How collaboration with Indigenous tribes can lead to sustainable climate action

Working hand in hand with traditional keepers of the forests can be an effective solution to climate change mitigation.

An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund released in 2015, revealed that while Indigenous Peoples have always been thought of as keepers of the forest, there was also evidence that “they are keepers of a huge, rigorously quantified store of carbon and therefore global players in climate change mitigation.” Photo: Arlene Chang

Ouésso/Ngombe/Lengoue/Pokola, REPUBLIC OF CONGO: In local society’s typical hierarchal set-up, the Indigenous Peoples of the Republic of Congo work for the ethnic majority Bantu population to make their lives better.

However, encouraged by the practices of sustainable forest management, the Bantus of this Central African nation are disrupting this order.

In a reversal of roles, they are contributing towards the well-being of the Baaka people through cooperation, engagement, and inclusion.

The 2011 report ‘State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples’ noted that, despite a number of countries having formally recognized indigenous peoples’ identity and rights after the adoption of the ‘United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007,’ there still exists the “persistent invisibility” of Indigenous Peoples in official statistics.

The Republic of Congo is no different.

On December 30, 2010, the Congolese parliament adopted a law for the promotion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. A first of its kind in Africa, the adoption of this law was a historic development for Indigenous Peoples on the continent. But recovery from centuries of historical suppression is often slow and tedious.

However, Bantus working for companies committed to sustainable forest management in the Congo are doing their part to implement the word of law and advance the life of indigenous peoples, like the Baaka, with dignity.

Photo: Arlene Chang

Role of sustainable forest management

In the north of the Republic of Congo lies the town of Ouésso — the capital of the Sangha region. About 30 kilometers south of Ouésso is the village of Pokola.

Formerly a fishing village, Pokola is now home to the industrial site of timber logging company Congolaiese Industriel des Bois (CIB), which has operated in the area since 1968. The company currently leases 2.1 million hectares of forests in the Republic of Congo, of which 2 million hectares are FSC-certified. They have been certified for sustainable forestry management since 2008.

IFO (Industrie Forestière de Ouesso), located in the village of Ngombe — also in the Sangha region — is another such establishment. The company operates in 1.16 million hectares of forests in the Republic of Congo. That’s a quarter the size of Switzerland.

Among other norms, the principles and criteria of certification requires companies to protect workers’ rights and employment conditions, which include implementing health and safety practices and the payment of wages that meet or exceed minimum forest industry standards.

This significantly impacts the lives of employees from both, the majority Bantus and the Indigenous Baaka, populations. On ground, this has been translated into greater access to modern healthcare and education; and a capacity to earn more than legal minimum wages under forestry industry standards.

In the Republic of Congo, the minimum wage per month is EUR 82. IFO’s minimum entry level wage per month is EUR 173 — 210 percent higher than the nation’s legal minimum wage.

Twenty-five-year-old Ornella, has been a beneficiary of the hospital headed by Bantu Dr. Bashir Abdel Salam. Photo: Arlene Chang

An unconventional alliance: The Bantus and indigenous Baaka

Dr. Bashir Abdel Salam, a Bantu, is one of the three doctors that work at the hospital in Pokola. The hospital, built by CIB, is the only full-service medical clinic in North Congo that conducts surgery (pediatric and maternity), deals in general medicine, has a radiography lab, a dental clinic, a heart and lung department, and an AIDS clinic.

Built in 2010, the hospital facilitates an average of 60 births per month and cares for 35,000 patients each year, about 40 percent of whom are treated for infectious diseases.

It is not difficult to gauge why the hospital is so popular for deliveries. It has the latest equipment for X-rays and echography, a modern operating room, and the best postnatal care in the area.

Twenty-five-year-old Baaka Ornella, whose husband Indépendant works at CIB, has been a beneficiary of the facility. Having given birth to three of her four children in the hospital, Ornella vouches for it.

“The hospital is safer and trained doctors provide a more secure environment to deliver a child. Vaccinations are also immediately taken care of,” she said.

During the delivery of her second child, Ornella was unable to reach the hospital in time, resulting in a home birth. She says her mother, who helped her through the process, sat her on a chair, tied her to it, and when the baby was born, cut her umbilical cord with a machete.

According to the World Health Organisation, the maternal mortality ratio for the Republic of Congo is 442 per 100,000 live births, making it the 25th worst country for the indicator.

The company provides free hospital consultations for employees and their family, and subsidizes 65 per cent of their cost of medicines. Non-employees pay a subsidized cost for consultation, usually 40 to 60 per cent of what they would pay in a regular hospital.

Working for and with Indigenous Peoples

Located in the heart of the second largest forest mass in the world, the Republic of the Congo covers 342,000 square kilometers of Central Africa, has 4,085,422 inhabitants and a pygmy people* that represents approximately 5 to 10 per cent of that population.

For towns and villages around Ouésso, like Ngombe and Pokola, which lie languorously on the Sangha River, surrounded by rainforests and known for its pygmy people* (including the Baaka), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and ILO Convention 169 (1989) holds an added significance.

Hence, an important aspect of sustainable forest management is to identify, engage and uphold the rights, customs, and culture of the indigenous peoples.

