As an advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, Joseph Itongwa works to ensure that planning around the Congo Basin’s natural resources involves those living in the forests. In an interview, he shared what his work as Director of the National Alliance for the Support and Promotion of Indigenous and Community Heritage Areas and Territories has taught him about community, leadership, adversity, and hope.
What do you do for a living, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I am from the Bambuti community in the south of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in the forest area of North Kivu. Through my advocacy at national and regional levels, through my local presence and engagement with young people, I work for the dignity of my community. The knowledge and know-how of Indigenous Peoples is so important for the management of nature and land use, and for our future.
How did you get into this line of work?
I grew up next to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in the forest area of North Kivu. When the national park was extended to 600,000 hectares by a presidential order in 1975, Indigenous Peoples could no longer enter this territory. We experienced this as a great injustice. It spurred us to organize ourselves, and to connect with Indigenous communities elsewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Rwanda. We made contact with groups in Latin America that we have continued to build upon. For example, I recently returned from Brazzaville where delegations from Mexico, Nicaragua, and Ecuador were present as part of an international coalition of territorial communities.
The adversity we faced has been an enduring source of motivation for me and has guided my path. I studied at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural de Bukavu in South Kivu, and after university I worked with the Integrated Program for the Development of the Pygmy People in Kivu with my community in the Kahuzi-Biega Park area, later broadening this work to community forests and sacred forests across the region.
How does the GEF support your efforts?
I see the GEF as an ally that strengthens the role of Indigenous Peoples in nature management. It requires Indigenous involvement in the initiatives it funds, from national biodiversity and conservation projects to regional efforts such as the Congo Impact Program. At the local level, we have received support from the GEF Small Grants Programme to launch an Indigenous and Community Heritage Area approach. The Network of Indigenous and Local Populations for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa has also benefited from a GEF-funded project on reducing emissions from deforestation, which has helped the Indigenous Peoples of Central Africa incorporate digital tools and develop a strategy for our engagement. This strategy continues to influence a wide range of initiatives and approaches.
Could you describe a project or issue that you are currently focused on?
The national alliance that I lead has been selected to be part of the new Inclusive Conservation Initiative led by the GEF, Conservation International, and IUCN. This project has so much potential to raise awareness about the many strong links between biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples. We are working through this initiative to show, map, and secure traditional access and use of natural resources, to conserve globally important biodiversity and ecosystems.
Is there a GEF-supported project that is especially close to your heart?
The Congo Impact Program gives me great hope. The projects, designed to conserve biodiversity across borders, are now in the early stages of implementation. Indigenous Peoples were brought in to meet with the project leaders even before the program documentation was prepared, and local communities continue to have a central role in the initiatives, particularly in relation to land and natural resource management decisions.
I must stress how much progress this represents because, believe me, I have bad memories of protected area projects that have excluded communities.
What life lessons has your work taught you?
My job brings me into contact with people from all over the world. There are a lot of opportunities and demands related to this and it’s important to be yourself. For example, I spent six months in Geneva to study. A lot of people thought I would not return to my community, but I wanted to go back, and I am so grateful for the time I can spend here. Still, there will be community leaders who leave their territories because of opportunities in the outside world. These are stepping stones. That is why we need to continue to build, educate, and elevate new leaders. In this sense, it can be a gift to move on from a role and make room for others.
Environmental issues are very often complicated and concerning. What gives you hope?
There is growing awareness about the destruction of biodiversity, about the climate crisis, and about the rarity of certain species. All these problems can be frightening. But there is a lot of work underway, including through international conventions, agreements, and instruments. I also see an increasing recognition of the positive role of Indigenous Peoples and their territories. At the COP26 climate summit, countries and leading organizations pledged $1.7 billion to support Indigenous Peoples and local communities in their efforts to protect forests and nature, and to secure land and resource rights. We have much more to do, but it is positive that others recognize that there cannot be a solution to deforestation and land degradation without securing the territories where Indigenous Peoples live. Nature cannot defend itself alone. Indigenous Peoples are its guardians.