How the Indigenous Baaka of the Congo are saving forests

FSC / Arlene Chang
Two forest workers measure a large tree trunk
FSC / Arlene Chang
August 2, 2022
Category : Stories

Brazzaville, REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Companies committed to sustainable forest management in the Congo are doing their part to advance the life of Indigenous Peoples, like the Baaka, with dignity. In return, the Baaka are committed to working with companies to meet the region’s timber needs while protecting their ancestral forest home.

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 30 December 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.

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 kms south of Ouésso is the village of Pokola.

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

Village in Congo Basin
FSC / Arlene Chang

Interholco 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 one-fourth the size of Switzerland.

Among other regulations, 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 both employees (some of whom are Baaka) and other Indigenous Peoples living in the area. On the ground, this has been translated into greater access to modern healthcare and education; and the capacity to exceed the legal minimum earnings under forestry industry wage standards.

Benefits for the Baaka

Dr. Bashir Abdel Salam is one of the three doctors that works at the hospital in Pokola. The hospital, built by CIB, is the only full-service medical clinic in North Congo that conducts surgery (paediatric 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 per cent of who are treated for infectious diseases.

Having worked at the hospital as an intern five years back, Dr. Salam, who is originally from Brazzaville, returned to Pokola as a full-time doctor 18 months ago. 

I love my work here because I get to do a bit of everything, unlike in Brazzaville. I practice general medicine, do maternity surgeries and travel to forest settlements to sensitize and vaccinate the populations, 

Dr. Salam said. “Delivering triplets via a C-section after just 1 year of working here was my most memorable day in the hospital.”

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 Ornella, a Baaka woman whose husband 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.

Two Congolese women standing in front of Olam building
FSC / Arlene Chang

According to the World Health Organization 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 subsides 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.

In the Republic of Congo, the minimum wage per month is EUR 82. IFO’s minimum entry level wage per month is EUR 173 – or 210 per cent above the nation’s legal minimum wage.

For Eric Mvouyou, head of the social team at IFO, this helps pay for his disabled daughter’s treatment “My only daughter, who is now nine, was hit by a stroke at the age of four. She has since been disabled and needs to regularly visit the hospital in Brazzaville. The good salary I get from IFO is of great help here,” he said.

Another member of the social team, Timothée Époutangongo Dimitri, from the Indigenous Baaka tribe, says that his salary has enabled him to take out a bank loan to build a house.

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 km2 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 consultations and developing social programmes 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.

Thirty-two-year-old Pascal Mekouno from the Baaka tribe was born and brought up in Pokola. He 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 he would accompany his mother into the forests to fish and collect leaves for food. Now, villagers and members of his community consider Pascal to be a success story to aspire towards.

School and class being taught in congo
FSC / Arlene Chang

Pascal attended school in Pokola and learned Mathematics 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 kms from Pokola, where Pascal has family, villagers tell their children stories about Pascal and hope they will become like him.

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.

2018 study by the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples describes the scope of free, prior and informed consent 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 Indigenous Peoples forming the community in the village of Lengoue exercised this right, when a sustainably managed company came to their forests 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 roots, branches (used to sell for coir and for cooking) and trees (used as medicines) for protection,” he said.

Upward look at tree trunks in congo rainforest
FSC / Arlene Chang

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 per cent) 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 OLAM, 40 per cent of its leased forest area is protected, with only 60 per cent being used for logging. With a population of 6000 in its forest concessions, the company has 45 Indigenous employees.

Vincent Istace, corporate responsibility and sustainability manager, 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 aligned to their preferred way of life: for example, jobs in the forests where they can use their cultural, traditional and social skills—like the identification of trees, as translators and as mediators between the company and their people. According to Istace:

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.

The importance of Indigenous Peoples

According to the State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016, 80 per cent of the world’s biological diversity is found in the 22 per cent 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 the consequence of climate inaction already playing out, we are running against time. And, perhaps, the biggest favour we can do ourselves is to seek out and work with people that have lived synchronously with nature for thousands of millennia.

*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.”