Violence against the Batwa of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Violence against the Batwa of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Introduction

In April 2022 a report by the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) on violence against the indigenous Batwa of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was released. The report is entitled “To Purge the Forest by Force: Organized violence against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park” (MRG, 2022) and can be downloaded here.

The report details the excruciating violence exercised by the authorities of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB), in allegiance with the Congolese Armed Forces. While violent evictions are not new in the context of conservation, the difference in this case is that three coordinated operations against the Batwa were taking place in 2019 and 2021 of which the international backers of the park were informed.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Screenshot from MRG (2022), p. 12

Notable is that these backers are the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the German Development Bank (KfW), the German development agency Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the US agency for international development (USAID), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A detailed summary of the report will be found in the forthcoming issue of The Conservation & Livelihoods Digest in June 2022.

Evictions of the Batwa

The Batwa are an indigenous people of Central Africa with their ancestral homelands spanning over several countries. With the establishment of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Eastern DRC in the 1960s, the Batwa were driven out of the park in order to prevent them from interfering with the flora and fauna. Even though attempts were to gain access to their lands again, the park management did not live up to its commitments. In 2018, several Batwa families decided to move back into the forest, even though they were prohibited from doing so.

As a consequence, three military-style operations were carried out by the park’s Rapid Intervention Unit (RIU) and the Congolese Army in the eastern Kahele region of the park. The first operation took place in May-July 2019 and resulted in the destruction of several villages. Even though international media reported about this incidence (e.g. Wyatt, 2019), this reporting presented the incidence as a violent clash between Batwa and park rangers rather than a coordinated attempt to drive the Batwa out of the forest.

The second operation took place in July-August 2019 and somewhere between 3 to 25 Batwa were killed. Soldiers of the Congolese Army along with park guards attacked several villages – this time with heavy belt-fed machine guns and mortars. While driving the villagers out of the forest, Batwa women were raped. Of those having been forced out of the forest, some starved to death.

The time after the second attack was marked by relative calm and some Batwa leaders entered into negotiations with the PNKB authorities and the official Congolese government agency responsible for the park (ICCN) to leave the park and settle elsewhere. Others were offered employment in the park while a third group chose to remain in their traditional homelands. Yet, since none of the options provided for long-term solutions, a third operation was launched and took place on several occasions between July and December 2021.

During these attacks, villages were ambushed with the sole purpose of burning them to the ground. Apart from machine guns and mortars, also RPGs were used. Again, women were raped and villagers shot. Even though the park guards and soldiers faced some resistance, this occurred sporadically. The result was the full destruction of many villages and the forced removal of hundreds, if not thousands of Batwa, who were driven to become squatters in villages surrounding the PNKB.

The report claims that the support of the park guards – including the alleged provisions of weapons – violated a UN Security Council arms embargo on the Congo that has been in place since 2003. According to the embargo, member states of the UN are prohibited from providing any militarised group with arms and weapons in several regions of the DRC. This embargo was extended several times. However, in 2008, it was lifted in so far that official government agencies of the DRC can be provided with military support as long as the UN Sanctions Committee receives a notification of this support and that non-governmental groups are still embargoed (on the embargo, see SIPRI, 2021).

Responses to the attacks and the report

The attacks on the Batwa villages were documented by several national and international civil society organisations, which wrote letters to the WCS, the KfW, the GIZ and USAID. None of these actors, however, publicly condemned the violence. Instead, the responses to the draft version of the report that the stakeholders were provided with – which are annexed to the report – were very different in nature.

On the one hand, the KfW and the GIZ (as well as a German consulting company) responded to the report by outlining their own commitments to ensuring human rights. At the same time, they also argued that they were not part of the funding that supported the RIU and other measures contributing to the violence, either because funding had been suspended prior to the operations or by arguing that supported projects were not located inside the park. Moreover, an official complaint mechanism with the Congolese government agency responsible for the park was established that can be used to document and report human rights violations.

