Militarised conservation in DRC’s Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa, established in 1925 King Albert I of Belgium. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Today, it covers an area of 7,800 square kilometres and provides habitat for elephants, hippos, lions and some of the world’s last mountain gorillas.

In 2014, Virunga was the subject of an award winning documentary:

The animals are threatened by poaching. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, journalist Tom Downing reports that in Virunga,

the gorillas are in greatest danger from a growing human population encroaching on their habitat.

But while Downing spoke to various rangers and visitors to the park, he didn’t speak to any of the communities living around the park. If he did, he doesn’t quote them in his article.

Jeffrey Marlow, writing for Discover Magazine, also describes the threats to the park:

Farming communities have consumed much of this remarkably diverse forest, as the same factors that enable the lush vegetation – fertile volcanic soil, plentiful rain – also make it a pretty appealing place to grow crops.

There is no doubt that there are conflicts in Virunga. Almost 150 rangers have been killed in the past decade. The conflict isn’t only between poachers and rangers. Anti-government rebels have also killed rangers, in an attempt to take control of Lake Edward in the park.

A report produced this year by the organisation Enough investigates an illegal charcoal cartel operating in Virunga. Some estimates put the value of charcoal trade in the area at US$35 million, some of which goes to finance the rebel militia, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

The EU-funded Virunga Foundation co-manages the park with the DRC’s Nature Conservation Agency, ICCN. The Virunga Foundation created the Virunga Alliance, to “foster peace and prosperity through the responsible economic development of natural resources for four million people who live within a day’s walk of the park’s borders”.

Marlow reports that the Virunga Alliance aims to “make the park work for everyone”. The Alliance is building hydropower plants in an attempt to stop communities felling trees to produce charcoal.

But Marlow also doesn’t quote anyone living near the park.

The impact on indigenous peoples

Two recent articles by Zahra Moloo for Inter Press Service focus on what life is like for the communities living around Virunga National Park.

She spoke to members of the Bambuti indigenous group, the original inhabitants of Virunga. Under DRC law, they are forbidden to live in the national park.

Giovanni Sisiri, a Bambuti, told her that,

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

Patrick Kipalu from the Forest Peoples Programme told Moloo that,

“The old school of conservation in the colonial period was ‘people out of the forest’ and ‘it’s a protected area without anyone inside.’ 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.”

Evicted at gun-point

In 2010, Dr Kai Schmidt-Soltau wrote a piece for Forced Migration Review about evictions from DRC’s protected areas. ICCN and WWF started a programme of “voluntary resettlement” in 2003. The programme aimed to get about 100,000 people out of the park.

In 2004, more than 35,000 people were ‘resettled’ from an area south-east of Lake Edward. Officials admitted that this resettlement was carried out at gun-point, that no resettlement assistance was provided and that the livelihoods of the affected people have not been rehabilitated. While the resettlement programme claimed to be voluntary and based on prior and informed consultations, my discussions with the people in and near the park conducted in 2006 and 2007 documented the contrary; the people did not want to leave the park and they tried to resist, even at gun-point.

Without access to Virunga’s forests the Bambuti lost their traditional livelihoods. Moloo writes that today many of the Bambuti work day to day for surrounding communities. One of the jobs available is to cut trees for wood to be sold in Goma.

Excluded from the forest, the Bambuti are losing their knowledge of plants and medicines. One option could be for the park to employ them as rangers.

But Norbert Mushenzi, the ICCN’s deputy director at Virunga, told Moloo that the Bambuti have an “intellectual deficiency”. Mushenzi suggested they could benefit from the park by selling their “cultural products and dances to tourists”.

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