In terms of natural resource endowment, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. However its citizenry are amongst the poorest in the world. Some of the most impoverished and politically marginalized people – indigenous and local forest communities - live here. They mostly rely upon forests and other natural resources to secure their basic livelihoods through subsistence forest hunting and gathering, and small-scale agriculture. These forest peoples currently have little or no influence over national and provincial decisions about how their customary lands will be used by commercial or conservation groups, whose interests are often in conflict with forest communities’ needs, priorities and basic human rights.
The DRC has abundant natural resource wealth and extremely high forest biodiversity. Since the colonial period its forests have come under numerous pressures from commercial enterprises including logging, mining, petrol exploration and agro-industry. Many millions of hectares of DRC forests have already been logged and mined, and many more developments are planned. These include a massive infrastructure project to link together a country the size of Western Europe, and behemoth plantations of palm oil and other goods.
These extractive and development pressures on forests have led to the introduction by the government, with the support of numerous donors, of many conservation initiatives to combat this trend. For a decade the largest such regional scheme, the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, has been targeting the establishment of large-scale forest conservation plans in conservation landscapes accounting for many more millions of hectares of conservation forests. Most of these Congo Basin conservation initiatives are concentrated upon areas that overlap rural communities’ customary areas – and they mostly aim to reduce communities’ forest access and use. The progressive expansion of conservation initiatives in the DRC is thus further increasing competition for communities’ customary lands.
These competing commercial and conservation actors are both putting enormous pressures on local and indigenous forest communities’ forest access and rights, and their overall economic welfare, as they are increasingly squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. It is ironic that forest peoples are becoming poorer as their forests become more valuable.
New finance and forest conservation initiatives falling under the title of ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)’, which aim to produce the global commodity of carbon sequestration to combat global climate change, are being developed now for the DRC in Bas Congo, Bandundu, Equateur, Oriental, North Kivu and South Kivu Provinces. The potential benefits to rural forest communities from such REDD initiatives in DRC are considerable, given that they are the main users and custodians of the forests targeted by those proposals, and the (potential) large sums of money involved. Proposed benefit sharing arrangements deriving from new REDD schemes could bring much needed resources into rural areas to support long-term development efforts to address prevalent and extreme rural poverty.
However the current arrangements for enabling such profit sharing or compensatory investment towards rural areas from REDD or carbon trading schemes continue to be hampered by the almost total lack of participation by communities in the development of the plans, and the complete absence of information at local levels about what is being proposed. It is a fact that right now the macro-management of Congo Basin forests is changing rapidly without the knowledge and input of its primary stakeholders. These forest communities’ rights are already under serious threat, and despite the good intentions, climate change mitigation efforts such as REDD threaten to make things worse.
For the next 3 years the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) is funding the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) to implement a project in the DRC to enable forest communities – especially women and indigenous peoples - to protect their human rights in REDD pilot areas. The project will also invest in economic development activities with forest communities on the basis of their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). The project is a collaboration between FPP and around 6 national NGOs working on forest issues in Bas Congo, Equateur, Oriental, Bandundu, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. It aims to ensure that the hundreds of rural forest communities who will be most affected by REDD pilot initiatives on the ground across the DRC will be able to protect their rights and maximize the benefits they receive from these schemes, while helping to create an enabling environment for long-term rural economic development in their areas. i.e. making REDD work for local people.
This project is aiming to support local level training for communities and their support organisations wherever REDD pilot projects are being undertaken within the target provinces. The work will include human rights trainings for civil society by FPP lawyers. Our intention for this project will be to work with forest communities and REDD project promoters to ensure that forest communities’ rights become protected in the plans, and that communities become more aware of the decisions being taken about their forests and the potential ways they might benefit. We aim to build constructive links with all the key private, conservation and government stakeholders involved in such projects on the ground in the DRC. Please email us at email@example.com.