Balancing Act: The Imperative of Social and Ecological Justice in Kahuzi-Biega

Categories: Journal no. 67, Threats, Conflicts, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kahuzi-Biega, Grauer's Gorilla

Deforestation in the Kalehe region of Kahuzi-Biega National Park's highland sector where several Batwa communities have been living since October 2018 (© Fergus O'Leary Simpson)

Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the conflict-afflicted eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has recently been thrust into the global spotlight. Widely renowned as a sanctuary for critically endangered eastern lowland gorillas, it has become emblematic of the ethical challenges that surround conservation efforts.

The park has been embroiled in controversy since 1970 when an indigenous group, known as the Batwa, was forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands and forests, which were transformed into a national park in the name of conservation. This displacement left the Batwa impoverished and marginalized, forcing them to reside among other communities at the forest's edge for more than half a century. The controversy reached a boiling point in 2022 when Minority Rights Group (MRG) triggered international outrage with its report titled To Purge the Forest by Force (Flummerfelt 2022). The report presented evidence of severe human rights violations committed against Batwa people living inside the park.

This recent episode of violence began in October 2018 when groups of Batwa forcefully returned to the park. Following what they perceived as a string of broken promises by park authorities and the government to secure them lands and alternative livelihoods outside the park, members of the Batwa community were determined to reclaim their ancestral forests. In response, armed park guards, in collaboration with the Congolese military, launched brutal campaigns to expel them from the park. MRG's report documents three military operations that occurred between 2019 and 2021, targeting at least seven Batwa villages within the park. According to the report, these operations resulted in the deaths of a minimum of 20 Batwa individuals, with over 30 reported cases of sexual violence, and the displacement of hundreds of Batwa from makeshift settlements within the park.

In response to these revelations, MRG and other indigenous rights NGOs have called for the discontinuation of international financial support for the park, with a specific focus on ending what have been described as its 'militarized' conservation practices. This appeal gained traction when, on July 5, 2023, influenced by the advocacy efforts of MRG and other organizations, the French Development Agency (AFD) terminated its 12 million euro funding initiative for the park (Africa Intelligence 2023). AFD's decision garnered praise from Survival International (2023), an NGO dedicated to advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples, which celebrated it as a significant triumph for Batwa resistance. Survival International is now urging the German government, another major sponsor of the park, to withdraw its support. Fiore Longo, leader of Survival International's Decolonize Conservation campaign, asserts, "Now the German government must follow suit, otherwise it will stand on the wrong side of history. Its silence in the face of these atrocities is shameful” (Survival International 2023). MRG also demands the removal of "all restrictions on Batwa's usage rights with respect to their territories and resources” (Luoma 2022: 49). This is rooted not only in social justice considerations but also in the belief that the Batwa are the best custodians of their ancestral lands. Based on this logic, the most effective way to achieve positive conservation results is, therefore, to return the park to the Batwa again.

Before I get into my argument, let me be unequivocally clear: all acts of violence against civilians must be condemned and run counter to the principles of ecological and social justice. Nonetheless, broad calls to withdraw funding and return the park to the Batwa overlook the intricate realities of conservation within the Kahuzi-Biega landscape. While these demands are an understandable response to the injustices inflicted upon numerous Batwa people over the preceding decades, they are unlikely to lead to less violent outcomes or the protection of the park; in fact, they could even exacerbate the situation.

Drawing from extensive ethnographic field research in villages surrounding Kahuzi-Biega National Park since 2019, including my PhD and postdoctoral research, I am going to make two key points. First, the intricacies involved in ethically managing a protected area in a conflict zone necessitate an increase, rather than a decrease, in financial support for the park. Second, the Batwa do not consistently fit the idealized stereotype of forest guardians, suggesting a simple restoration of land rights may not align with conservation goals.

The dilemma of conservation in a conflict zone

Since the 1990s, Kahuzi-Biega National Park has found itself at the centre of a web of multiple armed conflicts. These peaked in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, resulting in a proliferation of armed groups within the park's borders. Among them were ex-Rwandan government members and the Interahamwe youth militia, who sought refuge in the park and eventually formed the FDLR rebel movement. Subsequently, local defence forces, known as the Mai Mai and Raia Mutomboki, emerged, further worsening the security situation. Recent reports indicate that a minimum of 15 armed groups are active in the park's vicinity (Kivu Security Tracker 2019). Over time, some of these groups have shifted their focus to exploit the park's mineral resources, including gold, coltan, and cassiterite.

