Use of Environmental Protection as A Means of Violating the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples
By Claude Kinyunyi
Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s largest parks with important flora and fauna reserves. Thanks to its rich biodiversity, its rivers, its gorillas, its tourist areas, the park is among the most protected of its kind and is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage classifications. However, its paradisiacal image hides the ongoing ordeal of the neighboring peoples who languish in misery and insecurity, lacking access to land and their most basic needs. These indigenous populations constitute real land refugees, trapped as they are in an ongoing dispute with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of the Environment (ICCN) that has its origins in colonial times.
➢ How the land for the park was acquired by the Belgian colonial power
The creation of Virunga National Park by the Belgian colonial power was marked by the expropriation of land from local populations, requiring their subsequent relocation. Today, the affected populations believe that they have not derived real benefits from the park, an area of more than 7,769 square km which represents a significant part of a region where the population density is between 250 and 300 inhabitants per square KM. When was first set up in 1925, the park comprised mainly what had been the hunting and farming lands of the local populations.
➢ Local populations neither consulted nor involved in delimitation and protection of the park
A major cause of the conflict between the local populations and the ICCN is the latter’s failure when determining the park’s current boundaries to give due consideration to the old landmarks recognized by the indigenous peoples such as rivers, rocks, familiar place names and the like. For security reasons recommended by ICCN, Virunga Park management had initiated a project to build an electric fence delimiting the area of the park. In the absence of consensus between local populations and ICCN as to what the real boundaries should be, the initiative triggered various tensions. As the dispute worsened, the Government authorities led by the Minister of the Environment called for a temporary halt to construction work on the proposed fencing to enable a government mission and members of the local populations verify the park’s real boundaries. Despite this proposal, ICCN unilaterally continued to build the fence ignoring neighboring populations. Local lands were expropriated into the new configuration, crops were burned, houses destroyed, bikes burned and people seriously injured during ensuing evictions and arrests in a joint operation involving the Congolese Armed Forces and Rangers from Virunga National Park.
➢ Divide and rule
Local people have since accused park managers of using a strategy of pitting communities against each other. Local populations claim they are afforded few opportunities by park authorities and that such benefits as might be offered are reserved for those close to management whose land interests are not threatened by the park. This creates a climate of conflict and mistrust between communities in an area where violence is persistent and armed groups abound.
➢ Social and survival difficulties of local populations
The populations living near the park consists mainly of farmers who find their land is being expropriated, their homes destroyed and they themselves being denied any access to land that is rightfully theirs. This has had serious effects on the humanitarian situation in villages such as Ishasha, Buganza, Nyaruhange, Nyamilim and Buramba. Children are malnourished, deprived of schooling and lacking a future. Inter- communal strife, juvenile delinquency and conflict about land are commonplace because the current demography is far superior to that which existed when the PNVI was created.
This contributes to undermining peace and security, which further slows down the development of villages.
➢ Lack of access to land as a source of insecurity
People residing around the park depend on agriculture as their main means of survival. Lacking access to land and faced with the expropriation of land that formerly belonged to the neighboring indigenous populations has increased insecurity, which in turn has led several young people to join armed groups given their lack of alternatives.
➢ Management of development projects for Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is the beneficiary of a major development project within the framework of environmental protection and support scheme for the populations living around the park. As part of a public-private sector partnership, an agreement was signed between ICCN and a British non-governmental organization called the Virunga Foundation designated to be responsible for the administration, finance and management of the park's activities. The Director of the Virunga Foundation, Emmanuel Demerode, was appointed the Director of ICCN. However, park management has been accused by the neighboring populations of redirecting development projects intended to benefit populations adjacent to the park towards big city populations with greater purchasing power. A case they cite is the electrification project intended for villages and towns bordering the park, which remains without electricity to this day, while electricity produced in the park is powering cities like Goma.
➢ The use of security forces against local populations
Local people accuse Emmanuel Demerode of having control over the national army, claiming that Demerode, a Belgian citizen, draws on the support of powerful environmental organizations to exert considerable influence over Congolese political actors, in particular the army and the security forces. In support of this contention, they point to how all peaceful demonstrations organized by populations living near the park have been subject to violent repression by the armed force, actions they claim are viewed with total indifference by a park management ostensibly committed to the defence of human rights principles.
