Militarised Conservation Threatens DRC’s Indigenous People


A man from the community of Mudja holds out his arm to show where he was injured by a park ranger. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS
A man from the community of Mudja holds out his arm to show where he was injured by a park ranger. Zahra Moloo/IPS

IPS News, September 14, 2016

MUDJA/BIGANIRO, Sep 14 2016 (IPS) – It is late afternoon when a light drizzle begins to fall over a group of young men seated together in Mudja, a village that lies approximately 20 kilometres north of Goma on the outskirts of the Virunga National Park. Mudja is home to a community of around 40 families of indigenous Bambuti, also known as ‘pygmies.’*

One of the men holds out his arm to show an injury he received from a park ranger. Others chime in.

“Just the day before yesterday, they shot at me when I was looking for honey and firewood,” says Giovanni Sisiri. “I abandoned everything, took my tools, and ran.”

Armed paramilitary rangers from the Virunga National Park are tasked with protecting the park from poachers and trespassers, often at risk to their own lives. In Congolese law, human habitation and hunting within the park is forbidden, including for the Bambuti, its original inhabitants.

The Bambuti living in Mudja said that at times they defy these laws, venturing inside to collect wood, hunt small animals and gather non-timber products, but recently it has become more difficult.

“A pygmy cannot live without the park. Before, they could enter secretly,” said Felix Maroy, an agronomist and livestock farmer who works with Bambuti communities. “Since January 2015, the guards are always patrolling the area. And there are other armed groups too, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).”

Imani Kabasele, a resident of Mudja and the head of the local branch of an NGO, Program for the Integration and Development of the Pygmy People (PDIP), said that two years ago, a Mbuti resident of a neighbouring village, Biganiro, went to look for honey and disappeared for three days. His body was later discovered, cut up by a machete. Kabasele believes it was someone from the FDLR that killed him.


Imani Kabasele, the head of the branch of a Congolese NGO, PDIP, said that the Mbuti know the forest far better than any other communities, but is it is dangerous for them to venture inside. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS
Imani Kabasele, the head of the branch of a Congolese NGO, PDIP, said that the Mbuti know the forest far better than other communities, but it is dangerous for them to venture inside. Zahra Moloo/IPS

Militarisation and colonial conservation policies

The initial demarcation of the Virunga National Park boundaries dates back to 1925 when it was first created by King Albert of Belgium.

The oldest national park in Africa, it was later expanded to include over seven thousand square kilometres of land. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it is now managed by a private-public partnership between the National Park Authority of the DRC (ICCN) and the EU-funded Virunga Foundation, and is home to about a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas. Congolese farmers living around the Virunga said that its colonial history creates the impression that it was “created by the Mzungu (white man), for the Mzungu.”

After independence, other national parks were established, including Maiko National Park, and Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu.  According to the Global Forest Coalition, the creation of national parks led to the eviction of thousands of indigenous people who neither gave their consent nor received compensation for their loss of land. It was, they state, “in violation of international law” and the country’s 1977 law on expropriation for public purposes.

Patrick Kipalu, the DRC Country Manager for the Forest People’s Program, said there is an active conflict between communities around the park, both indigenous Bambuti as well as agricultural Bantu, and “conservationists, park rangers and other NGOs working for conservation.”

“The old school of conservation in the colonial period was ‘people out of the forest’ and ‘it’s a protected area without anyone inside,’” said Kipalu. “When the colonialists left the country, the people who managed those protected areas were trained by the Belgians that conservation should be done without people, in the old-school way. They have kept the same strategies, though the ICCN is thinking of a conservation strategy which is supposed to include and involve communities.”

