In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Unintended Consequences of ‘Fortress Conservation’

Park guards and Congolese soldiers burned villages and killed 20 Indigenous Batwa people between 2019 and 2021 in the name of protecting ecosystems.

Rangers from Kahuzi-Biega National Park visit the devastated areas of the park on September 30, 2019. Credit: Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

Rangers from Kahuzi-Biega National Park visit the devastated areas of the park on September 30, 2019. Credit: Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

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Last July, teams of armed park guards and Congolese soldiers who were supposed to be protecting a national wildlife preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo from poaching and illegal mining surrounded the village of Muyange and began firing on a community of 100 to 200 unarmed Indigenous Batwa people. 

Terrified families fled into the nearby woodlands as the soldiers descended on Muyange, inside Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and tourist attraction known for its gorillas. 

The guards and soldiers burned the Batwa’s thatched hut homes to the ground and shot and killed at least two men, “with one killed execution-style by park guards and soldiers who bound his arms, drove a bayonet into his stomach, placed the barrel of an AK-47 inside his mouth, and murdered him as his 15-year-old nephew looked on,” the Minority Rights Group International, a London-based human rights organization, stated in an investigative report released last week.  

The group’s findings highlight problems in “militarized” conservation parks and the role that public and private international donors play in funding them, as governments around the world seek to increase protected areas to fight climate change and biodiversity loss. Many of the areas targeted for conservation are inhabited by Indigenous and other local communities who have been forced off their land, and even killed, in connection with conservation efforts in the parks.

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Leading human rights experts warn of such unintended consequences of what some call “fortress conservation.” Absent changes to how conservation parks are funded and managed, they said, global climate and biodiversity plans could perpetuate human rights abuses. Congress, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would ban aid to conservation areas where abuses have been reported and require a series of safeguards. 

In Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the attack last July razed Muyange, leaving the ground bloodstained and littered with burned children’s toys. At least nine women were raped during the raid, two of whom later died, according to the report. 

The ambush on Muyange was part of a systemic campaign to terrorize Batwa communities and force them off of their ancestral lands, the report’s author, Robert Flummerfelt, said. 

The land, located near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, comprises the entirety of Kahuzi-Biega National Park and is the size of about eight New York Cities. 

The report alleges that between 2019 and 2021, park guards and members of the Congolese military, including a general known for leading attacks on civilians, carried out a series of violent assaults against about 2,000 Batwa people. The guards and soldiers used heavy weapons—mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades—to carry out the attacks, the report said. 

Over the three year span, at least 33 Batwa women were raped, 20 Batwa people were killed and two Batwa children were burnt alive in their families’ homes, the report said. Other people were tortured and subjected to inhumane treatment, such as being smeared with human feces, the report said. 

The numbers in the report are likely an underestimate because researchers could only access certain sites in the park. But the allegations are based on more than 550 eyewitness accounts in multiple locations and interviews with victims and perpetrators, as well as physical evidence such as incinerated homes, photographs of corpses, spent ammunition and gravesites.  

The Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the Congolese government agency responsible for the park’s management, did not respond to a request for comment. But the agency has announced it will launch an investigation into the allegations. 

Testifying in Washington before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources in March, John Knox, former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said that the most effective way to improve conservation outcomes is to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples.  

“Denying Indigenous rights is at the root of the problem,” he said. “Being denied access to their ancestral territory is inextricably linked to other specific violations of rights—murder, rape, and torture. If you deny people access to their homes and they try to get back to their homes, and poorly trained eco-guards have orders to exclude them, you’re going to have fertile ground for abuses.”

American and Other International Funding 

The Minority Rights Group said the findings in its report are linked to militarized models of conservation parks and call into question the role of international donors, including the United States, Germany and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS, in funding  that model. 

“These attacks are not just about a few bad apples,” Lara Domínguez, an attorney with Minority Rights Group, said. “We’re talking about an institutional policy sanctioned at the highest levels by park authorities, and the international donors that have been pouring millions into the park for years despite knowledge of human rights abuses. The paramilitary unit of park guards that did this don’t just pop up overnight.”

The United States, Germany and the Wildlife Conservation Society have funded Kahuzi-Biega National Park and continued to do so after warnings that violence and threats against the Batwa had escalated in early 2019, the report said.

WCS denied in a six-page statement that it had any role in funding or training the unit of park guards responsible for the alleged abuses and said that it took steps to address escalating violence by making its funding contingent on new park management. The statement said that the group “strongly rejects” accusations that WCS was complicit in any of the alleged abuses and that WCS support to park guards has been directed to preventing illegal exploitation of natural resources and in de-escalating conflict situations as park guards have come under armed attack from illegal miners and loggers in recent years.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said it ended its support for training park staff before May 1, 2019 and ended its support to WCS in Kahuzi-Biega National Park on June 30, 2021, before the alleged incidents occurred. 

