End in Sight for the Conflict over the Sarambwe Nature Reserve

Categories: Journal no. 58, Gorilla Journal, Success Stories, Conflicts, Protective Measures, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sarambwe, Mountain Gorilla

Participants of the meeting to agree on the border held at the Sarambwe ranger post (© Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe)

The Sarambwe Nature Reserve is well known for its location on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, and its contiguity with Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP). The reserve covers an area of nearly 900 ha and is full of animals. Among them are 6 species of primates: mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes),baboon (Papio anubis), black-and-white colobus (Colobus guereza), blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) and red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius).

Based on the level of encroachment, the reserve can be divided into three blocks in a south to north direction. The southern block, which borders the BINP, includes intact primary forest; however, about half of the central block has been encroached, while almost all of the northern part has been encroached. Gorillas and the largest groups of animals frequently range in the first two parts. The third block, located north of the Sarambwe ranger post, consists of fallow fields regularly cultivated by Ugandans under the protection of their army. This area contains a few forest islands where red-tailed monkeys, baboons and some bush pigs occur.

Until 1998, before the ICCN (Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) began to manage this reserve, the boundaries between the Congo and Uganda were well marked by cairns. However, starting in that year, the cairns and their concrete foundations were ripped out. Some people believed that the farmers had hidden precious materials and placed markers so as not to forget where they had put them. So they ripped out the markers and dug over the area around them. As nothing of value was found, the diggers left again, abandoning their work. It was not until a few years after these events that Ugandan nationals started gradually encroaching into the reserve, eventually occupying about one third of its area. The Ugandans put up border markers in the reserve but not in the correct place.

From 2002 until very recently, the encroachment was addressed. Regular reports were sent to the responsible authorities, Ugandan farmers were arrested on several occasions; planks, machetes, hoes and pit saws were seized; dogs were killed, and Ugandan poachers were arrested. Most recently, goats were seized. After negotiation, they were handed back to their owners in Uganda in the presence of the Ugandan authorities and their army. At some point, ICCN rangers were taken prisoner by Ugandan soldiers and taken into Uganda before being released.

These incidents were reported to high-level representatives of both countries and to international organizations. Meetings between Ugandan and Congolese local residents were organized. During the sensitization missions it turned out that there was no direct conflict between the two local populations. The problem was more a disagreement over the location of the border in the area of the Sarambwe Reserve, which had led to the conversion of the forest into fields, the sawing of timber, seasonal bush fires, cultivation within the reserve, hunting, poaching and the grazing of domestic animals.

The wonderful news is that the encroachment and the conflict over the reserve and the national border have come to an end. The involvement of very high-level authorities of both states has enabled a final solution with the recognition of the border between the two countries. Local technical teams composed of local chiefs, community leaders, elders, rangers and trackers from the Sarambwe Reserve on the one side and local Ugandan chiefs, Bwindi conservationists and rangers, and local Ugandan army leaders on the other side managed to reach a preliminary agreement on the border. A major meeting involving all of these stakeholders was held at the Sarambwe ranger post prior to the official recognition of the border.

To date, a large part of the border has been clarified and the locations for cairns have been indicated. A meeting to agree the remainder of the border is scheduled for 24 April 2019. Ugandan farmers have stopped farming fallow fields within the reserve.

Claude Sikubwabo Kiyengo