Jean Claude (18, right), poses with his friend Denis Sinzira. Most of the youth in Biganiro, DRC go to school until they are 9 or 10 years old. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS
Jean-Claude, 18 (right) poses with his friend Denis Sinzira. Most of the youth in Biganiro only go to school until they are 9 or 10 years old. Zahra Moloo/IPS

Last year, in a letter to Kipalu, a representative of the customary chiefs in Lubero on the west coast of Lake Edward said that the ICCN had expropriated land without the consent of the people living on it and without offering any compensation. The letter also accused the ICCN of destroying and setting fire to villages. A 2004 report by a consultant to the World Bank, Dr Kai Schmidt-Soltau, states that the ICCN, along with WWF, claimed to have resettled 35,000 people from an area south-east of Lake Edward through a voluntary process, but that in fact the resettlement was carried out “at gun-point.”

Aggressive conservation activities are part of a widespread trend toward what some researchers call the militarization of conservation,an approach to protecting nature in which conservationists could engage in repressive policies that are counterproductive.

Jean Claude Kyungu, who in charge of community relations for Virunga, said that the park’s relations with communities around the park are good in some areas, but not in others, and that guards only fire at people if there is “resistance” from the population, for instance when communities “recruit armed groups to secure the land.” He added that the Bambuti are only arrested when they have defied the law.

When asked about the repressive behavior of park rangers and officers from the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) towards civilians in and around the park, Norbert Mushenzi, the ICCN’s deputy director of the Virunga National Park, said that the officers are “undertaking legitimate defense.”

“We also try to educate communities to leave and find alternative solutions, for instance to go to the fields around the park. There were 350 families in one area that left voluntarily,” he said. “The problem is not land. It’s that people want to concentrate in the park and we don’t know why,” he said.

But leaving the park and finding other places to settle is not so simple. One problem, according to Kipalu, is that people living inside illegally have nowhere to go. “The park is so big that it takes the whole area where communities work on their traditional lands,” he said.

Compounding the issue are larger and more complex political dynamics.  According to a group of researchers, Virunga lies at the “epicenter of ongoing conflict since 1993-4” and is “strongly affected by cross-border dynamics with both Rwanda and Uganda.” It is also a hideout for numerous armed domestic and foreign groups.

Communities who enter the park often do so with the protection of armed actors, and links between them are further strengthened by politicians who take advantage of the widespread sentiment that the park expropriated people’s ancestral lands, leading these politicians, in some cases, to “finance armed groups operating in the park.”

The authors suggest that the park “adopt a more conflict sensitive approach to conservation”, and increase efforts to improve local communication. But Jean-Claude Kyungu believes that the park’s approach is not particularly repressive given the enormous challenges. “At Kibirizi, the population lives with the FDLR,” he said. “Do we let these people just go and make their own laws not just in a park, but in a country, that is not their own? People who do not respect the boundaries have to be removed.”

A group of young Mbuti men from Biganiro, DRC, sit in front of their houses, which consist of makeshift structures made of wood and plastic sheeting. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS
A group of young Mbuti men from Biganiro sit in front of their houses, which consist of makeshift structures made of wood and plastic sheeting. Zahra Molo0/IPS

Indigenous knowledge versus imposed development

Without access to the forest and to their ancestral lands to hunt and gather, the Bambuti have trouble surviving. Many depend on daily contractual labour from surrounding communities, such as cutting trees for wood that is sold in Goma. Seventy-year-old Muhima Sebazungu, one of Mudja’s community leaders, said that they are starting to forget their traditional knowledge of plants and medicines.

Patrick Kipalu, of the NGO Forest People’s Program, believes that the park and government’s exclusion of the Bambuti from conservation efforts is a waste of the immense amount of knowledge indigenous communities have about forest ecosystems. One solution, he said, would be to recruit them as rangers in protecting the park.

The ICCN’s Jean Claude Kyungu said that there are “specific criteria” for recruiting rangers, which the Bambuti do not fulfill, including having a diploma from the state.

Norbert Mushenzi, the ICCN’s deputy director of the Virunga National Park, said that the Bambuti have an “intellectual deficiency” and one way for them to benefit from the park is to “sell their cultural products and dances to tourists.”

His view is not unusual; many people, including those directly involved in advocating for the Bambuti, believe that they are inferior to Bantu communities. Although official policy under Mobutu’s regime aimed to ‘emancipate’ indigenous people and to consider them no different from other communities, in practice this meant promoting a sedentary lifestyle and agriculture.