Both WCS and USAID condemned the alleged attacks. 

Domínguez, who is also part of a legal team representing Batwa people from the Kahuzi Biega National Park in litigation filed against the Democratic Republic of Congo in the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights, called on donors to be more proactive in detecting and addressing human rights violations. 

“Why do under-resourced and understaffed NGOs have to be the ones who are responsible for uncovering these abuses?” she said. “These donors and international conservation organizations foster a culture of impunity that relies on plausible deniability and willful blindness. They don’t want to know what’s going on in the park.”

Unintended Consequences

Conservation parks throughout Southeast Asia and Africa are often militarized by guards and armed forces to combat poaching and other activities like illegal mining—problems that pose real and significant threats to endangered wildlife like Kahuzi-Biega’s gorillas. 

Poaching and wildlife trafficking also aid transnational criminal groups and harm ecosystems, a global concern given the need to preserve biodiversity and sequester carbon emissions by keeping forests intact. 

But efforts to combat poaching using militarized guards have had unintended consequences. ‘Fortress conservation’ and militarized conservation parks are usually based on the idea that all humans, including local inhabitants, must be removed from woodlands and other areas to protect ecosystems. Then, armed guards are employed to enforce park boundaries to, among other things, prevent local inhabitants from returning to park grounds. Tourists, however, can typically pay to access the parks. 

The problem, according to human rights experts, is that the parks have been used to wrongfully dispossess Indigenous and other local communities of their land and have been the location of grave human rights abuses carried out against those same communities who seek to return to their land and assert their rights under international law. Meanwhile, research has shown that securing Indigenous land rights has a positive effect on conservation outcomes. 

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In the case of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the Batwa were originally expelled from their land in the 1970s. That removal was devastating for the Batwa whose identity, spiritual and cultural practices revolve around the forest. The woodlands’ plants and animals have historically been the communities’ main sources of food and medicine. 

The communities continually sought to return to their land, and began negotiations with park authorities to do so in 2014. But those talks later broke down after a 17-year-old Mutwa (Mutwa is the singular of Batwa) boy was “shot and killed by park guards for collecting medicinal plants with his father inside the park,” the report said. 

In 2018, several Batwa communities moved back into the park. Conflicts between the park’s management and the communities ensued, culminating in the park’s director, De-Dieu Bya’Ombe, ordering the Batwa to leave the park and directing guards to use lethal force against anyone who remained, according to the report.

A three-year campaign of violent attacks then took place, which Minority Rights Group said could amount to crimes against humanity—widespread or systemic attacks directed against civilians. 

“The operations carried out within the park management’s ongoing program of forced expulsion were thoroughly planned, well-organized acts of violence deliberately carried out against Batwa civilians on a massive scale, enabled by the support of international actors, who acted with full knowledge of a credible, serious risk of major human rights abuses,” the report said. 

The U.S. Response

Last October, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing that focused on similar alleged abuses that occurred in conservation parks supported and funded by the World Wildlife Fund, which receives U.S. funding. 

After the hearings, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the committee’s chairman, and Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced legislation aimed at strengthening human rights standards for international conservation grants. 

The bill would prohibit the U.S. government from providing assistance to conservation projects where there are credible accusations of gross violations of human rights. The idea is premised on “Leahy laws,” which prohibit U.S. funding to foreign security forces accused of similar human rights violations. 

The legislation would require recipient conservation organizations to have in place safeguards like grievance mechanisms to report abuses, the monitoring of guards and policies ensuring the respect of Indigenous’ and local communities’ rights, such as the right to free, prior, and informed consent. The bill would also require the U.S. government to periodically audit conservation grant recipients. 

Knox, who testified at the subcommittee hearing in March, said the legislation would “contribute to a fundamental shift in how conservation goals are pursued, away from exclusionary ‘fortress conservation’ towards inclusionary rights based conservation.” He also called on the U.S. government and other international donors to direct more financial and technical assistance directly to Indigenous and local conservation groups. 

Back in Muyange village, the 15-year-old Mutwa boy who witnessed the killing of his uncle learned two days later that his father also died in the July attack. He told researchers: 

“Th​​ese attacks are to steal our land. The soldiers and park guards say that we don’t have the right to live on our land. But this is our land. We have nowhere else to live.”

In an interview with Flummerfelt and three other researchers who arrived in Muyange days after the attack, he said::

“I will never leave this forest. This is not a park, this is our forest. The Batwa were the first to live in this forest. My great grandfather died in this forest. My father’s father died in this forest. And now my father has been killed in this forest. I will die in this forest. Even if they kill us all, if they want to wipe us all out. Let them. I’d sooner die than leave. We will never leave the place where they buried my father. We are sitting here in front of my father’s grave now. I will never leave the land where he was buried.”