Environmental Eviction: the 50 year plight of the Batwa people

People | Communities

By Julia Riopelle, Co-Editor in Chief

Published November 22nd, 2021

In 1970, Kahuzi-Biega National Park was established by foreign Belgian conservationist, Adrien Deschryver, for the purpose of upholding one of the last refuges of the threatened Eastern lowland gorilla. Simultaneously, the expansion of the park from 60,000 to 600,000 hectares caused the violent eviction of 6,000 Batwa from their indigenous lands.

The arrival of colonialist Europeans across the globe marked the beginning of widespread private land ownership—a system which is deeply ingrained into conservation practices today. This practice, which is inherently against the collective group living of most indigenous communities, is a legal means to justify the expulsion of locals from their traditional lands.

Juvenile Eastern lowland gorilla. | Mike Davison / Flickr

Often enough, when people think of wildlife conservation and environmental protectionism, they come with positive associations. Our environment is continuously being exploited and destroyed at unprecedented rates, so why not do everything to save it? Whilst intentions towards wildlife are meant well, the top-down colonialist approach towards these conservation practices cause extensive social and economic costs for indigenous peoples.

The inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities makes conservation more equitable. Conservation regimes, mostly those that follow the ‘protected areas’ approach towards ‘saving nature’, often exclude local, long-term ways of living..

This often is due to conservationists adopting a ‘preservationist’ view of restoring nature; interpreting that nature should be an ‘untouched wilderness’, without any human presence. Approaching nature with the logic that ‘environmental degradation is caused by material dependence’ and that none of us, including indigenous people, can manage natural resources sustainably.

Projecting the us versus other notion of nature, which communicates that humans are separate from the environment and that our species is not part of the natural ecosystem, is unsustainable and problematic. It causes indigenous and local communities to become increasingly marginalised in conservation frameworks, when in most cases it is them who have lived in a long-lasting harmony with the environment for thousands of years.

'Less than 5% of protected areas are managed by indigenous and local communities.’

As of 2018, 230,000 protected areas are listed in the World Database of Protected Areas, with less than 5% managed by indigenous and local communities. There is also a lack of data showing how many of these protected areas enforced the involuntary eviction of local people, further indicating how they are neglected victims in environmental discourses.

The increased militarisation of protected areas, particularly evident in large national parks across the entire African continent, creates a one-sided narrative that all indigenous and local communities are criminals, poachers, traffickers, and more.

The violation of local and indigenous rights for the sake of wildlife conservation is no isolated incident. From the Endorois and Ogieks people evicted from the Rift Valley of Kenya, the displacement of the Adivasis from nationalised forests in India, to the forceful removal of Crow, Blackfeet, Shoshone and Bannock natives for the creation of the infamous Yellowstone National Park in the United States—colonialism in conservation it is prevalent all over the globe.

Today, I hope to give insight to the plight of the Batwa people of the Kahuzi-Biega Forest in the East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Batwa people have symbiotically lived in and around the Kahuzi-Biega forest for as long as they remember, yet in 1970 they were violently evicted from their homeland when the Kahuzi-Biega National Park was established by Belgian conservationist, Adrien Deschryver.

Batwa pygmies (please note that this photo was taken in Uganda). | Brian Harries / Flickr

The rationale of this decision, in the eye of Deschryver and DRC government, was that the prohibited access to the forest would provide a last safe haven for the Eastern lowland gorilla, who’s population has decreased by more than 50% since the mid-1990s. Though well-intended through the lense of wildlife protection, these good intentions did not extend to the Batwa. Once again, a foreign conservationist arrived to divide and manage the land of local communities via a top-down governance approach with colonial underpinnings.

Turns out, it is not the indigenous people who have had any predominant role in the decrease of the Eastern lowland gorilla’s population. The subspecies has lost up to 87% of its historical range due to the long-term civil unrest in the DRC and the displacement of refugees due to this unrest, mining and logging activities, as well as poaching and illegal wildlife trade by armed militia groups.

So, why have the Batwa’s cultural, social and livelihood practices been taken away? There was absolutely no compensation from the national park when the Batwa were evicted, who in turn were subject to extreme poverty and squatting in non-Batwa rural communities. Communities which also then discriminated against them.

‘The Batwa’s ancestral territory is seen as sacred, inextricably linked to the spiritual and cultural integrity of the community and its traditional way of life.’—Domínguez and Luoma

The Batwa have unjustly been robbed of their way of life and their identity. They have no way of accessing the natural resources on their land that they used to survive. Additionally, the Batwa do not have access to education and healthcare services. Yet these human rights violations remain unseen.

