By Samuel Nnah Ndobe
The notion of indigenous people has sometimes been controversial in Africa. There are some opinions that consider all Africans as indigenous people liberated from colonial powers, while others simply stress that it is very difficult to determine who is indigenous in Africa. The setting up in 2001 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) of a Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and the Group’s report submitted to and adopted by the ACHPR in 2003 have brought a new perspective to this problem. In this report for the first time there was a unanimous acceptance of the existence of indigenous peoples in Africa and this kicked off discussions on how countries could begin to integrate the rights of these peoples into the human rights mainstream. The indigenous peoples of Central Africa include the mostly hunter gatherer peoples commonly called the “Pygmies” and a number of pastoralist peoples. These peoples still suffer discrimination experienced through the dispossession of their land and destruction of their livelihoods, cultures and identities, extreme poverty, lack of access to and participation in political decision-making and lack of access to education and health facilities.
There are positive trends related to protecting the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa. The Central African Republic has ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, the Republic of Congo has passed a special law on Indigenous Peoples, and Kenya is making good progress on policies respecting and protecting indigenous peoples’ rights, all illustrating these trends. Many African countries also voted for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Some countries, like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are also now implementing National Indigenous Peoples Development Plans through World Bank-supported programmes. However, the sad experience is that many of these initiatives exist only on paper and are not being translated into concrete acts creating positive impacts for indigenous peoples.
UNDRIP, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and ILO Convention 169 are some of the international legal and policy instruments that recognise the rights of indigenous peoples to be consulted, seek their free, prior and informed consent and to participate in the running of public affairs and in any initiative that is likely to affect them. As mentioned earlier, in Cameroon there are specific Indigenous Peoples Development Plans (IPDPs) attached to main World Bank-supported development programmes like the Participatory Community Development Programme (commonly known by its French acronym as PNDP) and the Forest Environment Sector Programme (FESP) that intend to address the specificities of indigenous peoples.
However the key questions must be how safeguards are integrated into policies and programmes and how they are implemented. In Cameroon, most of the IPDPs are well written by consultants to meet World Bank requirements, but their implementation is found wanting as the principles they uphold are hardly respected. Several cases have been documented in Cameroon where IPDPs are shoddily implemented and end up far from the principles they espouse. RACOPY, the “Pygmy” Action Network in Cameroon, has documented cases where the IPDP of the FESP was supposedly ‘implemented’ simply by distributing handouts: bags of rice and other foodstuff, machetes, hoes and other tools. These actions were carried out without consulting indigenous peoples and these materials were later found in the keeping of Bantus (non-indigenous community).
In many African countries, discrimination against indigenous peoples is reflected in the policies and programmes formulated by the state. Discriminatory laws and policies deprive indigenous forest peoples of their lands and resources. Land laws and development projects affecting indigenous territories often reflect the reality that the state does not recognise ancestral land rights. The Bagyeli indigenous forest people (also called “Pygmies”) in Cameroon were seriously affected by the construction of the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline project (partly funded by the World Bank) that cut across a significant portion of their forest territory, bringing with it varied problems like reduced forest resources, inappropriate compensation, new forms of conflicts with neighbouring Bantus and displacement due to the creation of the Campo Ma’an National Park. This project was constructed in violation of the World Bank’s safeguards against harming indigenous peoples, as detailed in a lengthy Inspection Panel Report.
During the construction of the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline, the indigenous populations whose lands were traversed were not entitled to compensation since according to the Cameroonian land law of 1974 they had no legally recognised land titles, and their traditional hunting and gathering activities were not seen as valuing the land and were hence "invisible" under the unjust and outdated national laws.
Under the World Bank’s policy on indigenous peoples, the Baka, Bagyeli, Bakola and Bedzang – all Cameroonian indigenous hunter gatherers - are considered as ‘Indigenous peoples’ and the government has recognised and taken ownership of the Pygmy/Indigenous People’s Development Plans of the Chad Cameroon Pipeline, the National Participatory Development Programme and the Forest Environment Sector Programme.
Despite this, the official government terminology for indigenous peoples in Cameroon in other contexts not related to World Bank projects is “marginalised people”. This groups them with groups like disabled people, elderly people and other socially vulnerable people. This grouping makes no sense, as within indigenous peoples we have disabled people, elderly people and other vulnerable social segments just as any other segment of the population. Moreover, indigenous peoples are not identified by their level of vulnerability but rather by their specific relationships to lands and resources, and by the rights stemming from these relationships. It is not clear why Cameroon does not want to officially call the hunter gatherers and pastoralists Indigenous Peoples as portrayed by the United Nations.
In December 2005, Congolese civil society organisations, including representatives of forest-dependent indigenous peoples, filed a complaint to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, concerning the impacts of forest sector reforms supported by the Bank. The complaint alleged that the Bank’s failure to comply with its safeguard policies in its promotion of forest sector reforms, such as forest zoning and the concession allocation system, was likely to harm indigenous, forest-dependent peoples. The Panel found that yes, indeed the Bank had failed to respect its safeguard policies, including those protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, very recently, a study by the Bank’s own Inspectors, the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), showed that the investments in forestry over the past 10 years have done little to reduce poverty, improve conservation, tackle climate change or benefit local communities in developing countries (Article 7). It is clear that the presence of safeguards alone is not enough. Safeguards must be properly financed, staffed and implemented for there to be any impact on the outcome of a project. The implementation of safeguard requirements must also take into consideration the political realities of a given country, supporting rather than diminishing the rights they are accorded.
African civil society and indigenous peoples’ organisations will continue to monitor the implementation of International Finance Institutions’ safeguard policies to ensure that indigenous peoples’ rights are protected and their ancestral lands secured.
African Development Bank set to introduce Indigenous Peoples standards for the first time: http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/african-development-bank-afdb/news/2013/04/african-development-bank-set-introduce-indigenous-