top of page

Indigenous Rights in the Congo Basin

The Congo Basin is nicknamed Earth's lungs and heart. The rainforest absorbs more carbon than the Amazon rainforest annually, making it crucial to minimizing climate change. [1] The forest covers six countries: the Republic of Congo- Brazzaville, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.[2] While roads have increased access to woodlands, poaching and deforestation have increased. Companies clear the forests for logging, mining, charcoal, agribusiness, sugar, rubber, palm oil, and fuel. Gorillas, giraffes, bonobos, chimpanzees, elephants, hippos, leopards, and Indigenous peoples encounter habitat loss, thus jeopardizing their way of life.[3]

A map of the Congo Basin with rivers and country names.
A map of the Congo Basin

Indigenous Groups

Multiple groups of Indigenous people live in the Congo Basin. The Aka, Bagyeli, Bakola, Bakoya, Baka, Bambuti, Batwa, and Mbororo are some Indigenous groups living in the region.[4] Some of these groups are called 'Pygmies'. The rainforest has been their home for 50,000 years. Over a million Pygmies rely on the tropical forest’s resources. As their land shrinks, the Indigenous people lose pieces of their culture. For instance, the Pygmies use natural forest resources to produce traditional medicines. According to Gauthier, “[The Pygmies] are completely dependent on the forest…cutting down the forest means depriving people of their habitat, their health, and their food; everything they need to survive.”[5] She also remarks, “When they leave their environment, they lose a part of [themselves]. We are talking about a minority with an extremely fragile ecosystem. They are not safe from cultural extinction.”[6] Indigenous groups in the Congo Basin also encounter prejudice, slavery, and sexual abuse.[7]


Over two hundred fifty ethnic groups reside in Cameroon. Yaoundé participates in the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program and the EU-FLEGT process. The former strives to provide resources for citizens residing in forests, whereas the latter concentrates on reducing illicit logging. However, Cameroon made little advancements during the 2010s. [8]


Logging, agricultural, and mining companies threaten the Ba’aka, BaKola, BaGyeli, and Bedzam in Cameroon. The Ba'aka were one of the first groups to live in Cameroon and make up less than one percent of Cameroon's population. The government and Catholics persuade ‘Pygmies’ to live in ‘pilot villages,’ and loggers convince them to help clear forests. [9] 

Even though Cameroon’s Constitution protects Indigenous groups, the government’s duties are ambiguous. According to Cameroonian law, hunter-gatherers do not own land. The 1994 Forest Law attempted to support Indigenous groups. Nevertheless, Yaoundé signed a Mining Law in 2001. The legislation handed foreign companies access to Cameroon’s natural resources to boost the country's economy. Between 1900 and 2010, logging companies deforested a fifth of Cameroon’s woodlands. Yaoundé ousted Indigenous groups from their land and drove them to unknown communities. In addition, they could not practice their customs or utilize forest goods. If an Indigenous person endeavored to return home, guards would ridicule or apprehend them. Ba’aka lacks access to education and health facilities because they do not possess authorized identification documents. As a result, Indigenous peoples became destitute, manipulated, and malnourished. Some also became alcoholics.[10] 


 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)


Batwa and Bambuti are Indigenous hunter-gatherer groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both groups faced challenges during the 1960s. During civil confrontations, Congolese fled into the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s forests to seek safety. Some refugees were merchants, and the Bambuti became part of the local economy. They would sell wild game and offer their services for money. Over time, Indigenous women married men who were not hunter-gatherers. The exploitation of the Bambuti led to hopelessness, prostitution, and alcoholism.[11] 

In the early 2000s, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) and the RCD-N targeted the Batwas because they wanted their land and resources. During 2006 and 2007, Rwandan revolutionaries raided, robbed, slaughtered, and raped Batwas and Bambuti. Consequently, the rate of HIV among the Indigenous population skyrocketed. Armed groups also forced Batwas and Kivus to serve as forest guides and hunters.[12] 

During the 2010s, Luba, a Bantu ethnic group, attacked Batwa in Katanga. In 2014, 70,000 people became homeless. The Luba believed Batwa did not support their secessionist movement. Violence between the two groups continued in 2015, 2016 and 2017. A year later, Batwa started constructing homes in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, their former land. Guards and soldiers suppressed, wounded, apprehended, intimidated, and raped them as a response. Indigenous peoples struggle to improve their lives. According to The Lancet, a British journal, “Even where healthcare facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, or are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment.” [13]

 One of the DRC’s resources is its rainforest. Ironically, political turmoil has deterred foreign logging companies from operating in the country. If the DRC became peaceful, Indigenous peoples would encounter danger from outsiders.[14] Ideally, the DRC would be stable, and Indigenous groups would not face threats from international businesses.

Central African Republic

In 2005, eight thousand to twenty thousand Ba'Aka lived in the Central African Republic. Since hunting became harder, some young Indigenous people moved to local towns, thus abandoning their nomadic lifestyle. They face health issues such as drug addiction, alcoholism, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDs, and malaria. The majority of Ba'Aka in the Central African Republic are illiterate, and Indigenous students miss classes due to their nomadic lifestyle.[15] 


Congo Republic

Seven hundred thousand to two million Indigenous people live in the Republic of Congo.[16] They face prejudice, segregation, poverty, and disenfranchisement.[17] Only a third of Indigenous people have official government identification documents. If one does not have identification documents, they cannot vote. The vast majority of Indigenous women give birth at home instead of in health facilities. Most of their kids do not attend school because supplies and transportation are too expensive.[18] Companies and eco guards threaten native Congolese.[19] The latter group has been accused of evicting, raping, beating, arresting, and torturing Ba'Aka, which is against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[20] 

