Thursday, September 15, 2016

The militarization of conservation

The Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo dates back to 1925 when it was first created as Albert National Park by King Albert of Belgium. The oldest national park in Africa, it was later expanded to include over seven thousand square kilometres of land. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it is now managed by a private-public partnership between the National Park Authority of the DRC (ICCN) and the EU-funded Virunga Foundation, and is home to about a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas. Congolese farmers living around the Virunga said that the park’s colonial history creates the impression that it was “created by the Mzungu (white man), for the Mzungu.”

After independence, other national parks were established, including Maiko National Park, and Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu.  According to the Global Forest Coalition, the creation of national parks led to the eviction of thousands of indigenous people who neither gave their consent nor received compensation for their loss of land. It was, they state, “in violation of international law” and the country’s 1977 law on expropriation for public purposes.

Armed paramilitary rangers from the Virunga National Park are tasked with protecting the park from poachers and trespassers. In Congolese law, human habitation and hunting within the park is forbidden, including for the Bambuti, its original inhabitants. Aggressive conservation activities are part of a widespread trend toward what some researchers call the militarization of conservation, an approach toward protecting nature that is repressive and possibly counterproductive.

“The old school of conservation in the colonial period was ‘people out of the forest’ and ‘it’s a protected area without anyone inside,'" said Patrick Kipalu, the DRC Country Manager for the Forest People’s Program, “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 (National Park Authority of the DRC) is thinking of a conservation strategy which is supposed to include and involve communities.”

The Bambuti living in Mudja said that at times they defy these laws to venture into the park for collecting wood, hunting small animals and gathering non-timber products, but recently it has become more difficult.

“A pygmy cannot live without the park. Before, they could enter secretly,” said Felix Maroy, an agronomist and livestock farmer who works with Bambuti communities. “Since January 2015, the guards are always patrolling the area. And there are other armed groups too, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).”

 A 2004 report by a consultant to the World Bank, Dr Kai Schmidt-Soltau, found that the ICCN, along with WWF, claimed to have resettled 35,000 people from an area south-east of Lake Edward through a voluntary process, but that in fact the resettlement was carried out “at gun-point.”

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