Two very different conflicts that have prevented the Mbuti from living safely in their forest homes in the Eastern Congo came to a head during January. Three weeks ago the World Bank admitted—after a fashion—the long-standing error of its ways in fostering the savage devastation of the nation’s forests. Last week the major actors directing the violence and warfare in Eastern Congo finally signed an historic peace agreement. The two stories may seem separate, but the results of both may begin restoring some semblance of normalcy to the lives of the forest-dwelling indigenous peoples, and the other residents, of the D.R. Congo.
On January 10, the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank met to discuss both the report of the Bank’s Inspection Panel and a response plan produced by the Bank’s own management. The Inspection Panel report had garnered widespread publicity when it was first leaked to the public back in October.
The report by the Panel had indicted the Bank managers for failing to follow Bank policies on issues such as protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and ensuring that proper environmental assessments were done. The chair of the Inspection Panel, Werner Kiene, said “that there was a failure during project design to carry out the necessary initial screening to identify risks and trigger the safeguard policies so that crucial steps would be taken to address needs of the Pygmy peoples and other local people.”
In its meeting on the 10th, the Board of the Bank agreed for the most part with the findings of the Inspection Panel and the measures proposed in its Action Plan by the Bank management. The Board emphasized the need to heed the recommendations and apply the lessons to its mission in Congo. Within one year, the Bank management will be required to report back to the Board on its implementation of the recommendations.
Marjory-Anne Bromhead, an official in the Bank responsible for environmental and natural resource management, told the press on January 11 that the Bank was committed to reforming its operations in Congo. Along with some defensive comments about the difficulty of doing things correctly in that country, she admitted, “we should be able to do more now than we’ve done in the past. However, we need to be realistic about what can be accomplished given that we’re working in a country the size of Western Europe with infrastructure challenges.”
Ms. Bromhead also said that the Bank was pressing for a complete review of the 156 logging contracts that the Congo government has awarded. The government has imposed a moratorium on new logging concessions, and has not indicated a date for lifting it. She said that the Bank is pressing the government to cancel illegal concessions and ones that have broken an existing forest code. The Bank would begin negotiating directly with the indigenous peoples instead of working through intermediaries, she indicated, and it would start designing programs for their direct benefit. She admitted that, while the indigenous (or Pygmy) peoples “have equal legal rights they do face social discrimination issues.”
The Action Plan adopted by the Bank’s Board on January 10 does state that the Bank should remain engaged in the forestry issues in the country. The Plan requires that forest-dependent communities, such as the Mbuti and the other indigenous societies, must be more fully integrated into the planning processes of Bank-supported activities. Customary indigenous rights, capacity building, and zoning involving the indigenous peoples must be implemented.
The Bank’s Vice President for Africa Region, Obiageli Ezekwesili, said, “We are committed to learning from this experience. We will continue to work closely with the DRC Government and development partners to help poor, forest-dependent people, including Pygmies, have a greater voice in decisions that affect them.”
Additional heartening news developed last week in Eastern Congo. A two-week peace conference that included representatives of the different factions fighting a continuing war in Eastern Congo concluded with the signing of a peace accord in the city of Goma. Representatives of General Laurent Nikunda, leader of a rebel army fighting for the rights of the Tutsi minority in that region, signed the accord along with representatives of other rebel groups and Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila.
The peace accord called for the government’s army, Nkunda’s army, another militia force called the Mai Mai, and several others to cease fighting immediately in North Kivu province and to begin pulling back from their positions. United Nations peacekeeping forces will then patrol the neutral zone. The fighters from the various factions will then be integrated into the regular army or demobilized. Another group of Tutsi fighters, plus eight different Mai Mai militia groups, signed a similar agreement for South Kivu province. The government promised to create an amnesty law forgiving the rebels for their actions during the insurgency, though an amnesty for General Nkunda has not yet been settled.
The New York Times, reporting the peace accord on Tuesday last week, indicated that the impetus for the deal came from the fact that Kabila’s government was badly beaten by Nkunda’s forces when it tried to overwhelm them militarily in December. Western governments, including the United States, put intense pressure on Kabila and Nkunda to end the warfare, and a high-level, U.S. State Department official, Timothy R. Shortley, provided shuttle diplomacy to broker the deal.
A study issued on Tuesday last week by the International Rescue Committee about the warfare in Eastern Congo estimated that about 5.4 million people have died as a result of the fighting, the vast majority from non-violent causes such as diseases that can be directly attributed to the ongoing violence. IRC researchers arrived at their figures after visiting some 14,000 households across the country last year and comparing the results with several earlier on-the-ground surveys. The group estimated that up to 45,000 people have continued to die each month in the country as a result of the fighting.