples and women, as well as other marginalised groups. It is equally important that independent NGOs monitor its impacts, applying such tools as external Independent Monitoring in the forest sector.