The consequences on people and nature have been devasting. During Congo's wars, when park guards were disarmed, and their patrols were suspended, poachers decimated the population of eastern lowland gorillas in the park's highland sector, which dropped from 258 in 1990 to just 130 in 2000 (Spira et al. 2016: 6). Furthermore, forest elephants were eradicated from the same region of the park. Up until today, villages surrounding the park are hotspots for looting, kidnappings, banditry, and sexual violence carried out by armed groups. A noteworthy incident involved an armed group led by a former army captain named Chance Mihonya. In 2019, Chance falsely claimed to be a Mutwa (the singular of Batwa in Swahili) in an attempt to justify his mining activities inside the park. The presence of this armed group forced the local population to abandon their homes and farms, particularly in the vicinity of Kabushwa locality, which is situated near the park in Kabare territory. Chance was eventually captured by park guards working in collaboration with the military and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for a wide array of crimes, which encompassed murder, rape, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the destruction of a protected area.

It is in this context of wider insecurity and violent resource extraction that conservation has become militarized in Kahuzi-Biega. Park guards are armed with AK-47s and conduct regular patrols to enforce conservation regulations. They occasionally carry out joint-operations alongside the Congolese military. This being a national park, it is reserved entirely for tourism and scientific research; local resource uses such as hunting are in theory forbidden, but in reality take place extensively. When park guards encounter individuals illegally entering the park, their job is to apprehend these intruders and transport them to the park headquarters in Tshivanga, where fines or sentences can be imposed. While the park guards are themselves armed, their line of duty is also perilous. On 8 May 2023, just prior to my last research trip, a park guard lost his life while conducting an operation against an armed group mining inside the park. Since 2018, at least five park guards have been killed, and many others have suffered injuries. In nearby Virunga National Park, the situation is even more dire, with over 200 park guards having tragically lost their lives.

Over recent years, armed park guards and government soldiers have undoubtedly committed abuses, particularly against the Batwa, as documented in MRG's reports. However, the impact of these guards on local livelihoods and the broader dynamics of violence is far from straightforward. In a recent article (Simpson & Pellegrini 2023), I delved into the perspectives of the people living around the park in relation to these armed guards. Some view them as a source of instability and injustice, while others consider them as potential providers of security and a deterrent against non-state armed groups. Notably, one farmer residing on the park's periphery in Kabare territory explicitly called for an increased presence of park guards and government soldiers to ensure the security of the population. There have indeed been instances where park guards have intervened to protect local residents from looting by armed groups, underscoring their potential role in law and order.

This difficult situation defies simple solutions. While removing funding for park guards may appear a logical step to curb human rights abuses, it fails to consider the structural forces driving violent resource extraction and insecurity. Unarmed park guards, as well as unarmed Batwa, are unlikely to effectively counter these influences. Reducing funding for the guards could also undermine their capacity to address security issues, thereby heightening threats to biodiversity and the safety of nearby communities. I believe a more realistic approach would involve allocating additional resources to both train and monitor the conduct of park guards, while facilitating the prompt reporting of violations when they occur.

Challenging stereotypes: Indigenous Peoples and conservation

Indigenous rights activists often demand that the Batwa should be allowed to return to their ancestral lands inside the park to reassume their role as customary forest guardians. An illustrative statement can be found in a press release on the website of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP; 2021): "The Batwa continue to choose to return to their ancestral lands, despite the threats to their lives, because they know that the land is theirs to care for" (italics added). According to FPP, any suggestion that the Batwa are responsible for damaging the park's biodiversity and ecosystems is based on "unfounded accusations from some conservation actors." My research shows this does not capture the present reality.