A group of women from Mudja, DRC. Elders worry that the community is beginning to lose their knowledge of traditional medicine and plants. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS
A group of women from Mudja. Elders worry that the community is beginning to lose their knowledge of traditional medicine and plants. Zahra Moloo/IPS

Doufina Tabu, president of a human rights organization, the Association of Volunteers of Congo (ASVOCO), works with Bambuti communities living outside the park whose land has been stolen.

“In Masisi there was a pygmy who was arrested because someone tricked him into giving up his field. He did not have a title deed so he was accused of illegal occupation, even though it’s his own land,” Tabu said. “He was arrested one year ago and we are still trying to get him out.”

While Tabu advocates for the Bambuti to secure land, he also believes that they must integrate into society, “so they can live like others.”

“There are things in their culture that we must change. They can’t continue to stay in the forest like animals,” he said.

report by Survival International states that forcing “development” on indigenous people has “disastrous” impacts and that the most important factor to their well being is whether or not their land rights are respected.

According to Kipalu, the living conditions of the Bambuti are far worse now than when they were in the forest. “Being landless and living on the lands of other people means that they end up being treated almost as slaves,” he said.

The Bambuti from Biganiro do not understand why they cannot access basic services and still be able to return to the forest.

18-year-old Shukuru from Biganiro completed two years of primary school and wants to drive a motorbike, but does not know where to begin. “It’s around 20 dollars just to learn,” he said. “And we barely find enough to eat everyday.”

Legal avenues and long-term solutions

Around Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which like Virunga, is classified as a World Heritage Site, the organization Environment, Natural Resources and Development, ERND, together with the Rainforest Foundation Norway, filed a legal complaint in 2010 for the Batwa, another indigenous group, to receive compensation for the loss of their lands inside the park.

The case landed at the Supreme Court in Kinshasa in 2013 where it has remained. In May 2016, the organizations submitted their complaint to the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights, but have yet to receive a response from the Congolese government.

Mathilde Roffet, from Rainforest Foundation Norway, said that even if the court rules in favour of the Batwa, they will still have to deal with UNESCO and the park’s status as a world heritage site. She hopes that the case can set a precedent for other national parks.

Virunga, however, is a different scenario and according to Kipalu, “a really sensitive zone for the government because of potential oil exploration, mining and rebel groups.”

At the national level, the Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autothtones (DGPA), a network of organizations that works on the rights of indigenous people in the country, have been working on a new law recognizing their rights.

Although the DRC voted to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007, the country’s constitution, 1973 land law and the 2002 Forestry Code make no reference to the rights of indigenous people.

The proposed law includes the protection of their traditional medicine and culture, as well as access to land and natural resources. Article 42 specifically states that indigenous people have the right to return to their ancestral lands and be fairly and adequately compensated if they have to relocate.

Since 2014, its adoption has been stalled. “They keep saying ‘we will discuss it next week, next month’ but the country is going through a lot of political changes, so they are giving a priority to other political issues first,” said Kipalu.

In the meantime, the network is working with the ICCN and the government on road map for the short term, which includes ensuring that indigenous people have access to education and healthcare.

“We do want the communities to go back to their land eventually. Some want to go back to the forest, but others are ready to accept parcels of land outside. It’s going to take many years,” said Kipalu.

The ICCN’s Jean-Claude Kungu said that the ICCN has been trying to improve relations with communities around the park through different initiatives.

“We have proposed initiating development activities like hydroelectric projects, water delivery, and other projects in favour of the population,” he said.

In the meantime, the Bambuti of Mudja and Biganiro will have to remain where they are. Giovanni Sisiri who was attacked by a park guard, brings out a bow and arrow and aims it at the forest. “We will have to start a rebellion one day!” He said, laughing. “We first want peace. But if the provincial and central governments do not find a solution for us, we will have to fight for it.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation

*The word ‘pygmy’ has negative connotations and is used widely in the DRC. According to Survival International, it has been reclaimed by some communities as a term of identify.