➢ Human rights violations by Eco guards and the armed forces
Trained by Belgian officers and reservists, the park's Eco-guards and Rangers have received paramilitary training. Along with the armed forces, they organize joint security actions which often result in arbitrary arrests and even executions locally, while systematically undermining local culture and burning down local housing for nominal environmental reasons. Since October 2019, several serious human rights violations by Eco guards have been registered yet no-one has been questioned or brought to account.
Details from some of these cases follow:
- January 18, 2020: KAMBALE KARAMUCHANDE Eustache, a teacher at the Safina Institute and a LUCHA activist illegally arrested and detained at the PNC/Nyamilima police station for two hours before being transferred to the 3412th Rgt for the night.
- January 20, 2020: during a citizen action to denounce road harassment issues, a 33-year- old LUCHA activist was arrested at the military camp; KAPAMBO Abel was shot in the head and sent for treatment to the general hospital in Nyamilima.
- January 26, 2020: Eco-guards set fire to 30 bicycles belonging to farmers from the Nyamilima district. Arbitrary arrests followed with some of the detained transferred to the Eco-guards base in Rutshuru while others were brought to Rumwangabo.
- February 14, 2020: several LUCHA activists assaulted in Buganza by FARDC /- Eco-guards coalition while making their way to Nyaruhangein order to file testimony. Sixty so-called militants arrested in Nyamilima by the 3412th Rgt; 14 activists treated for serious injuries at the general hospital in Nyamilima.
- March 4, 2020: LUCHA militant KASEREKA Roger arrested at home by Colonel Zaire MOISE having just participated in a sit-in on the road.
- March 05, 2020: 19 people including 6 women suffer serious violence at the hands of Eco-guards and the FARDC.
- March 20, 2020: five farmers severely beaten and tortured by Eco-guards.
- April 07, 2020: seven farmers tortured while working their fields and subsequently brought to St. Nyamilima Hospital by sympathisers for treatment of their injuries Eco-guards believed responsible for the assaults were under the command of NYAKAHIGA GRÉGOIRE who has never been called to account.
- March 26 to April 07: Manhunt organised in Nyamilima, resulting in torture of LUCHA militants --, authorities reportedly were given advance warning. - April 09, 2020: a dozen FARDC soldiers chased the activist MUHINDO LUKUMBU Delcasse who was forced to take refuge at the MONUSCO base in Nyamilima.
- April 15 to August 10, 2020: MUHINDO LUKUMBU Delcasse detained at the Central Prison, Goma/Munzenze, on complaint of ICCN.
➢ LUCHA and non-violence in a zone of violence
LUCHA initiated a series of non-violent protests with the local population in the Nyamilima region where recurring violence has been a feature. . Rather than encouraging this new approach of peaceful demands based on non-violent protest, security forces and Eco-guards proceeded to engage in unwarranted counter measures.
Examples of non-violent actions organized in Nyamilima include the following:
- From 14 to 15 February 2020: peaceful march seeks to halt non-consultative demarcation activities being carried out in the park by ICCN and its partners. - From 03 to 05 February: Parish of St. François Caracciolo stages sit-in after providing meeting framework for discussions involving provincial, customary and territorial authorities, the ICCN and the local population. From 03 to 06 March 2020: peaceful demonstrations followed by sit-ins and day-long halt to activities in Nyamilima in a bid to promote earlier efforts of 3-5 February when r a delegation led by the provincial environment ministry urged ICCN to put further activities on hold until a meeting planned for April took place.
- April 05, 2020: demonstrations by women demanding access to the fields in order that they could redress food shortages issues. Women were tortured and beaten and a mother and daughter were arrested.
- April 07, 2020: Operation Filimbi Njala took place to obtain access to the fields from ICNN because the population was facing a great famine during that period of confinement.
- 03 May 2020: activist KASEREKA KASAI Samson arrested by the FARDC.
In Nyamilima despite pointing out that he is a teacher at the St. Mulumba Institute.
- From 01 to 07 June 2020: Sit-in took place during the descent on the ground towards Kakoma,
Tshabaganda and Nyaborogota places which are not in conflict to this day.