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Rangers in DRC gorilla park abused Indigenous villagers, report says

One of many homes burnt and destroyed in a major attack targeting Batwa villages in July 2021.

One of many homes burnt and destroyed in a major attack targeting Batwa villages in July 2021. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

  • According to a new investigative report by Minority Rights Group (MRG), 20 Indigenous Batwa were killed, 15 women were raped and 2 children were burnt alive by park guards and soldiers in the DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP), home to the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla.
  • The acts were committed between 2019 and 2021 under the knowledge and paramilitary support of U.S and German government agencies and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), say the report’s researchers who obtained evidence through interviews with eyewitnesses and park guards involved in the attacks.
  • WCS denies allegations brought against the organization, saying it had no involvement in military operations. The KBNP bulletin denied similar reports of violence during a visit by the government agency that manages the park in February.
  • German government agencies and a cabinet secretary are calling for an independent investigation into allegations of abuses, which MRG says is just the “tip of the iceberg”. According to sources, another investigation is underway.

A new investigative report details human rights abuses committed against Indigenous Batwa people between 2019 and 2021 in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBPN) located in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The report, published by the NGO Minority Rights Group on Wednesday, says 20 Batwa were killed, 15 Batwa women were raped, and 2 children were burnt alive by the park’s guards.

MRG’s investigators, led by journalist Robert Flummerfelt, spent nine months between October 2020 and December 2021 interviewing eyewitnesses to violence, family members of those reported killed, and Batwa people detained in South Kivu province. They also spoke with soldiers and park guards who described participating in large-scale acts of violence. MRG finds that the violence was carried out to expel the Batwa population from their ancestral lands inside the protected area.

Shell casings reported to be used from the rifles used by park guards and soldiers in a village that was destroyed in the July 2021 attacks, according the the MRG report. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

According to the investigation, international donors to KBNP, such U.S. and German government agencies, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), were notified of violent escalations and continued to provide paramilitary training and equipment to the specific unit of guards responsible for abuses, in violation of the UN Security Council’s arms embargo to the DRC.

The WCS has denied allegations brought against the organization.

The KBNP bulletin denied similar allegations of violence brought against the park’s guards in December.

KBNP is a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and 136 species of mammals protected by the park. It has also been the grounds of numerous reports of violence and displacement against the Indigenous Batwa community since its inception in the 1970s when 6,000 Batwa were evicted from their ancestral lands. This has garnered attention from human rights organizations for symbolizing ‘fortress conservation’.

The report, ‘To Purge the Forest by Force’, details three waves of violent attacks in the eastern Kalehe region that began in July 2019 and continued until December 2021. Hundreds have reportedly been left displaced. Mongabay covered one of these reports of violence in December.

Map of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Image courtesy of Mongabay.

“Park guards and army soldiers burned entire villages to the ground, employed heavy weapons such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to shell villages,” says the report.

Findings include the indiscriminate shooting, killing and maiming of unarmed civilians, as well as taking body parts as trophies and subjecting dozens of Batwa women, and a 17-year-old girl, to gang rape at gunpoint. This information was described by eyewitness sources.

According to MRG, the director of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation’s (ICCN) human rights unit, the DRC government agency that manages KBNP, a “mixed and independent” investigation into the allegations of human rights abuses in the park will be conducted.

Mongabay reached out to the ICCN for a comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

Vincent Imbongo, deputy director general of the ICCN, visited KBPN in February 2022 and met with Indigenous groups and civil society organizations. His delegation included a legal affairs officer, the director of international cooperation and the advisor to the deputy prime minister and minister of the environment.

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

An account of his visit on KBNP’s website said no major incident implicating guards or the military in violence in the last three years against Indigenous groups was reported to him.

“On the contrary,” the park’s bulletin said, “Indigenous groups explained they were regularly solicited by certain NGOs in search of funding to smear KBNP and FARDC [the armed forces of the DRC] in the name of human rights.”

In response to the December reports of violence, the park’s website said an association of evildoers had committed terrible acts in the nearby city of Bukavu and retreated into the park. Guards detected them and alerted the authorities; a decision was taken in Kinshasa to find and arrest the attackers. This was definitely not an attack on Indigenous residents, according to the KBNP bulletin, and no Batwa have lived in the park since 2018.

According to the site, Imbongo promised to monitor accusations against KBNP and protected areas, as well as halt the nefarious actions of hostile NGOs.

A deep dive into the investigation

The MRG research team obtained evidence of the deaths of at least 20 individual Batwa community members and the rape of at least 15 Batwa women in connection with the three-year campaign of forced expulsion.

“We live in the forest. When they confront us, they rape us,” says one of the women, who remained anonymous and was an eyewitness to the report. “Those of us who will die, will die, but the forest is where we will stay.”

A screenshot from a video, taken by a Mutwa community member, in which Batwa homes were burnt by park guards. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

The data in the report were collected via in-person semi-structured interviews conducted in Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda and Lingala, common languages throughout the region. These interviews occurred in nineteen villages and cities in and around KBNP. Investigations began in 2020 and ended in December 2021 for a total of nine months.

Interviewees include eyewitnesses of park violence, individuals injured or raped in attacks, family members of individuals who were reportedly killed, and Batwa people actively detained in a major detention facility in South Kivu.

Other interviewees include soldiers and park guards who described participating in large-scale acts of organized violence inside the KBNP, sources in the U.N., Bukavu-based civil society actors, and researchers who have worked in the KBNP.

The research team conducted focus group-style discussions with Batwa as well as with members of other local communities. According to the report, it sought to corroborate the accounts of Batwa communities and other sources by gathering physical evidence of violence associated with the KBNP and cross-referencing accounts with the prior research of civil society organizations to reach its conclusions.