Conservation Groups: The World Wildlife Fund

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) strives to protect nature in a hundred countries by reducing habitat loss, species extinction, and the consumption footprint. In 2020, Indigenous people claimed that anti-poaching guards tormented and murdered people. In one case, guards waterboarded a farmer for poaching charges. When the news broke, the Fund claimed to law enforcement officers that the guards were innocent.[21] Guards also sexually abused, shot, and whipped Indigenous people in Cameroon and Nepal. As a result, victims brought charges against the WWF. According to an internal investigation, the organization was guiltless.[22]

The WWF responded, “The Independent Review found no evidence that WWF staff directed, participated in or encouraged in [sic] human rights abuse of any kind.” [23] On the other hand, the Minority Rights Group believes the Fund is guilty. They claim eco guards detained, tortured, raided, and robbed Indigenous peoples.[24] The Minority Rights Group also believes the WWF acted without the consent of Indigenous groups.[25] Dominguez and Luoma state that the organization knew about human rights abuses in protected areas, supported eco-guards financially and materially, and did not investigate the allegations media outlets and civil society organizations pressured them.[26]

Saving the Rainforest

The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to plant 350 million hectares of trees in deforested areas before 2030.  The African Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) is Africa’s Bonn Challenge. The program complements the African Resilient Landscapes Initiative, the African Union Agenda 2063, and the United Nations's Sustainable Development Goals. Cameroon aims to restore twelve million hectares, and the DRC aims to reforest eight million hectares.[27]

AFR100 is challenging to execute due to an absence of cooperation between state officials. The current approach can lead to more clashes over resources. According to Mokpidie, there is a "lack of stable financing, which is an obstacle to stimulating the innovations needed for FLR on the ground" (Blaise 2023).[28] Guizol et al. (2022) define Forest Landscape Restoration as: "a long-term process that seeks to limit continued degradation of existing forest ecosystems and/or to repair them, to sustainably improve the living environment of local people".[29] Another definition of FLR is "a long-term and changing process that involves adaptations to social, demographic or institutional change, or to change in stakeholder perception or environmental conditions".[30] Some researchers believe governments should improve citizens' affinity for the outdoors, and that simply growing trees is inadequate.[31]

In October 2023, the Congo Republic held the Three Basins Summit with state leaders, legislators, and specialists to discuss protecting the Congo Basin, Amazon Rainforest, and Southeast Asian forests before the UN COP28 climate meeting. [32] Brazzaville allied with the European Union to help save the Congo Basin rainforest. However, environmental NGOs believe the Republic of Congo should take further steps to preserve the Congo Basin.[33] Technology can help protect forests in the Congo Basin and other regions. Mapping for Rights aims to fix this problem by giving Indigenous peoples technology to create maps and report illegal logging locations in real-time.[34]



[1] World Bank ‘Journey into the Congo Basin-The Lungs of Africa and Beating Heart of the World (24 Oct. 2022) World Bank.

[2] Barbara Gabel ‘Dependent on the Forest: The Fight for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in the Congo Basin (8 Aug. 2023). France24.

[3] Rhett A. Butler. ‘The Congo Rainforest’ (1 Aug. 2020). Mongabay.

[4] Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee ‘Congo Basin’ (n.d) IPACC

[5] Gabel (n 2)

[6] Ibid

[7] Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (n 4)

[8] Minority Rights Group ‘Cameroon’ (June 2019) Minority Rights Group.

[9] Minority Rights Group (n 8)

[10] Minority Rights Group. ‘Ba’aka and Related Groups in Cameroon’ (Sept. 2017)

[11] Minority Rights Group ‘Batwa and Bambuti in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’ (Apr. 2022)  

[12] Minority Rights Group (n 11)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Minority Rights Group ‘Aka in the Central African Republic’ (Mar. 2018).

[16] Thomas Fessy ‘Congo’s Indigenous Rights Bill Stalls’ (28 Oct. 2022). Human Rights Watch.

[17] Fessy (n 16); Minority Rights Group ‘Republic of Congo’ (Jul. 2020)

[18] Minority Rights Group Congo 2020 (n 17)

[19] Fessy (n 16); Minority Rights Group 2020 (n 17)

[20] Fessy (n 16); Minority Rights Group 2020 (n 17)

[21] Brandon Lauer ‘The World Wildlife Fund: Protecting Nature at the Cost of Human Rights’ (2 Jan. 2022) Sanford Journal.

[22] Lauer (n 21)

[23] Lara Dominguez and Colin Luoma ‘Violent Conservation: WWF’s Failure to Prevent, Respond to and Remedy Human Rights Abuses Committed on its Watch’ (17 Dec.2020), Minority Rights Group 3

[24] Dominguez and Luoma (n 23), 5

[25] Dominguez and Luoma (n 23), 6

[26] Dominguez and Luoma (n 23), 3

[27] Blaise, Amindeh. ‘Congo Basin States Scramble to Restore Degraded Forests’ (8 Sept. 2023). Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

[28] Blaise (n 27)

[29] Phillipe Guizol, Mamadou Diakhite, Julien Seka et al. ‘Chapter 12: Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) in Central Africa’ (2022) Central Africa Forest Observatory. In Eba’a Atyi R Hiol, Hiol F, et al. ‘The Forests of the Congo Basin: State of the Forest 2021’ (2022) p. 318.

[30] Guizol et al. (n 29)

[31] Blaise (n 27)

[32] Ange Adihe Kasongo ‘Home Countries of Major Rainforests Agree to Work Together to Save Them’ (28 Oct. 2023) Reuters.

[33] Kasongo (n 32)

[34] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ‘Mapping for Rights | Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Peru’ (2023).


bottom of page