The government in the Democratic Republic of Congo is using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to backtrack on environmental safeguards, which is impacting on the rights of indigenous people, according to a report published on Thursday.
"Indigenous peoples have protested against actions by states that have used the crisis as an excuse to erode their rights while failing to provide indigenous peoples with the support and assistance they need to deal with the pandemic," said Joan Carling, head of Indigenous Peoples Rights International.
Forest Peoples Programme report said authorities in Kinshasa had dolled out timber concessions during the pandemic, despite a moratorium, handing out timber rights to Chinese corporations that started logging in 2021.
Covid-19 has impacted economic activity across the world and FPP fears governments will try to boost extractive industries to make up for lost economic growth, directly threatening people who live in forests, such as the indigenous Batwa in DRC.
The FPP report published on Thursday also outlines how indigenous people in DRC have been locked out of consultations with the government. The coronavirus lockdown in the country also effectively stopped them from making a living, stopping them from selling farm produce at markets.
In particular, President Felix Tshisekedi's government went ahead and approved the National Land-Use Planning Policy (PNAT) during the Covid-19 crisis, although communications with forest communities was next to impossible given the health measures in place.
Nine new concessions for commercial logging were assigned to Chinese companies in early 2020 through a secret process, FPP said. The concessions cover more than 20,000 square kilometres of forest across the provinces of Equateur, Tshuapa, Mai Ndombe and Mongala, and the former province of Orientale.
When civil society raised concerns about these concessions, the Congolese government responded that these were new terms to existing concessions and therefore did not break the moratorium, in place since 2002, according to FPP.
"The law that applies to the forest sector has been violated," said Augustin Mpoyi from the Council for the Defence of the Environment through Legality and Traceability, a Congolese civil society group.
FPP's 66-page report also highlights how mining projects have continued during the pandemic, for example with the Kamoa-Kakula copper mine in Lualaba province, which in July 2020 had changes to its environmental standards approved.
Although the indigenous Batwa people are technically recognised under Congolese law, they often find themselves at odds over their ancestral lands and a push to exploit natural resources, according to rights groups.
Some 2 million people in DRC could be considered part of indigenous communities, civil society groups estimate.
Batwa people, often described as Pygmy, are frequently exploited by other ethnic groups, with past press reports describing stories of them being used as pets or slaves.