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Bolstering safeguards and ensuring Free, Prior, Informed Consent: An experience from Ngo District in the Republic of the Congo

Blog | Wed, 01 Nov, 2023 · 8 min read

Photo Credit: FPIC activities in Congo. FAO/Amanda Bradley

The Government of the Congo, through the Ministry of Forest Economy (MEF), with the support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has mobilised funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) to implement the PREFOREST "Projet de Réduction des Émissions des Gaz à Effet de Serre provenant des Forêts dans cinq Départements de la République du Congo" and PROREP "Projet de Renforcement du Potentiel en Bois Energie Durable en République du Congo" projects. In addition to these projects, the UN-REDD Programme, while recognising the Congo as a priority partner country, has allocated resources to support the implementation of the country's national REDD+ strategy through specific technical assistance, including leveraging on and complementing projects’ activities. Both PREFOREST and PROREP aim not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from agriculture and wood energy sectors, but also to diversify production systems to generate socio-economic benefits and strengthen the resilience of local populations in the 13 districts that make up the projects’ target areas. One of the key strategies is to implement agroforestry systems with small farmers from Bantu and indigenous communities. 

Both the GCF and FAO (as an Accredited Entity), have specific socio-environmental safeguards requirements. Even beyond complying with those however, the projects recognize the Importance of putting in place robust capacity and procedures to minimize and mitigate the risks and to ensure that social and environmental safeguards are respected during implementation. Related concerns include respect for existing land rights, including customary tenure rights, the need for a rigorous Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process, gender equality and social inclusion.

Recently the FPIC process started in two villages in Ngo district: the first, Ombimba, a predominantly Bantu village and the second, Onianva, an indigenous village (Twa ethnicity). There was a very strong turnout for meetings with most residents attending (including many children) and a clear curiosity, if not excitement, to learn about the project opportunity.  The facilitators were conscientious in explaining the villagers’ right to be well-informed on the project activities and to make a free uncoerced and unhurried decision whether to consent to participate. Facilitators used photos to present the proposed project activities, discussing not only potential benefits but also possible risks or costs for villagers.

To encourage women to share their perspectives, villagers were divided into separate male and female groups to discuss the issues and pose questions. For instance, villagers asked if the agroforestry activities would affect the supply of wild asparagus, a common non-wood forest product upon which villagers rely.  Facilitators reassured villagers that these important resources would be protected. 

Another important topic was the project grievance mechanism. The facilitators role-played some examples of how villagers could make a complaint, for example by calling the project hotline. This lively exercise helped to put villagers at ease and will hopefully encourage them to report any project-related concerns, should they arise in the future. 

In the case of the FPIC in Onianva, the indigenous village, as required by Congo's Decree 2019-201, a commission from the Ministry of Justice collaborated in the process.  This body, composed of members from various ministries, works to ensure that the FPIC process meets high standards and conforms to the country's law, while also providing neutral advice to communities contemplating engagement with development projects.  For the Onianva consultation, the Commission held a separate discussion with the villagers after the presentation of the project and the community consented to the participation of the village in the future activities of the project.

The FPIC meetings concluded favorably with unanimous support for the project, and in both Ombimba and Onianva, village delegates (also including representatives of women’s associations) were ready and willing to sign a consent agreement to participate in the project activities.  

While these two FPIC processes concluded successfully, the team and the villagers were reminded that FPIC is an ongoing process, and the onus is on both parties to maintain good communication and work in partnership to achieve the aims of the project. While still relatively new in the Congo, FPIC is a critical part of a rights-based approach to development that puts the community in the driving seat. While FPIC requires additional capacity and resources, projects with a robust FPIC process will have a greater chance of meeting their goals and sustaining their impacts over the long-term.