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Human rights groups urge legal protection for indigenous communities

Congo's indigenous people - sometimes known as 'pygmies' - wait to cast their votes during elections on 5 August 2007.
Andrew Itoua/IRIN

NGOs in the Republic of Congo have urged the country's president to adopt a draft law aimed at protecting indigenous people, who, they say, are often discriminated against and whose rights are violated.

The appeal was made at news conference on 27 November by the Congolese human rights watchdog Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme (OCDH) and its partners, a few days after the launch of an international petition to the president to initiate a process of adopting legislation on the rights of indigenous people.

The petition was initiated by the Rainforest Foundation, a global organisation which supports people living in and around the world's rainforests, with support from the University of Arizona, and was signed by more than 1,500 people.

In July, OCDH called for the swift adoption of a law drafted in 2006 to guard against abuses suffered by indigenous peoples. The draft of the law, a first in Africa, was developed with input from OCDH and forest communities with the Rainforest Foundation.

According to official statistics, about 700,000 indigenous people live in central Africa, mainly in the Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.

In August, a national network to promote their interests was formed in Congo. The Réseau National des Peuples autochtones du Congo (RENAPAC) was formed after the first forum for central Africa’s indigenous people, held in August 2007.

"Like our foreign partners, we launch a call to the president of the republic to adopt this law," said Roch Euloge Nzobo, in charge of the programmes at the OCDH.

Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso has expressed willingness to facilitate the adoption of the draft law.

Human rights campaigners have, however, said the process seems to have stalled.

"Since the arrival of Aime Emmanuel Yoka as minister for justice in February 2007, the process has been blocked. The initiative has hit a dead end at the ministry," said Nzobo.

There are several groups of indigenous communities, often referred to as “Pygmies”, in Congo’s forests, including the Baka, Bakola, Aka, Babongo, Bambuti and Batwa, who have often complained of being marginalised and shunned by other communities. OCDH says the communities suffer discrimination, exploitation and disrespect.


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