Even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) website, an international organization claiming to vouch for equality for all, provides no mention of the Batwa on their Kahuzi-Biega National Park page. Describing the reserve as having ‘outstanding universal value’, whilst continuing to speak of the challenges park rangers have faced to protect the forest.

In 2011, a sign of hope appeared for the Batwa in the form of the Whakatane Mechanism created in Whakatane, New Zealand. The initiative aimed to address the negative impacts protected areas had on local and indigenous people worldwide. However, when the Batwa attempted a Whakatane dialogue with the authorities of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, they were still refused to be allowed on their traditional lands, instead being offered alternative ones. To add on, the park authorities have continuously failed to deliver on their promises to resolve the situation over the past decades.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park. | Molly Bergen / Flickr

‘The community has been dispersed. Without access to the forest, elders have been unable to transmit traditional knowledge and cultural practices to future generations and many members of the community no longer know how to live their traditional, forest-based lifestyle,’ write Domínguez and Luoma, from a study on equitable conservation published in 2020.

In 2018, a group of Batwa returned to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, driven by desperation and poverty, after being expelled for nearly five decades. Due to continuous clashes with the park guards, some of the Batwa have resorted to allying with militia groups operating in the region. On January 24th, 2021, eight Batwa were violently arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, due to seeking access to more areas of the forest.

According to the World Rainforest Movement, ‘The military tribunal of the Bukavu garrison sentenced them for illegal possession of firearms and destruction of flora within the Kahuzi Biega National Park, their ancestral territory.’ The hearings and the verdicts of all eight were performed in one day, and the Batwa did not have a chance to receive legal representation in court.

50 years have passed since the creation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and the situation is still not resolved. This is only one of the countless instances where multinational conservation groups and top-down governance have breached fundamental human rights. We often hear about multinational energy corporations violating the rights of indigenous people as well, yet it is important to highlight that those we may generally view as ‘the good guys’ often take a literal ‘the ends justify the means’ stance.

‘Many members of the community no longer know how to live their traditional, forest-based lifestyle.’

Through a systematic study analysis published in 2021,Dr Niel Dawson from the University of East Anglia and colleagues found that more than half of locally controlled conservation cases have found a positive association between indigenous lifestyle practices and ecological outcomes. This is compared to the only 15.7% of external interventions in conservation that had a positive outcome. Importantly, the compiled studies also indicated that in most cases where there were negative ecological and social outcomes, that the practice was carried out through top-down conservation governance.

Dr. Dawson writes, ‘Of the 102 cases that were externally designed, controlled, or implemented, more than a third were reportedly associated with negative effects for both well-being and conservation. This was 10 times the percentage of community-led cases exhibiting jointly negative outcomes and more than twice the proportion of externally controlled cases exhibiting concurrently positive social and ecological outcomes.’

Indigenous people continue to be expelled from the dialogue of how to conserve nature in a changing climate. It is vital to start shifting our view of the relationship between humans and nature; it is unrealistic to separate the two, as in the end we also play a profound role in Earth’s ecosystem.

In a dominating capitalist economy, which equates human well-being with exponential market expansion, it would be beneficial to learn from those lifestyles more in tune with the environment.

Featured Image: Brian Harries | Flickr

Dawson N., Coolsaet B., Sterling E. et al. (2021) The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in effective and equitable conservation. Ecology and Society. Volume 26, issue 3, page 19.

Domínguez L. and Luoma C. (2020) Decolonising Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment. Land. Volume 9, issue 3, page 65.

Forest People’s Programme (2012) ‘Whakatane Mechanism.’ Forest People’s Programme. Online. Available at: https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/work-themes/environmental-governance/whakatane-mechanism [Accessed November 21st, 2021]

Hewitt D. (2016) ‘The largest of all the primates has moved closer to vanishing forever. How has it come to this?’ The Gorilla Organization. Online. Available at: https://www.gorillas.org/5-reasons-eastern-lowland-gorilla-now-critically-endangered/ [Accessed November 20th, 2021]

Mukumba Isumbisho P., Bombwe F., Shukuru Bahati J. et al. (2021) Land and communities: Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Forest Peoples. Online. Available at: https://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/default/files/documents/Kahuzi-Biega%20National%20Park%20Report.pdf [Accessed November 21st, 2021]

UNESCO (2021) ‘Kahuzi-Biega National Park.’ UNESCO. Online. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/137/ [Accessed November 21st, 2021]

WWF (2021) ‘Eastern lowland gorilla.’ World Wildlife Fund. Online. Available at: https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/eastern-lowland-gorilla [Accessed November 20th, 2021]

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