From Left to right: 1) Young Pygmy girl of the BaAka tribe. 2) Mother and child. 3) Campo Ma’an National Park, Cameroon. Bagyeli pygmy man – hunter.
© 1) WWF / Martin HARVEY. 2) Soh Koon Chng. 3) WWF – Canon / Peter Ngea

Thousands of years of history in the Congo River Basin

Modern humans have been living in the Congo River Basin for thousands of years. Over that time, they have acquired the skills and knowledge to use the forest for subsistence, shelter, tradable goods and medicinal cures among others. But with a looming population crisis, disease and dire poverty, what are the future prospects for humans in the basin?

Humans in the basin

Humans are certainly no newcomers in the Congo River Basin. Evidence of pygmy culture dates back 20,000 years, while Bantu farmers are known to have migrated into the Congo River Basin forests some 5,000 years ago. 

In the Congo River Basin and Great Lakes of Central Africa, archaeologists have found the remains of the Ishongo people who lived some 8,000 years ago. They used a counting system inscribed on bone, the earliest record in the world of mathematical notation.

Indigenous diversity and lifestyles still prevail

Although the model of the nation state has replaced the tribal system in Africa, the continent’s indigenous groups, including those in the Congo River Basin, retain their way of life. 

An extraordinary ethnic diversity is found there. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) there are at least 250 different ethnic groups - in Gabon alone (1.2 million inhabitants), there are 38.2

Life in the Congo River Basin

As part of their daily life, many of the Congo River Basin’s inhabitants rely on the natural resources of the forests, which complement agricultural activities. Traditional hunter-gatherers have complex relationships with farmers, exchanging forest products for starch-rich foods and access to manufactured goods.

Agricultural activities involve extensive rotation of cleared forest spaces, cultivation, abandonment, fallow re-forestation and subsequent re-clearing. 

Because rainforest soils are poor and forest productivity low, these types of farming and hunter-gathering lifestyles are only possible where there is a low population density3, as land needs are great.

The issue of land ownership

Since the colonial period, the countries of the Congo River Basin have had full ownership of forest resources and remain the sole authority, with rights to allocate resources for conservation and/or development purposes. 

On the other hand, local communities have traditional claims on the land, but these do not necessarily give them legal property rights. 

While communities usually have only use rights, they often perceive that their ownership rights are based on historical use, supported by oral histories of origin and occupancy.4 The fact is that Congo River Basin communities remain as marginalized by forest estate zoning as they were during the colonial era.5

The forests bear the weight of increased populations

Unemployed people turn to the forest to hunt to support themselves and their families, particularly in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon. 

Forest edges of the forest-savanna mosaic bear the brunt of the population density, along with the banks of the larger navigable rivers, including the Congo River, from Kinshasa to Kisangani, and the Ubangi River. Rivers also serve key roles as transportation and trade corridors. 

Construction of roads has greatly facilitated access to the interior of the forest, and many people have relocated close to roads. But logging, oil palm plantations, immigration/population growth, non-traditional hunting technology, road development and increasing access to distant markets have strained the traditional resource management system.6 

Issues in education and health care

Although more than 60% of individuals over the age of 15 can read and write, this is a poor indicator of human capital. Few individuals have had more than a few years of schooling, only a small percentage of children attend secondary school and even fewer continue to higher education. 

Low literacy rates and lack of education, particularly among women, are directly connected to high birth rates and poor health care. These are critical issues facing both conservation and human development organizations in the Congo River Basin. 


Jeffries L. African Origins of Early Humanity. Accessed 8/2/06.
2 Initiative for Central Africa. Undated. Central Africa Ethnic and Cultural Diversity. Briefing sheet.
3 CARPE. 2005. Forests of the Congo River Basin: a preliminary assessment. Balmar. Washington DC.
4 CARPE.2001. Community Management of Forest Resources Moving from "Keep Out!" to "Let's Collaborate!"Congo Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #17.
5 CARPE.2001. Community Management of Forest Resources Moving from "Keep Out!" to "Let's Collaborate!"Congo Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #17.
6 CARPE. 2005. Forests of the Congo River Basin: a preliminary assessment. Balmar. Washington DC.



The extraordinary diversity of people is reflected in the languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For example, the mongo language is restricted to the Congo River Basin area. Ngbandi, spoken in the northern sections of Equator Province of the DRC also extends to the Central African Republic (CAR) under the name Sango. The Tchokwé language is spoken in the southern border regions of the DRC, Angola and Zambia. 

Today, there are three distinctively international languages. The Kikongo language is spoken beyond the Kongo area, all the way to Bandundu. This lingua franca facilitates economic relations and the movement of peoples. 

Lingala is now the most commonly used language in the western half of the DRC and in part of Congo-Brazzaville. 

Swahili is a mixture of Arabic and Bantu, which spread from East Africa from Arab merchants, whose centuries-old networks reached all the way to the town of Kisangani in DRC. Eastern DRC is part of the large Swahili-speaking area. 

Source: Initiative for Central Africa. Undated. Central Africa Ethnic and Cultural Diversity. Briefing sheet.