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Inaugural Indigenous women’s forum spotlights Congo Basin conservation

A woman farmer in Yanonge, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • This week, leaders from Indigenous women’s organizations, environment and land management groups and philanthropists are meeting in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, for a forum aimed at strengthening the role of Indigenous women in Congo Basin land management and conservation.
  • Organizers hope the forum will result in a fund for Central African Indigenous women supporting biodiversity and climate resilience.
  • Research shows that 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in territory managed by Indigenous peoples, yet Congo Basin countries receive scarce funding for conservation.

On May 8, the first forum of Indigenous women and local communities from Central Africa and the Congo Basin opened in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.

This forum, organized by the Network of Indigenous and Local People for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa and the NGO Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), is bringing together in one place leaders from national Indigenous women’s organizations, political actors in environment and land management and big philanthropists including the Bezos Earth Fund and Christensen Fund.

The aim is to raise awareness and strengthen the role of Indigenous women in the management and conservation of the Congo Basin, the largest rainforest in Africa.

“We, women, are on the front line of biodiversity and climate resilience. It is important that we are taken into account, that we are listened to and that we can act,” says Brunelle Ibula Bolondo, an Indigenous Motwa woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

At the end of the five-day forum, organizers hope to create a subregional fund for Indigenous women in Central Africa for biodiversity conservation and climate resilience. They hope for the commitment of donors to dedicate funds to support the newly established Southern Women’s Alliance for Tenure and Climate and support the call to help fund Indigenous, local and Afro-descendant women’s organizations in Latin America.

Local women plant manioc and collect firewood
Local women plant manioc and collect firewood in Lokolama/Penzele Indigenous pygmy village, Bikoro district, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

At the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, several Western countries and large organizations pledged $1.7 billion from 2021 to 2025 to support the advancement of forest tenure rights for Indigenous peoples and local communities. This is part of the funding these organizations in the Congo Basin hope to benefit from.

“Women have rarely had access to funds because people think they have limited capacities and they can’t manage projects. Meanwhile, even without finance, women have been managing their forests. If they are more supported, they will do more,” says Omaira Bolaños, RRI director of gender and justice. “Indigenous female attendees want that to change; they want to access funding directly and not be left out of climate finance,” she tells Mongabay.

The paucity of funds made available to Congo Basin countries for conservation has been a matter of debate for quite a while now. In December, during the U.N. biodiversity conference, industrially developing nations holding the world’s greatest rainforests, including the DRC, Brazil and Indonesia, demanded greater and direct funding from industrially developed nations to support forest conservation, will receive $70 billion less per year than what they were hoping. It is therefore important for these women in the Congo Basin to find other sources of funding for their projects.

“In this forum, a lot of women’s activities will be presented, [and] video showcased. We will bring these women together with donors and policymakers to show what Indigenous women are doing on the ground and what their actions are to contribute to conservation policies. This will be an opportunity to demonstrate the role and experiences of Indigenous women in climate resilience and adaptation for them to get access to funds,” says Bolaños.

Indigenous women from DRC sharing during the forum. Marie Dorothee Lisenga on the left Image by Victoire Douniama, courtesy of RRI Communications. Brazzaville, Congo May 9, 2023
Indigenous women from DRC sharing during the forum. Image by Victoire Douniama, courtesy of RRI Communications

At the forum, women leaders from Indigenous and local communities in the Congo Basin will also meet with Indigenous women from other continents.

“For me, this forum is really important. It’s going to be an opportunity to meet each other, to share our struggles, our initiatives, our victories. We’ll be able to see how things are done elsewhere and draw inspiration from them,” says Liberate Nicayenzi, the founder of Unissons-nous pour la Promotion des Batwa, which raises awareness among the Batwa about education. “I hope to gather a lot of ideas that will help us in our battles once we return home.”

According to estimates, about 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in territories managed by Indigenous peoples who constitute just 5% of the world’s population. Recent studies also show global biodiversity goals, such as reversing biodiversity loss and restoring degraded lands, to be unattainable without the inclusion of IPLCs and their traditional ecological knowledge and values of living in harmony with nature.

“We live from fishing, hunting and gathering. We also do agriculture but on a small scale, to feed ourselves. All our resources are coming from the forest: food, our tools but also our medicines. We cure ourselves with the plants we find, we have a great botanical knowledge,” says Bolondo. This woman farmer lives in a community in Kiri, in the Maï-Ndombe province in the west of the DRC. In 2019, she founded AFAP, the Association of Indigenous Pygmy Women, for the defense of Pygmy women’s rights [the Batwa are Pygmies].