When evaluating the assertions made by FPP and other parties, it is crucial to acknowledge that the Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega have been separated from their ancestral forests for five decades. A substantial portion of the current population, residing outside the park boundary until 2018, never lived in the forest before this date. While the Batwa may have historically practiced environmentally sustainable traditions and lived with minimal ecological impact, the current circumstances tell a different story. Since October 2018, a number of Batwa leaders have played a central role in facilitating the extraction of timber and charcoal from the park. In interviews, some of them openly admitted to selling access to the park to timber cutters and charcoal producers from neighbouring Bantu communities. One prominent Batwa chief in Kalehe territory told me, "It is true that we no longer care for the forest, but it is our only means of earning money." As he spoke, a continuous stream of Bantu laborers could be observed leaving the park, carrying timber planks and sacks of charcoal, subsequently transported to larger towns via trucks and motorbikes. In July 2023, I interviewed the manager of a charcoal market at the edge of the forest. He described how charcoal producers and traders had to pay Batwa chiefs 45,000 Congolese francs (almost 20 USD) to enter the park. Ishumbisho et al. (2023) have produced similar findings.

These dynamics have resulted in the destruction of several hundred hectares of the forest in the highland sector of the park, which is populated by around 250 eastern lowland gorillas. The most extensive deforestation occurred in the highland sector of the park which coincides with Kalehe territory, where several Batwa villages are still located. Significant deforestation also occurred in the region that overlaps with Kabare territory, but this trend ceased following the signing of the Bukavu Declaration in September 2019. In accordance with this agreement, several Batwa chiefs agreed to leave the park in return for land in a different location, financial compensation, and employment opportunities. While the Batwa in this region have remained outside the park, most of them remain landless and jobless.

It is important to note that the exploitation is also linked to a broader political economy of extraction. Demand for the park's resources, particularly charcoal and timber, is primarily driven by urban markets in Bukavu and Goma. This demand serves as the driving force behind the deforestation. Various state agencies also play a significant role by levying fees on the park's resources. For instance, the national military deploys soldiers to safeguard villages located on the periphery of the park's highland sector, a measure generally welcomed by the villagers seeking protection from armed groups within the park. However, these soldiers have begun imposing informal taxes at roadblocks on the main transportation routes for goods exiting the park. Additionally, armed groups have contributed to deforestation through activities such as mining, farming, and charcoal production, underscoring that the Batwa are far from the sole actors involved. However, there are also instances in which Batwa chiefs have resorted to arming themselves or collaborating with armed groups to attack park authorities or facilitate the extraction of timber and charcoal from the park.

Given the complexity of this situation, simply lifting all restrictions on the Batwa's usage rights to the park is unlikely to be a viable approach to achieve conservation goals, even if it offers a superficial solution to social justice concerns. A more pragmatic strategy would involve allocating land to the Batwa outside the park while allowing them access to specific areas within the park for their traditional rituals and cultural practices. Concurrently, it is essential to provide the Batwa with alternative livelihood projects and compensation for the historical injustices they endured during their forced eviction from the park. As I argued above, this will require more, not less, funding to achieve. Ultimately, the park and its international backers must strive to strike a balance between meeting the needs of the Batwa and other communities, while also preserving the park's unique biodiversity and ecosystems. In other words, the imperatives of social and ecological justice must go hand-in-hand.

Fergus O'Leary Simpson

African Intelligence (2023): French Development Minister Zacharopoulou Causes Commotion in Kinshasa. Retrieved from,110004678-art
Forest Peoples Program (2021): PRESS RELEASE: Fresh Atrocities in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Name of 'Security' and 'Conservation'. Retrieved from
Isumbisho, P. M. et al. (2023): Customary Rights and the New Conservation Paradigm in the Context of the Conflict in Kahuzi Biega National Park in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. East African Journal of Environment and Natural Resources 6 (1), 325-339.
Simpson, F. O., & Pellegrini, L. (2023): Agency and Structure in Militarized Conservation and Armed Mobilization: Evidence from Eastern DRC's Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Development and Change 54 (3), 601-640. Available at:
Spira, C. et al. (2016): Grauer's Gorilla Numbers Increasing in Kahuzi-Biega National Park Highlands: 2015 Census in Tshivanga Sector. Unpublished report by the Wildlife Conservation Society
Survival International (2023): French Government Scraps Funding Plan for Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Citing Human Rights Concerns. Retrieved from