Guardians of the forest
By: Marc Ngwanza, UNDP in the Democratic Republic of Congo
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, indigenous women are joining forces to regenerate the forest and protect their livelihoods.
“The forest is depleted. The game is becoming scarcer, fish are disappearing from the ponds, and our children are malnourished,” explains an indigenous woman from Momboyo in Equateur Province in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Unlike the Bantu, who have mostly settled in villages, the Pygmies derive their livelihood mainly from hunting and harvesting in the forest. However, with the increasing use of slash-and-burn cultivation by villagers, their nurturing land is deteriorating at an alarming rate. This is compounded by discrimination and exclusion of indigenous peoples.
Herself a Pygmy, Régine Mboyo, provincial coordinator of the NGO Solidarity for the Advancement of Indigenous Women (SPFA), expresses her concern:
“I was discriminated against since school. My classmates refused to sit next to me… I could not eat from the same plate as them. In the villages, the Pygmies work for the Bantu populations without recognized access to land or basic services like education or health,” she explains.
With UNDP support and funding from the Community-based UN REDD+ programme, the SPFA has implemented community initiatives to regenerate the forest and raise awareness among inhabitants of the dangers of some traditional farming, hunting and fishing methods.
The SPFA began by bringing together the indigenous peoples of Momboyo — more than 2,000 people — to protect the 2,000 hectares of forest from which most of their resources come.
“Changing mindsets is a long and slow process, but we must start somewhere,” explains Régine. “That is why we called on women to get men involved”.
Women as sentinels
Indigenous women provide essential knowledge about the choice of ponds to be preserved and the species of fish to be reintroduced. They also act as guardians of the forest and report illegal logging, or discourage practices harmful for the environment.
“The project has already made it possible to mark out and assess the forest, while raising awareness among villagers about the importance of taking only the minimum they need to survive,” — Jean Marie Likongo, programme manager
The project promotes agriforestry to address deforestation and the depletion of natural resources on which indigenous peoples depend.
With the help of the Pygmies, the forest is divided into two parts. The largest is set aside for two years. In this part, there will be no hunting, no fishing in the natural ponds, no woodcutting and no cultivated fields.
To emphasize the demarcation between the part to be cultivated and the part to be protected, the indigenous people trace a trench nearly five metres wide in which butterfly trees and medicinal plants will be planted.
Each member of the community has a duty to protect the part left fallow by reporting cases of intrusion and prohibited activities. After three years, the situation will be assessed by environmental experts.
For Régine, it is a step towards the empowerment of indigenous women.
“We have opportunities to fight and significantly reduce stereotypes about our community. We are Congolese in the same way as the others and we must fully enjoy the rights guaranteed by our country’s Constitution. In South Kivu, an indigenous woman is a provincial minister. That does not shock anyone,” she says with a smile.
Regine also heads La Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones, a network of 43 indigenous peoples organizations across DRC. Winner of the Equator Prize in 2015, the group lobbies for a legal framework that promotes and protects the rights of indigenous peoples. Its advocacy work helped stop concessions for over 600,000 square kilometers of forest and maintain a moratorium on the allocation of extractive industry concessions in the rainforest.