“It is also in the forest that we can find our sacred places, that we can communicate with our ancestors. Because of deforestation, we are losing our wealth.”

The Congo Basin contains the world’s second-largest rainforest, including DRC, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic (CAR). A globally important carbon sink, it is also a huge biodiversity reserve home to the remaining critically endangered eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) and the world’s only wild okapis (Okapia johnstoni).

A farmer in Luhonga, DRC.
A farmer in Luhonga, DRC. Located only a few miles from Virunga National Park, it is common practice for locals to illegally enter the park to collect wood and make charcoal for fuel. Image by CARPE Congo Basin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

According to the State of Central Africa’s Forests report, published by the Central African Forest Commission in 2022, “about 9 percent of the TMF [Tropical Moist Forest] area of Central Africa has disappeared since 2000, representing 18 million ha” (about 44.5 million acres, roughly the size of Cambodia). According to the report, the activities that cause deforestation are industrial logging, agriculture and artisanal logging for subsistence farming, small-scale charcoal production and fuelwood collection. Poverty and changing circumstances in the Congo Basin help drive communities, which often rely on forests, into these industries in order to meet their agriculture and energy needs — further spurring calls for better funding in the region to encourage sustainable livelihoods.

Land tenure and natural resource governance will also be at the center of the Brazzaville Forum. Indigenous peoples in the region often face land-grabbing due to biodiversity conservation projects for protected areas leading to their eviction or restriction in accessing resources. In Africa, in particular, there’s a long history of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) being driven from their customary lands to make way for protected areas such as Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Kibira National Park in Burundi. The Batwa populations have had to leave these areas, sometimes by force, because of what some have called a Western ideal of conservation or Green Colonialism.

Nicayenzi agrees. “Originally, forests were our territory. It’s where we go to get food, wood, bamboo that we can then sell; but with the laws to protect biodiversity, the forests have become protected areas and we no longer have access to them. And nobody consulted us,” she says.

Many of the attendees of the conference are minorities also suffering discrimination in their countries. In Burundi, for example, where Nicayenzi comes from, despite the Constitution, which states that all Burundians are equal, many Batwa people continue to suffer from Ubugererwa, a form of serfdom that does not allow them access to land ownership.

Pointing to a 2009 report by the NGO Forest Peoples Programme, Nicayenzi says it is an ongoing reality that a majority of Batwa “live in rural areas, on collective land without written titles.” Some Batwa who have received land from the administrative authorities hold administrative documents attesting to the possession or granting of collective land; however, because the Batwa are often poor and “the Batwa concept of collective ownership is not taken into account, there is no land title registration for Batwa land”.

Batwas women and children resting after harvesting
Batwa women and children resting after harvesting from Mututu forest reserve, Burundi. Image by Intu BOEDHIHARTONO/IUCNweb via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

However, the national legislative apparatus is constantly evolving. For example, in Burundi, since 2005, the Constitution reserves six seats in Parliament for Batwa, finally allowing them to voice their struggles and concerns. In the DRC, a law was promulgated in 2022, marking the first time Indigenous people were legally recognized as a distinct people with rights and access to free, prior and informed consent before the government and industries can exploit their land.

“I am very happy that this law exists, but it needs to be better popularized so that each Indigenous person can appropriate it and use it to defend themselves; but above all so that political and administrative authorities [governor, administrator, etc.] can carry out the legislation,” says Bolondo. “In our country, women also face double discrimination; we are valued less than others. Less than Bantu [the majority ethnic group in DRC] and less than men. A woman has no right to manage the forest, to own lands.”

This position of dependence is linked to customary law within her own community from which she hopes to escape. Indeed, although traditionally women cannot own land, they can buy it from national authorities.

“With my organization, I fight for the financial independence of women. We train them in sustainable agriculture so that they can feed themselves and even earn an income, but also in agroforestry so that they can continue to preserve the environment by planting trees,” says Bolondo. “With this forum, I would like to make the discrimination against us heard, but also meet donors so that I can do this on a larger scale.”

Banner image: A woman farmer in Yanonge, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Funding for women-led conservation remains tiny, but that’s changing fast

Citation:

The state of Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Lands and Territories. (2021). Retrieved from WWF, UNEP-WCMC, SGP/ICCA-GSI, LM, TNC, CI, WCS, EP, ILC-S, CM, IUC website: https://wwfint.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/report_the_state_of_the_indigenous_peoples_and_local_communities_lands_and_territor.pdf

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