Timothée Époutangongo Dimitri is of Baaka ethnicity and comes from a village called Mbalonga, 5 kilometers away from Ouesso. The 34-year-old, who has been at IFO for almost 13 years now, works as a social investigator. His tasks include translations in forest community languages (like Bamgombé, Mikaya, Mbenzélé, and Mbalouma), interacting with Indigenous Peoples as part of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) consultations, and developing social programs to collaborate with them, including on participatory cartography.

“My job requires that I explain things related to our project and to the development of Indigenous Peoples — things like the company’s project plan and raising awareness about things like the building of schools. I am proud of my work because it gives me a chance to do something for my people while earning a decent living,” Timothée said.

Baaka Pascal Mekouno (32) works as a social communicator at a company that manages forests sustainably. Photo: Arlene Chang

Thirty-two-year-old Pascal Mekouno, a person from the Baaka tribe, who was born and brought up in Pokola, says the highlight of his job as a social communicator at CIB is to interact with his people and include them in the company’s work plan process.

“The best thing about my job is creating awareness and conducting sensitization missions with the local population, my people. I act as a mediator and with the help of my people I identify sacred areas and have the company protect them,” Pascal said.

As a child, Pascal would accompany his mother into the forests to fish and collect leaves for food.

Now, villagers and members of his community consider him to be a success story to aspire towards.

Pascal attended the school in Pokola and learned Math and French, even as he continued mastering “skills of the forest” — like collection of leaves for food, fishing, and a recognition of traditional medicines. He was the first person in his family to have a formal job and work at a company.

In the village of Matoto, 20 kilometers from Pokola, where Pascal has family, villagers tell their children stories about Pascal and hope they will become like him.

Villagers in Matoto, a village where Pascal’s relatives live, want their children to be like him. Photo: Arlene Chang

Madeleine, Pascal’s aunt, who has three children, seeks divine intervention. “I hope that after studying at the local school my children can progress in life and move to other cities. If God can support them, I would like all my children to work at CIB, like Pascal,” she said.

A 2018 study by the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) states the scope of FPIC as “a manifestation of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determine their political, social, economic and cultural priorities. It constitutes three interrelated and cumulative rights of indigenous peoples: the right to be consulted; the right to participate; and the right to their lands, territories and resources.”

The villagers of Indigenous Peoples community in the village of Lengoue exercised this right when a sustainably managed company came to their forest to log trees.

Bitanda Gabriel, a villager, explained the FPIC process and said he was hopeful that it would bring about some positive change and more solidarity in the community. “IFO informed us about the process and how they will organize the mapping, with different teams going into the forest — marking some roots, branches (used for cooking) and trees (used as medicines) for protection,” he said.

Indigenous Peoples like Timothée Époutangongo Dimitri and Pascal Mekouno hired by local logging companies form the crux of the relationship between peoples of the forest and companies operating in what has traditionally been their home.

IFO has set aside 300,000 hectares (or 27 percent) of its total forest concession in Ngombe as a conservation area and houses 71 protected sites (drawn up with the help of Indigenous Peoples).

At CIB, 40 per cent of its leased forest area is protected, with only 60 per cent being used for logging.

With a population of 6,000 in its forest concessions, the company has 45 Indigenous employees.

Vincent Istace, corporate responsibility and sustainability manager at CIB, believes that Indigenous Peoples are not just important to the company’s work but are the reason for the company’s effective functioning.

To keep them close to their roots, the company gives them the opportunity to choose jobs more suited to their way of life: for example, jobs in the forests where they can use their cultural, traditional, and social skills — like in the identification of trees, as a translator, and as a mediator between the company and their people.

“Our Indigenous employees do the very important job of keeping the balance between the company and people. They ensure open and regular dialogue, help address concerns of daily life and are essential to our sustainable working,” he said.

An Indigenous woman in the forests of Lengoue. Photo: Arlene Chang

The importance of Indigenous Peoples

According to the report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016, 80 per cent of the world’s biological diversity is found in the 22 percent of global land area still stewarded by Indigenous Peoples, with modes of subsistence, consumption, and care for nature based on their traditional bodies of knowledge.

Indigenous knowledge remains vital to a large portion of the world’s population and central to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but are too often ignored.

In its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that indigenous knowledge is “an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change.”

With sustainable forest management practices in the Republic of Congo bringing about an unusual alliance of the local Bantu populace and the Indigenous Baaka people, it is vital that we make more such collaborations all over the world.

With the consequence of climate inaction already playing out, we are running against time.

And, perhaps, the biggest favor we can do ourselves is to seek out and work with people that have lived synchronously with nature for thousands of millennia.

According to the FAO, carbon sequestration by forests has attracted much interest as a mitigation approach, as it has been considered a relatively inexpensive means of addressing climate change immediately. Photo: Arlene Chang

*According to Survival International, “The ‘Pygmy’ peoples of central Africa are traditionally hunter-gatherers living in the rainforests throughout central Africa. The term has gained negative connotations, but has been reclaimed by some indigenous groups as a term of identity.”

A version of this story was originally written for FSC.

Arlene Chang is a change-maker, green panther and journalist. She is an independent writer on issues of sustainability, tech, health, gender, Int. development