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A conservation paradigm based on Indigenous values in DR Congo (commentary)

Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Landscape near Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI via via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • Colonialism and the gazettement of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DRC led to the evictions of Batwa Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands and a number of human rights abuses that continue today.
  • To seek to address historical and contemporary injustices, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is emphasizing Indigenous values and entering a partnership with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) to take actions that ensure that the rights of the Batwa peoples are respected and protected.
  • This commentary is written by the Executive Director of Rights + Communities at the WCS, and a Congolese Lawyer and former Chairperson of the U.N. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

The Batwa Indigenous peoples lived in the Kahuzi-Biega forests of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo for centuries before Belgian colonial rule imposed formal change in 1937 with the establishment of the Zoological and Forest Reserve of Mount Kahuzi. The Batwa were never consulted nor compensated as the legal status of their ancestral lands changed. Colonial powers entered into treaty relations with other ethnic groups but not with Batwa, Efe, and Mbuti Indigenous peoples, whom they considered primitive.

To the Belgians, the Batwa nomadic way of life was deemed unviable and incapable of protecting nature. Their ancestral lands were therefore considered vacant and thus open to appropriation and displacement in order to generate profit for a colonial extractive economy around rubber and other forest products.

This conflict between state, non-Indigenous actors, various other interests and the recognition of the rights and land tenure claimed by Indigenous peoples continues to this day. The lowly caste status assigned to the Batwa and other forest peoples on account of their descent and livelihoods has ironically been juxtaposed against the acknowledgement that they are premiers citoyens, or first inhabitants, of Congo.

Kahuzi Biega National Park
Landscape image of Kahuzi Biega National Park. Image courtesy of WCS.

Some people believe that protected areas and human rights are an anathema to each other. However, we can and must build models that respect Indigenous governance and management. A protected area cannot exist without recognizing the deep inter-connection between forests and the cultural identities of Indigenous peoples.

With this recognition we can build strong, just and equitable landscapes that have both Indigenous peoples and local communities at the heart of not just one but a range of governance and management approaches. They must have secure land tenure, the right to self-determination through their institutions, and access to other rights. Where park management is government-led we must design novel, equitable and culturally appropriate systems of natural resource management.

The momentum for change is strong and the time is now to recognize and correct – through concrete action – the sins of the past and of today. We strongly believe that recognition of customary rights, Indigenous knowledge, and a key role in decision-making should be the main elements to build a future that realizes the Batwa peoples’ vision for their current and future generations.

Deep-set injustices against the Batwa people

The Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP) was established in November 1970. Adrien Deschryver, a Belgian photographer and conservationist, became its first chief warden. The gazettement of the 600 square-kilometer park led to evictions of Batwa Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands by the government of then-President Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1975, the government increased the surface area of the Park to 6,000 square kilometers (2,316 square miles), once again causing the displacement of large numbers of the Batwa peoples without their free, prior, and informed consent. Over the last 50 years, the Batwa have been repeatedly displaced from their ancestral lands, and forced to live as squatters facing intense suffering, dispossession, exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination.

Bamboo forest, prime gorilla habitat in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kirkby / WCS.

The Batwas’ hardship on the margins of society was compounded by the arrival of marauding armed militias, poachers and illegal miners in 1996 following the outbreak of wars in eastern DRC. Today there are more landless Batwa than before the Park was created. After being forced to assimilate, they are the last to have access to justice, health care, education, services, and political representation.

Furthermore, the Batwa have been brutalized, tortured, and killed by various segments of society. This dehumanization of the Batwa is based on a deep-set prejudice that sees them as “child-like,” lesser human. Indeed, one finds these attitudes embedded in human rights abuses that go well beyond the borders of the Park, with deep rifts across the eastern DRC.

The Indigenous knowledge that enabled the Batwa to live in symbiosis with forests for hundreds of years was never recognized nor employed for the protection of the Kahuzi-Biega forests.

Batwa have been branded a threat and today their legitimate claims to land in the Park are frequently co-opted by local actors looking to exploit the rich resources of minerals and timber found there.

Amidst the proliferation of multiple armed and other groups vying for access to globally valuable natural resources, the forest continues to shrink. While a highly important ecosystem remains, it is small and fragile—unable to meet the needs of the Batwa population today, let alone in the future. This has led to increasing conflict between the Batwa claiming ancestral rights and the authorities who are charged with enforcing the conservation laws governing access inside the National Park.

Landscape of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kirkby / WCS.

In 2019, a formal dialogue process established to resolve this conflict faltered. Promises by Park and other authorities to the Batwa were repeatedly broken, and the conflict manifested itself in increasingly violent forms which brings us to the present.

A new framework for Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Today, we work to redress both the historical and contemporary injustices that the Batwa and other local communities face in eastern DRC. The solution must not only involve the Kahuzi Biega National Park but a broader strategy that looks at truth and reconciliation processes and stabilization; addresses structural inequalities, corruption and insecurity in the region; reviews land-use and land-tenure; and develops stable and equitable economies involving a range of sectors.

The momentum for change also comes from the government of DRC. A first of its kind bill specifically protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples was adopted by the National Assembly last year and is now pending in the Senate. The legislation seeks to redress historical injustices, protect culture, and ensure Indigenous peoples play a central role in the sustainable management of forests and other natural resources.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been active in Kahuzi-Biega National Park for more than 20 years. WCS is now entering into a Public Private Partnership agreement with the government of the DRC’s Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) for the management of the Park. The partnership will enable WCS to take immediate concrete actions to ensure that the rights of the Batwa peoples are respected and protected.

With this, WCS seeks to develop a new framework for Kahuzi-Biega National Park as a step in the direction of realizing nature conservation based on people and nature working together, not in conflict.

Silverback Grauer’s gorilla “Chimanuka” from Kahuzi-Biega National Park was the first animal monitored using Animal Observer. Image courtesy of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

WCS will set up transparent processes and grievance redress mechanisms intended to deepen the dialogue with Batwa communities through co-design and engagement. The organization will ensure that members of the Batwa Indigenous community as well as representatives from local communities and civil society are represented on the Board of Directors and have a voice in decision-making.

Developing ways in which the Batwa can re-establish a connection with their ancestral forests requires meaningful dialogue and innovative approaches in protected-area management as we apply free, prior, and informed consent to develop joint solutions with the Batwa community.

This is a tall order, and not an easy journey in a region plagued for decades by violence, armed conflict, and competing interests in natural resources. It entails the collective responsibility of many stakeholders—the DRC government and its ICCN, donors, the U.N., international and local advocacy groups, private sector, and others.

Yet we see no other way as Indigenous communities in and around the park face existential threats. Without stepped-up involvement, violence, human rights abuses, deforestation, and destruction of biodiversity will escalate at a time when our planet confronts the climate crisis and extinction of species.

We are committed to conserving nature by incorporating the Indigenous value systems that have been marginalized and sidelined in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.  We call on and challenge human rights and development groups to join us because international advocacy is not enough. We need concrete and creative solutions on-the-ground in DRC and wherever Indigenous peoples struggle to achieve respect, land tenure, and self-determination to sustainably manage their natural resources.


Sushil Raj is the Executive Director of Rights + Communities at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a Member of the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and former Coordinator and Human Rights Officer in the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office-MONUSCO, DRC.

Dr. Albert Kwokwo Barume is a Congolese Lawyer, U.N. Security Council Expert, former Chairperson of the U.N. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Expert for the African Union on Indigenous Peoples Rights, and former Coordinator and Senior Specialist for ILO PRO 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

Banner image: Landscape near Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI via via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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