Towards a new model of conservation?

Somewhere between US$7 billion and US$10 billion is spent every year on nature conservation. Much of this money goes towards managing existing and creating new protected areas. But these areas of rainforest, taiga, or desert are not only home to wildlife.

These lands are also home to millions of indigenous peoples. They have lived there for millennia. They protect the land and depend on it for their survival.

A project called “Reserved!” looks into the question of what happens to indigenous peoples when a protected area is created on their lands. And even more important, how to combine indigenous peoples’ rights and nature conservation.

Last week, the project launched an “Atlas on Indigenous Peoples and Nature Conservation”. Produced by Marine Gauthier and Riccardo Pravettoni, the Atlas is the result of a large number of interviews with representatives of indigenous peoples, conservation organisations, governments, and human rights activists.

The Atlas features stories of conservation and indigenous peoples from Mongolia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, and French Guiana.

It also features articles from Joseph Itongwa (REPALEAC), David Wilkie (Wildlife Conservation Society), Simon Counsell (Rainforest Foundation UK), and Lars Løvold (Rainforest Foundation Norway).

Itombwe Nature Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo


The second story in the Atlas looks at the case of Itombwe Nature Reserve in the Democratic Repulic of Congo. (A longer version of this story appears on Rainforest Foundation Norway’s website.)

Itombwe Nature Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo: Towards a new model of conservation?

In one of the wildest forests of the world, in a region drained by conflicts, local communities have decided to stand up for their rights against the decision to set up Ikozi a protected area on their land, proclaiming, “Forest conservation will be done with us, or it won’t happen”.

From initial distress to an inclusive approach

In 2006, supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Ministry of Environment of the Democratic Republic of Congo unilaterally created the Itombwe Natural Reserve. Worried about losing their traditional lands, the Bambuti – the local tribal name for pygmies – decided to voice their concerns. “We did not want our forest to belong to the state”, they say. The protests soon reached a high level of intensity and the Reserve project stalled. In 2008 community representatives, civil society organizations, government and conservation organizations gathered in a workshop to start a dialogue. The Congolese Institute of Nature Conservation (Ministry of Environment), WWF, WCS, Rainforest Foundation Norway and its local partner Africapacity (a civil society organization defending IPs rights), decided to form the Itombwe Joint Framework. Joining forces in order to find compromises as never before in DRC and in Central Africa, the different actors developed a common work plan towards a new definition of the reserve’s limits and management, based on consultation and participatory mapping approaches.

Participatory mapping of the reserve’s limits

Initially Itombwe was a square of 15,000 km2, with borders that resembled Africa’s national boundaries. This area, which was delineated on paper rather than in the field, made very little sense on the ground. It took 6 years to agree on the new limits of the Itombwe reserve, now covering 5,732 km2. Equipped with GPS and trained in mapping techniques, the local communities themselves identified key biodiversity hotspots as well as their traditional activities in order to define the protected area’s borders. Based on this participatory mapping work, a new decree was ratified in 2016 to establish the reserve’s boundaries.

Next steps: Defining a management plan

This official establishment will open a new chapter in Itombwe’s story: how will the redefined reserve be managed? While the Ministry is the only institution in DRC permitted to manage a protected area, the Bambuti are keen to manage this forest themselves taking advantage of their traditional knowledge. However, the Congolese law revised in 2014 still does not formally include the possibility of community-based reserve management. Civil society calls for arrangements with the government to let Itombwe fully develop into a community-based protected area, while conservation organizations seem to promote co-management as a solution. The presence of Banro, a Canadian gold-mining company retaining exploration permits within the reserve, will also need to be reviewed to implement a sustainable management plan.

Development issues and solutions ahead

Despite these efforts, the Itombwe area remains a dangerous place, with many militias hiding in its most remote areas. Many pygmies had to leave the deep forest in the mountains and have migrated towards the valleys: far away from their livelihoods, they started engaging in forest-consuming activities, mainly agriculture and artisanal mining. Acknowledging this issue, the communities would like to see more development projects promoted in addition to the transfer of the reserve management. According to the current members of the Joint Framework, this would mean involving other international NGOs who could bring their expertise and pledge substantial development funds in the area. The Itombwe Joint Framework would then bring together communities, government, indigenous peoples’ rights organizations, conservation organizations, and development organizations around a shared sustainable development and conservation project.
While heavy challenges still need to be seriously addressed, the Itombwe experience prefigures a change in the conservation pattern in Central Africa, setting indigenous people back at the center of their ecosystem as major players, recognizing their traditional rights and enabling their ownership of the forest.


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