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‘We won’t give up’: DRC’s Front Line Defenders award winner Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke

Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke

Image courtesy of Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke.

  • Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke, Africa winner of the 2023 Front Line Defenders Award, is an environmental lawyer and community activist.
  • He has spent 15 years working in defense of communities in and around Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Because of his activism in a region dominated by armed conflict and the illicit exploitation of natural resources, including gold and coltan, his life has been threatened on numerous occasions and he currently lives in exile.
  • Defending the environment is becoming increasingly dangerous: Nearly half of the 194 human rights defenders killed in 2022 were environmental defenders.

Among the 3,500 inmates in the overcrowded Munzenze prison in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are five farmers from the town of Kitshanga. In November 2022, they were each sentenced to 20 years in jail, convicted of criminal conspiracy, arson and illegal occupation of lands located on the border of Virunga National Park. Their imprisonment illustrates the complex realities of protected areas, politics and land in the eastern DRC.

Their lawyer, environmental lawyer and community activist Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke, is now working on an appeal. “We’re not going to give up hope. We’re going to fight for rights and justice to be restored.”

Bahemuke was one of five recipients of the 2023 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, recognized for his work supporting local communities living in and around Virunga National Park. Established in 1925, the park is home to threatened species including African savanna elephants, okapi, mountain gorillas, and a population of lions known for their tree-climbing habits.

The 35-year-old lawyer’s journey began in 2008, when, at age 20, he started explaining to farmers around the park that it was entirely off-limits to them. “At the same time, I help them understand their rights. These are vulnerable people, and it’s not uncommon for people to try to evict them from their land in order to exploit it. At such times, I help them defend their rights. I also work against the illegal trade in wildlife. The main beneficiaries of this dark economy are the armed groups in North Kivu, not the Congolese.”

In 2010, Bahemuke co-founded an NGO, Alerte Congolaise pour l’Environnement et les Droits de l’Homme (Congolese Alert for the Environment and Human Rights). ACEDH provides legal advice and support to communities caught up in the overlapping currents of commerce, armed conflict, and conservation in this corner of the country, on the border with Rwanda and Uganda.

Environmental lawyer and community activist Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke (center) with other lawyers.
Environmental lawyer and community activist Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke (center), now 35, has been defending communities’ rights in North Kivu since he was 20.. Image courtesy of Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke.

Violently contested land

In 2012, Bahemuke became involved in the tangled issue that landed the five farmers in the Goma prison: a land dispute between former workers for the long-defunct tea grower SICIA, and the rebel movement RCD-Goma.

In colonial times, Belgian-owned SICIA operated tea plantations in the Congo. The company’s owners left following independence in 1960, and SICIA’s workers remained on company land, growing crops mostly for their own consumption.

In 2002, following the end of the Second Congo War, the former plantation land was allocated to RCD-Goma, a pro-Rwandan armed group whose leaders later joined the DRC government. Under the terms of the Pretoria Accord that ended the war, the farmers and their families — now numbering more than 36,000 people — were to be expelled.

Their protests against their eviction were largely unsuccessful; some farmers were threatened, assaulted and arrested. This was under the administration of then-president Joseph Kabila.

Bahemuke and other activists decided to take the issue to court. “We wanted the agreement to be respected and to support the community leaders who were being harassed by the opposing side. But most of the former owners, the former rebels, were close to Kabila’s corrupt regime. They came to my house and beat me up. With full impunity. I was bleeding. I was hospitalized for 12 days after that.”

Following this episode, his life was threatened and he had to go into exile.

A group of fishers and their families protesting. Image courtesy of Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke.

After the election of a new president, Félix Tshisekedi, in 2019, Bahemuke returned to the DRC and resumed his work supporting communities around Virunga: “Congolese people have always been here, and if we still have forests, it’s thanks to them. They protect biodiversity and contribute to the country’s economic development. We need to protect them. The multinationals won’t do anything for us.”

In February 2021, Bahemuke’s ACEDH joined 13 other NGOs condemning the granting of fishing permits on the western shore of Lake Edward. The NGOs argued that the permits violated the integrity of Virunga park, and succeeded in getting them rescinded.

In October that year, ACEDH and 233 other NGOs signed an open letter ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, calling on the DRC government to crack down on illegal activities in protected areas. They highlighted controversial plans to build a university in Virunga, and a hydroelectric dam in Upemba National Park, in the south of the country. The university project has since been abandoned, but plans for a dam in Upemba remain alive.

While he doesn’t shy away from challenging local authorities, Bahemuke also calls on governments — and citizens — of rich countries to assume their responsibilities.

“We condemn the farmers who make charcoal [a driver of deforestation], but we don’t want to condemn the French or Canadian multinationals,” he says, pointing to the foreign mining companies in the tin-rich territory of Walikale. “In Walikale, you have Canadians who are there, destroying nature. They do whatever they want, they violate the rights of communities, all with the complicity of our authorities. But why don’t Canadians raise their voices? Why doesn’t the international community raise its voice? Western countries that claim to be powerful must take accountability for their companies.”

Growing threats to rights defenders

Since reestablishing itself in and around Virunga National Park in late 2021, the former rebel group M23 has made life for environmental and human rights defenders in eastern DRC increasingly risky. M23 is also preventing the park’s rangers and veterinarians from gaining access to the species they normally protect. Another rebel group, the Maï Maï, continues to attack the park’s eco-guards on a regular basis, killing nine rangers since the beginning of 2023.

Meanwhile, Bahemuke’s activism drew hostile attention from a different quarter, after he backed the national agency responsible for protected areas, the ICCN, in opposing the sale of land within Virunga. While the challenge was successful, Bahemuke says magistrates and military officers who were involved in the scheme to set up farms and build houses on 1,100 hectares (2,700 acres) of the park at a site called Nzulo, threatened his life, and in November 2022, he fled the country again. “Some soldiers were preparing to kill me. They wanted to make my death look like an M23 attack. Fortunately, one of them warned me and I was able to leave.”

He remains in exile.

The gravity of the threat against Bahemuke and other rights defenders in this region was underlined by the July 19 killing of Obedi Karafulu, the president of the former workers of the SICIA concession. “It’s truly revolting, I’m very, very affected … He was murdered, others are on the run,” says Bahemuke, who knew Karafulu for years. “It’s a strategy put in place to silence us by all means, but we won’t give up on the population.”

In its 2022 report, Front Line Defenders, which recognized Bahemuke’s work with an award this year, says 48% of human rights defenders killed that year were environmental activists. “Land, indigenous peoples’ and environmental rights defenders were the most targeted sector in 2022, with arrest and detention, and legal action recorded as the most prominent forms of violations, followed by physical attacks and death threats,” it says.

Bahemuke says he regrets that these deaths haven’t drawn more condemnation. “There are environmental and land rights defenders who are dying, who are being arrested, but that doesn’t generate more attention. When someone from an opposition party is arrested for demonstrating, national and international opinion reacts. When someone is killed in the park, there is no condemnation. I hope that with this prize, we’ll have more visibility and that the situation for us will change.”

Banner image: Image courtesy of Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke.

Attack on environmental lawyer’s home alarms DRC rights defenders

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