World Bank Poised to Deny Africa's Indigenous Peoples Their Rights

Date of publication: 
16 July 2014

In 2005, indigenous “pygmy” communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) filed an official complaint with the World Bank, citing breaches in the World Bank’s procedures that could compromise their territories in Congo’s vast rainforest. The indigenous community alleged that the Bank failed to afford them their rights as indigenous peoples as the Bank kick-started a process to convert portions of pygmy territories in the Congo rainforest into logging concessions. A resulting investigation by the Bank’s own Inspection Panel upheld these claims, signaling a major victory for Congo’s pygmy populations as “indigenous peoples,” and thus upholding their rights as enshrined under international law. (The term ‘Pygmy’ has derogatory connotations but is widely used by groups such as the Batwa and Twa to describe themselves.)

According to Adrien Sinafasi Makelo, who represented the affected pygmy communities and is himself a pygmy activist, this ruling resulted in a sea change in the DRC: “The recognition by the World Bank of ‘pygmy’ communities as indigenous peoples has led to major improvements in how the Bank interacts with us as it prepares highways and forest projects in our territories. Beyond that, it spurred growing recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples nationally, and we are now engaging with our government to develop a new Indigenous Peoples Rights law.”

Now, however, proposed changes in World Bank policy severely jeopardize the distinct rights that indigenous peoples in Africa have long held. The World Bank is overhauling its environmental and social “safeguard” policies for the first time in a decade. These policies provide critical protections for the environment and communities, including indigenous peoples, facing harm to make way for development projects. During a public update on the safeguard policy review in April, the World Bank unveiled plans to restrict the application of its Indigenous Peoples Policy in Africa, citing pressure from African governments who balk at the term “indigenous” and the implied recognition of the rights that indigenous peoples hold under international law.

To laymen, even within Africa, there persists a widespread assumption that all Africans are “indigenous.” However, there is an extensive body of evidence and growing recognition that certain populations on the continent identify themselves and are identified by others as “indigenous peoples” by virtue of patterns of discrimination and marginalization based primarily on their mode of subsistence. While no definitive “list” exists, the term “indigenous peoples” in Africa commonly refers to traditional hunter-gatherers such as the “pygmies” of the Congo rainforest, the San peoples of Southern Africa and certain pastoralist groups whose culture, identity and livelihood are inextricably connected to their natural environments. With few exceptions, these indigenous communities have faced systematic discrimination and marginalization from the governments who purport to represent them, and are particularly vulnerable to impacts on the forests and other natural resources on which they and their cultures depend.

While by no means uniform, the World Bank has been applying its Indigenous Peoples Policy in Africa for well over a decade. Now, the Bank is poised to introduce an “opt-out clause” for African governments who, for their own political calculations, prefer it not be applied. This would represent a huge reversal in what has been steady progress in favor of the rights of Africa’s indigenous communities, including theseminal work of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and legislative efforts in several African countries. At the same time, the proposed opt-out clause would constitute a significant dilution of World Bank policy, which Bank President Jim Kim pledged would not happen at the outset of the safeguard review.

The fight over indigenous peoples’ rights in Africa is much larger than the World Bank, where its Indigenous Peoples Policy is applied infrequently. The greatest danger comes instead from the World Bank’s image, for good or ill, as a global standard-setter. If such a change were approved, African governments hostile to indigenous peoples’ rights could use the new Bank policies to legitimize the continued denial of rights.

As Adrien Sinafasi Makelo rightly notes, “the World Bank’s intention to allow our governments, which have marginalized our communities for decades, to decide whether we are indigenous or not would severely undermine our fundamental human rights and weaken the limited protections we currently have. This approach would completely contradict the growing recognition of our rights, and must not be allowed to happen.”