In 2014, one of the final decrees of the 2002 Forest Code in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was signed by Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo.  After more than ten years of advocacy and review, Decree N°14/018 of August 2, 2014, on the Attribution Procedures for Local Community Forest Concessions (LCFCs) signified a major accomplishment in recognition of customary ownership rights in DRC.  Communities gained recognition of their customary ownership rights over forest concessions totaling 50,000 hectares. The decree came to be viewed as one of the biggest successes for DRC’s forest sector, and due to gaps in DRC’s current land law, remains the only mechanism for local communities and Indigenous Peoples to secure community forest tenure.

Unfortunately though, this positive outlook has shifted since the circulation of a letter by the country’s /Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development. In his letter n°1687/CAB/MIN/EDD/28/BLN/15 dated April 13, 2014, the Minister His Excellency Liyota Ndjoli, discusses the DRC community forestry pilot project with the Coordinator of the Congo Basin Forest Fund at the African Development Bank. He writes, “for legal, environmental, and economic reasons, community forestry should be structured around decentralized territorial entities, or collectivities, rather than communities, which are defined by their relationship to a clan or family.”

This policy shift threatens the future of community forestry by placing forest management with local authorities, whose interests may alight on the profits associated with forest resources rather than the protection of these resources and the local communities who depend on them.  This drastic reinterpretation of community forestry marks a rollback in the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples in DRC.

During a national workshop on community forestry in June 2015, civil society organizations in DRC issued a statement expressing their collective response to the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development. The statement outlines principal criticisms of the Minister’s vision for community forestry, asserting that the policy shift lacks a legal basis; violates both the 2006 Constitution and the 2002 Forest Code; contradicts the legal definition of LCFCs and the government’s vision for the forest sector; and jeopardizes donor support for community forestry in DRC. With over 50 signatories, including representatives from the national civil society platform on tenure (CACO), this forceful response from civil society illuminates the threat implicit in rights rollback for local communities and Indigenous Peoples in DRC’s forests.