- The number of attacks by security forces on Indigenous Batwa villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park has tripled in the past four weeks, according to the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP).
- DRC soldiers and park rangers are accused of burning several Batwa villages to the ground, killing one man and possibly a pregnant woman, and injuring at least two other women during raids that continued until mid-December.
- Indigenous rights groups have demanded a formal investigation into the reports, and called on park funders to pay attention to alleged crimes committed using their money.
- Park officials have denied that there are any Batwa communities officially living inside the park, and say the target of the raids is an armed man that carried out a deadly attack in the city of Bukavu.
A series of raids by soldiers and rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park have left one Indigenous man dead and a pregnant woman missing, feared burned alive in her home, activists have reported.
Two other women were also reportedly injured in the joint operation between Nov. 12 and 14 on two Indigenous Batwa villages in the park. Several Batwa people were reportedly arrested, but the reason for the raids is still unknown. In response to the reports, park director De-Dieu Bya’Ombe Balongelwa said the raids were aimed at capturing armed men who had carried out an attack in the city of Bukavu, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the park, which left six attackers, two policemen and a solider dead. Balongelwa denied that there are any Batwa communities living inside Kahuzi-Biega, and said all operations in the park are related to security.
However, the raids reportedly continued until mid-December, during which several other villages inside the park were burned to the ground.
Citing eyewitness testimony, Catherine Long, the DRC country lead for the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), told Mongabay that between Dec. 4 and 5, authorities raided the Batwa village of Katasomwa. Following this, they burned down the communities of Lumba, Kakerekenje and Kayeye. This has forced community members go into hiding for fear of further attacks. Vague details of the raids were made known to the FPP after the Batwa people reached out to the organization hoping to have their voices heard.
The Batwa people currently living in the park are those who returned to their lands in 2018 after park authorities promised to establish a pilot project granting them access to several areas within the park. Dialogue between the Batwa and park officials continued, but some Batwa members said they felt the process was taking too long and moved back into the park before the decisions were finalized.
Relations between the Kahuzi-Biega park rangers and the Batwa community members wanting access to ancestral lands have been uneasy since the park was established in 1970. This is similar to dynamics in other national parks in the DRC, where reported abuses by rangers have resulted in numerous investigations.
Kahuzi-Biega is one of biggest national parks in the country and houses a rich biodiversity that includes 136 protected mammals, such as the largest remaining population of the endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri). However, its creation has been criticized as an example of fortress conservation, where Indigenous and local peoples were displaced from their ancestral lands without consideration of their role as environmental stewards.
Since the park was established, more than 6,000 Batwa people have been removed from their ancestral lands. Over the decades, they have been victims of human rights violations that continue to this day.
According to some rangers and organizations based in the DRC, some members of the Batwa community in and near Kahuzi-Biega who have assimilated into modern Congolese society and abandoned their traditional sustainable livelihoods now practice unsustainable logging and poaching. Other conservation organizations, including the U.K.-based FPP, deny these claims.
“[There are] unfounded accusations from some conservation actors that the Batwa are the ones damaging the area’s incredibly precious ecosystem, and with the unfounded suggestion that harassing the Batwa is somehow connected to preserving security,” the FPP said in a statement.
Numerous reported attacks since 2017
The reported raids on the Batwa are not the first flagged by the FPP this year. A joint operation carried out July 23 resulted in the deaths of two men and the torching of several homes. According to the FPP, violence targeting women resulted in two deaths and a third woman suffering a miscarriage.
“There appears to be a systematic campaign underway at present to terrorize all Batwa people out of the park — their ancestral lands — without consultation, consent or compensation,” Long told Mongabay.
Little documentation exists for the reported incidents of human rights abuses against the Batwa people living in Kahuzi-Biega. Though, a report released in October by the Initiative for Equality, a network supporting Batwa rights organizations in the DRC, highlighted a number of human rights abuses that were reported to have occurred in and around the park over the past five years.
During that period, according to the report, at least 20 Batwa people were killed during raids and 14 wounded and threatened. Nine Batwa villages, comprising a total of 180 households, were said to be burned to the ground and 13 communities were displaced. Batwa rights organizations have also been targets of harassment or threats by park officials.
There have been five cases of sexual violence against Batwa women, four incidents where Batwa households were looted, and 17 cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, the report said. So far, 14 people have been released and two have died in prison due to poor conditions.
There have also been five incidents of attacks on rangers or soldiers by Batwa community members. This has resulted in three rangers being killed and 13 injured.
“Each raid has resulted in serious human rights abuses, and each seems to be worse than the last,” the FPP said.
No formal investigation has been conducted into any of the raids that have reportedly occurred this year. According to the FPP, none of the park’s responses to similar past incidents have addressed the underlying abuses Batwa communities have experienced since the park’s establishment in 1970.
The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the DRC government agency that oversees conservation in the country and manages Kahuzi-Biega National Park, did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
NGOs call for investigation
Fiore Longo, head of the conservation campaign at the Indigenous rights advocacy group Survival International, called on organizations who provide funding for Kahuzi-Biega to stop turning a blind eye to human rights violations occurring in the park.
“Unfortunately, these terrible abuses are not an isolated case, but are regular occurrences in conservation areas,” she told Mongabay. “Rapes, torture, [the] killing of indigenous people and the burning of their houses have been part of ‘nature conservation’ since colonial times and continue to this day, now funded by our tax payer’s money.”
The Initiative for Equality has launched a petition calling for an investigation by the DRC government, the U.N. special rapporteur of the rights of Indigenous people, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNESCO into the recent attacks.
In 2020, 10 rangers were found guilty of murder, rape, torture and bodily harm against the Batwa people living close to the boundaries of Kahuzi-Biega and Salonga National Park.
The FPP’s Long said the persistent reports of abuse indicate that the park is not being managed properly. Despite the fact that Indigenous peoples are increasingly seen as among the most effective guardians of biodiversity, she said, park authorities refuse to allow the Batwa to play such a role.
“There are people living in the places that conservationists have identified as important for protecting biodiversity,” David Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said in an interview with Mongabay in October. A recent push for the expansion of protected areas to help endangered species while conserving forests has become a battleground of human rights, with Indigenous organizations warning this could lead to further evictions from ancestral territories.
“[The] solution is not to kick those people out to put a fence around it,” Boyd said. “The solution is to empower those people through the recognition of their rights, and create a framework where they actually gain benefits from continuing to practice the stewardship responsibilities that are at the heart of their culture.”
Banner image: Kahuzi-Biega National Park rangers stand in formation at the park in October, 2016. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.