The Liberation of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park Corridor
The liberation of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP) corridor requires decisiveness and cooperation from the Congolese State, and also from the international community. The KBNP is not only a national treasure, but a treasure of humanity: a World Heritage.
This park is unique in sub-Saharan Africa in that it has a corridor that connects the park's high-altitude forest with the forest at lower altitudes. This is one of several characteristics which have resulted in the park being included on the list of World Heritage Sites.
In addition to serving as a link between the two KBNP forest blocks, the corridor also enables animal migration between the low and high altitude areas. Migration is particularly important for key species of the area, whose presence was an important factor in the decision to gazette the protected area: without the capacity to migrate, these species would be threatened by inbreeding.
Unfortunately, the KBNP corridor has been encroached upon several times since 1990. Farms and mining concessions have been established in the corridor with the approval of certain state authorities which should (but do not) cooperate with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).
When war returned to the region in 1996, armed bands took up their abode in the corridor, preventing park staff from doing their work. With the support of some greedy citizens, they devastated the habitat and polluted the rivers. It is now estimated that 60% of the corridor has been degraded since 1996. At this rate, we fear that key species, some of which are already on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, will become extinct - such as the eastern lowland (Grauer's) gorilla.
In search of allies, and in order to safeguard their farms, the illegal occupants of the corridor are inciting the nearby population to oppose the park. The park has already started to counter this by engaging with the population as part of the park's community conservation approach. Relations between the park and the neighbouring population are, however, no longer stable. As the corridor is occupied by armed bands, the park staff can no longer patrol this part of the park.
In September 2000, when the park attempted to recover the occupied territory and demarcate the park boundaries, the team was attacked at night and 10 team members were killed.
We have summarized the factors threatening this World Heritage site as follows:
- Loss of World Heritage Site status if the key species disappear from the area;
- Termination of support from project partners;
- Loss of face of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the international level;
- Loss of jobs, as the KBNP is an important employer in the region (over 200 permanent and temporary employees per year);
- Loss of biodiversity.
At the local level, we have tried to find solutions to the invasion of the corridor by farmers, armed bands, miners and others:
- We have conducted an enquiry into the consequences of the conflict between the park and the neighbouring population, with the assistance of the eldest son of the tribal chief of the administrative unit through which the corridor passes. This enquiry determined that it is the illegal farmers who are inciting the population to oppose the park.
- Several meetings were organised for the purpose of achieving cooperation and conflict resolution.
- Three inter-ministerial commissions were set up in 1995, 1999 and 2000, and subsequently participatory mapping activities took place in the field in order to determine the borders of the corridor section of the park.
- Support has been agreed upon that will contribute to the economic development of the population living close to the park.
- Reports on the current situation of the corridor need to be made to competent authorities.
- On request from the ICCN authorities, 12 land contracts were declared invalid by the provincial authority in 2002. Yet the Land Titles Authority has issued new contracts for land in the corridor, and the holders of the initial contracts - since declared void - have re-sold them to certain persons and big businessmen who think they are untouchable!
We consider that the following concrete actions are necessary to ensure the continued existence of the corridor:
At the national level:
- The central Government needs to make its position on the protection of the corridor clear.
- The contracts for concessions in the interior of the park need to be permanently annulled.
- The irregular forces need to be driven out of the corridor without delay.
- An active group of coordinated state authorities concerned with corridor issues needs to be established.
- State and army authorities need to be involved in the protection of the park.
- The ICCN needs to be made a member of the provincial security council.
- The implementation of the park boundaries has to be followed up.
At the international level - considering that the KBNP is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that UNESCO is a branch of the UN, then:
- The UN should include the liberation of the corridor in particular - and the protection of the entire park in general - in the MONUC mandate.
- Park staff should carry out patrols from the air to facilitate a survey of the current status of the site.
Conscious of and spurred into action by the cries of alarm from park staff, the central Government (i.e. the Ministry of Environment) last March accelerated the deployment of a team composed of representatives of the Ministry of Land Titles, the Ministry of Tourism and the Supreme Military Authority in order to gain first-hand information on the corridor problem. The authorities have promised to make necessary decisions and the stakeholders in the KBNP are impatiently awaiting these decisions. It needs to be said, however, that making promises is one thing but realizing them is something else. The KBNP staff continues to wait for the central Government - and also for UNESCO - to make the required decisions.
Our recommendation is to make haste - otherwise there will be no corridor left to save.
Radar Birhashirwa Nishuli