USAID and the US Fish and Wildlife Service merely thanked the MRG for the possibility to read the draft report whilst thanking the MRG for their important work to bring human rights violations to international attention. No comment was made on the role the respective organisation played in the events.

A long and comprehensive response was received by the WCS. The organisation firmly rejects the claims made in the report and considers it ‘inflammatory and inaccurate’. Several reasons are brought forth why this is the case. First, the WCS is the only organisation that has been involved in the management of the park for more than 20 years, even though the area has been marked by violence between several militarised groups. In the course of its work, it has contributed to strengthening the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and has engaged in the establishment of dialogues between different actors. Even though the region has been unstable, the WCS has recognised the legitimate claims of the Batwa to their ancestral lands.

While strongly denying any involvement in the attacks, WCS acknowledges that it has been involved in ‘ecological monitoring and research, protected area management and law enforcement best practices support, tourism development, wildlife monitoring training, and capacity building of Congolese conservationists’. Moreover, the WCS has supported the ICCN to enhance ‘transparent and effective management of DRC’s natural resources, combatting illegal exploitation and trafficking of those resources, de-escalating conflict, promoting rule of law and training on respect for human rights’. After the dialogue between the Batwa and park authorities had deteriorated in May 2019, the WCS notes that it undertook its own internal review and to condition its support of the park to the presence of a qualified law enforcement advisor. Moreover, it proposed a new management scheme to counter the decentralised decision-making of the park’s director.

Concerning the arms embargo, the WCS rightly notes that the embargo only accounts for UN member states – and thereby not for non-governmental organisations. Although the organisation claims not having provided any arms or military support to the park or to the ICCN, if it had done so, first, it would have been legal under the UN Security Council resolution since the ICCN is a government body, and, second, it would still not have been required to inform the Sanctions Committee since it is not a UN member state.

Conclusion

While forced evictions of indigenous peoples in the name of conservation have been documented all over the world, the violence against the Batwa presents a unique and extreme case. It is therefore not surprising that the stakeholders engage in the support of the park vehemently deny any involvement. While one may have different views on this matter, it appears unlikely that these extreme measures would have been supported or tolerated by the respective stakeholders, provided they knew about them. This is because such tolerance for these actions would undermine the credibility of the stakeholders and lead to dwindling support, especially for an NGO such as the WCS. In fact, the WCS recognises the violence against the Batwa in its Vision document for Kahuzi-Biega National Park and notes therein that “[t]ogether, with the Batwa and local communities, government and other partners, we can halt further forest degradation and loss of biodiversity in their traditional lands.”

While that may be so, it remains questionable why none of the stakeholders has publicly responded to the allegations held against them or taken a public position that clears it from its own potential wrongdoings (or presented facts that clear it from any of these allegations). After the claims brought for against the WWF that accused the organisation of having been involved in – or at least supportive for – massive human rights violations (Warren & Baker, 2019), the organisation started its own internal investigation and publicised its findings on its website (WWF, 2020). A similar approach would certainly be helpful for all stakeholders involved.

References

MRG. (2022).  To Purge the Forest by Force: Organized violence against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. London: MRG. https://minorityrights.org/publications/pnkb/.

SIPRI. (2021). UN arms embargo on DRC (Non-Governmental Forces). https://www.sipri.org/databases/embargoes/un_arms_embargoes/drc/drc_default

Warren, T. & KJM Baker. (2019). WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People. BuzzFeed News, 4 March 2019. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tomwarren/wwf-world-wide-fund-nature-parks-torture-death

WWF. (24 November 2020). Embedding human rights in conservation. https://www.wwf.eu/?uNewsID=1216466

Wyatt, T. (2019). Clash between armed guards and indigenous Pygmies at gorilla sanctuary leaves one dead. The Independent, 20 July 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/dr-congo-pygmies-gorilla-sanctuary-national-park-kahuzi-biega-a9013236.html 

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