23 September 2020: four hundred kilometres from the capital, Brazzaville, sits Ingolo 1, a village of around 1,200 people. The village committee have come together to meet a delegation of civil society organisations (CSOs) to discuss COVID-19. This is the first such meeting since the earliest cases of the disease were confirmed in the Republic of Congo on March 1, 2020.
At the outset of the crisis, the attention of the government’s COVID-19 Unit was focussed in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, the country’s largest cities, to the detriment of the hinterland. But CSOs have now filled this vacuum, even in remote areas.
CSOs and public authorities – fighting the same battle
Being closer to communities, CSOs have applied themselves to supporting and developing communication tools (banners, flyers, posters), and training teams to both carry out awareness-raising and inform local communities about ministerial decisions.
Likewise, the Multi-Actor Concerted Programme (PCPA-Congo), composed of 67 CSO members including two local councils, engage with local populations and carry out actions on the ground. Their recent report explained that 52 per cent of CSOs in this programme are working alongside the government.
Despite restrictions, other organisations are also out in the field. Christian Mounzeo, head of the Rencontre pour la paix et les droits de l’homme (Gathering for Peace and Human Rights; RPDH): “Although travel was difficult for us, because it was necessary to complete administrative formalities to access certain forest localities, in July, we carried out illegal logging monitoring activities.”
For their part, the Congolese Human Rights Observatory (OCDH) recently coupled its mission of monitoring forests, and governance activities in the Congo Basin with an awareness campaign on COVID-19, including distributing masks. They met with communities in Zanaga, Sibiti, and Komono, reviewed communities and forest company workers’ rights, collected information about illegal logging and brought these to the attention of local authorities.
The crisis has not spared the forestry sector’s economy, second in importance after petroleum. “We have seen a decrease in forestry activities in the region, resulting in a decrease in the quantities of logs and other forest products exported. As a result, forestry and tax revenues are reduced,” says Nania Kouassi, head of the SIPAM timber yard and sawmill in Mapati village. “Some of our workers were on technical leave, and we kept only guards and administrative staff.” OCDH recommend that, when activities start up again, SIPAM rehire all staff, thus ensuring their well-being.
Community spirit in the time of COVID-19
Confinement has ignited an awakening of community spirit. “We seized the chainsaw of a company that illegally cut wood in our forests, taking advantage of the period when everyone was confined,” says the village chief of Missama, showing the seized tools. “Thanks to a community alert system, we were able to get our hands on the equipment, although the operators fled. We then informed the Departmental Directorate of Forest Economy, which seized the illegally cut timber.”
For communities, measures such as the curfew, a ban on gatherings and closed borders have made interactions with communities who feel abandoned by public authorities more critical. “We are not afraid of COVID, but rather of the famine that will kill us, because up to now, no support measures are coming from public authorities and only rarely are civil society organisations starting to visit us,” explains Anatole Ngoubili, Indigenous leader of the Ingolo 2 village.
The Congolese government promised vulnerable families a solidarity fund of 50,000 FCFA (76 EUR), each but it did not reach populations in Zanaga, or Komono. “We carry on and respect the barrier measures of the disease. We have learned that the government is distributing funds, unfortunately we have not yet benefited,” Ngoubili says.
To take charge, therefore, some local Indigenous women have resolved to “go back to the forest”, and start picking wild asparagus, commonly called “koko ou mfumbu” and other non-wood forest products, to sell on their plots.
According to these forest populations, the coronavirus “is a disease brought back by people from the city”. Believing that it offers safer shelter, Ipari Gaston, Indigenous member of Loyo village, resolves to camp in the forest, far from contact with the Bantu. “My family and I have chosen to go deep into our settlements in the forest to avoid this disease, as we have no way to protect ourselves living together with the Bantu here. In our natural environment, we shield ourselves better,” he confides.
Categories: The Republic of Congo