The gravesite of one of several Batwa community members killed in the attacks targeting Batwa villages at the end of 2021. According to eyewitnesses, in the attacks at least four civilians were killed, including two children who were burnt alive. Batwa women also described being subjected to group rape by park guards and soldiers. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

“We are witnessing a policy of state violence aimed at terrorizing an already highly marginalized Indigenous community into leaving a park which was created on their ancestral homeland,” said Agnes Kabajuni, MRG’s Africa regional manager.

Agencies providing funding to the park include WCS, USAID, the German development bank, KfW, and the development agency, GIZ.

A specific unit of park guards responsible for these violations was uncovered by the MRG investigation. According to the report, this unit received paramilitary training and equipment at various times between 2015 and 2021 from international partners in violation of the UN Security Council’s arms embargo in the DRC.

The WCS, GFA Consulting Group and Maisha Group Limited are the partners reported to have provided paramilitary training and equipment to these guards under biodiversity projects funded by the German and U.S. governments.

While WCS and certain U.S. and German government agencies did not commission the attacks, notes the report, they were informed in writing that park guards were shooting and threatening Batwa people in May of 2019. This is two months before the attacks began.

Headstone of one of several Batwa community members reported to be killed in July 2021 attacks conducted by park guards and soldiers, per the MRG report. According to eyewitnesses, the Mutwa buried here was killed execution-style while members of his family watched. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

“These international supporters of the park were notified repeatedly that their funding and material support was translating into massive abuses against civilian populations,” said Robert Flummerfelt in a statement. “They cannot plead ignorance or claim their support was insignificant.”

In a statement, WCS condemned reports of violence against Indigenous people and denied the allegations brought against the organization in the report saying it had involvement or influence in training, support, planning or direction of military operations.

“[The idea that] WCS promotes a militarized approach to conservation which necessitates the forcible exclusion of communities from protected areas is patently false,” the organization said. WCS also stated they conducted internal inquiries and took measures to address reports of violence they received between 2019-2021.

In a commentary published by Mongabay in February, WCS stated that it will be entering a partnership with the ICCN to ensure that the rights of Batwa people are protected to address historical injustices.

“Characterizing our decades of work to protect the important wildlife and habitat of KBNP, promote governance, and improve the lives of local people as ‘fortress conservation’ is a misinformed attempt to lay blame for a decades-long, complex situation in eastern DRC at the feet of organizations who are on the ground working in good faith on solutions to improve the situation,” says WCS.

According to some rangers and environmental organizations based in the DRC, some members of the Batwa community in and near KBNP have assimilated into modern Congolese society. These individuals have abandoned their traditional sustainable livelihoods and now practice unsustainable logging and poaching.

The shoes of a Mutwa community member warped by flames and lying among the ashes in a village reportedly burnt to the ground by park guards and soldiers in July 2021, according to the MRG report. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

After returning to their lands inside KBNP in October 2018 following a reported attack, people rebuilt settlements and were blamed for the deforestation of up to 300 hectares (741 acres) of the park, according to the report. In response, the KBNP park management and the FARDC began a campaign to expel them once again,  the report continues.

A call for more investigations

Upon becoming aware of allegation brought against the park guards last year, KfW called on the ICCN to set up the independent investigation. According to MRG, the investigation should already be underway. GIZ followed with the same statement.

“In view of the severity of the human rights violations purported in MRG’s report and our existing cooperation with ICCN, we strongly support an independent investigation of the allegations, and we would appreciate MRG’s collaboration in this investigation,” said the development agency.

Jochen Flasbarth, Germany’s state secretary for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, said in a statement yesterday that the allegations contained in the report are being taken very seriously by the German government. He says that the results of this investigation would determine whether Germany would continue providing funds to KBNP.

Homes burned inside Kahuzi-Biega National Park in 2019. Image courtesy of RCF-RDC.

In a call with Mongabay, Lara Domínguez, MRG strategic litigation officer, told Mongabay that the findings are just the tip of the iceberg as it has only focused on three waves of attacks in one national park in the DRC. Other human rights organizations have also documented further reports of violence in the park.

Although CSOs on the ground have been highlighting human rights abuses, an investigation was never commissioned and it seemed as though donors and officials were turning a blind eye, says Domínguez.

According to Catherine Long, the DRC country lead for the NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), the last reported confrontation in KBNP occurred on January 20th, 2022, when guards chased a group of Batwa people out of the park.

Long told Mongabay that when FPP reached out to donors and highlighted the abuses at the KBNP, they would ask for evidence. Now that an investigation has been published, she hopes that donors take a look at the operations in KBNP and address its issues.

“It doesn’t have to be a park without humans inside that is patrolled by people with guns,” says Long. She says the Batwa people have indicated an interest in being involved in conservation efforts at KBNP and this is something that FPP would support.

In March, lawmakers from the U.S House of Representatives introduced a bill that would require the require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to vet the human rights record of conservation grantees. If it passes, the law would require groups receiving USFWS funds to set up grievance procedures and promptly investigate allegations of “gross” human rights abuses, or risk losing funding.

One of many homes burnt and destroyed in a major attack targeting Batwa villages in July 2021. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group.

 

UPDATE: This article has been updated with statements by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Banner image: One of many homes burnt and destroyed in a major attack targeting Batwa villages in July 2021, according to Minority Rights Group. Image courtesy of Minority Rights Group. 

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, and Christian-Geraud Neema Byamungu, a Congolese researcher, about how resource extraction is impacting human rights and the environment in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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