Alok Gupta met Mr. Dominique Bikaba during his visit at the United Nations COP11 Summit on biological diversity conservation. In the conversation with him, Bikaba explained the scenario in Congo and how conflicts are ruining the biodiversity of the region and impacting development.

Dominique Bikaba is the Executive Director of Strong Roots, Congo. He has a degree in Rural Development where he specialized in Regional Planning. He has an extensive professional background in conservation and development for having served communities in the area for more than 15 years now. He has also served local, national and international organizations as a consultant in and outside the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), what has provided him with skills and needed knowledge for conservation and development programs. Dominique Bikaba also represents communities on the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Initiative Board of Advisors.

Upon request, Mr Bikaba agreed to write a case study for Envecologic on biodiversity conservation and conflicts in the DRC region.

Democratic Republic of Congo background

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the second largest country in Africa, counting 2,345,000 Km² where about 50% are covered by forest and 3.5% by waters. DRC shares 9 boarders with its neighboring countries. The inland waters comprise with 90 lakes, the Congo river and numerous rivers across the country, while the forests area is estimated at 1MKm² representing half of the African forestland. The DRC forests represents also 86% of the Congo Basin Forest (26% of the world’s tropical forest) with a deforestation rate of 0.6% per year, in a country where the annual growth rate is 4%.

Since the 1970s, 23% of the forests in DRC have been set under conservation status (protected areas), covering 10% of the national territory. The DRC government’s objective is to increase the number of protected areas to cover 15% of the national territory by 2020. The principal issue in this endeavor is that appropriate consideration and compensation has yet to be provided for local and indigenous communities who lost their lands or had their livelihoods impaired when the existing protected areas were created.

Internal conflicts

Logging, shifting agriculture, population growth and the oil and mining industries are all putting increased pressure on the Congo Basin forests. The total annual deforestation rate in the region is estimated by the FAO to be around 934,000 hectares.

While the objective of the Congolese government is to extend the size of protected areas, recent research on Protected Areas Management Policies in DRC has found that this objective is hindered by conflicts between existing protected areas’ managers and the surrounding local and indigenous communities.

Between 1979 and 1996, five of the seven national parks in DRC were recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage Sites; among them, inscribed in 1980, the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Created in 1937 as forest reserve, gaining a national park’s status in 1970 and augmented in 1975, the park boundar­ies – poorly defined – were not negotiated with local communities and were the cause of considerable contention. Forced land expropriation, and their exclusion from the park and consequent loss of access to natural resources caused much hostility from some of the traditional chiefs.

A participa­tory project to demarcate the park boundaries was initiated in 1985, and effective demarcation began in 1990. This alleviated the conflicts to a degree, but the issue is still not resolved. To this day none of the communities have received appropriate compensation. This situation has been a source of conflict between the park administration and the surrounding communities, and even a cause of wildlife depredation in the communities’ farms around the park. As human populations keep growing they will demand more natural resources and space and conflicts between communities and the park are likely to continue and increase.

In the case of indigenous people and local communities in DRC, when asked about the role that the government should play in protecting their forests (non protected forests), community members are emphatic that the government should not impose “integral conservation” of the forest – their sole livelihood source – by establishing a national park or a forest reserve. They insisted that conservation of these forests should remain the prerogative of local leaders and communities who have “managed” this forests since the time of their ancestors and that the role of the government or other external actors should be limited to providing targeted assistance to empower them protect their forests.

Given the lessons learned from the establishment of existing protected areas and the viewpoints of forest communities, the “Community Forest” approach is the most feasible manner to extend the size of protected areas in Congo and better protect great apes and other wildlife species living in forests currently designated as non-protected. This approach implicates communities in the design and daily management of the forests on which they rely for subsistence.

Unfortunately, no legislation exists so far in DRC to establish or regulate community forests, with the exception of a few sentences that reference forests on which communities rely for subsistence, in the Forest and Mining codes. Lack of skills, knowledge and limited community empowerment in the field of conservation and great ape protection along with other totally protected species are additional obstacles that must be addressed for the “Community Forest” approach to be realistic and successful.

External conflicts

Since 1996, the DRC is victim of a succession of armed conflicts on its eastern border. These wars have negatively impacted the social, economic and environmental potentials in DRC, creating a dramatic humanitarian catastrophe where more than six millions Congolese have died between 1998 and 2008.  These violent wars have forced people to displace through the country, creating many agglomerations around protected areas, increasing therefore, the demand in natural resources from these protected areas and adjacent forests.

Since 2000, the eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) have been hunted for their meat, trophies and trade ends to perilously low levels by opportunistic miners who had entered their habitat in and around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in search of the Coltan and more recently for cassiterite. This pursuit of minerals helped fuel the wars in eastern DRC and to this day, about 90%, the area of the lowland part of the park still is under militias and Rwandan armed troops (FDLR) control. It is estimated that the total gorilla population has fallen from approximately 17,000 at the end of the twentieth century, to perhaps as few as 1,000 today. Half of the gorilla population and more than 450 elephants have been slaughtered in the highland part of the park between 1998 and 2004. In 2000 and 2001, approximately 17,000 people rushed into the park to mine coltan (colombo tantalite, a mineral that is well used in the high-tech for electronic devices) when its price suddenly increased by more than ten times.

More than 8,000 people were still mining coltan, cassiterite, and gold and camping in the park in 2008; while the FDLR troops were estimated to be about 15,000 in the eastern DRC forests. Over 90 quarries were reported in the park. The illicit exploitation of the DRC natural resources by the intermediary of paramilitary groups backed up by the Rwandan government and/or with industrial groups has been enabling these armed groups to purchase military equipments and maintain then their domination in the area.

Thus, major threats to the biodiversity conservation in DRC and especially in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park include among others, the presence of armed troops in the park, poaching, illegal encroachment, illegal mining (of gold, cassiterite, coltan, diamond…), as well as a lack of conservation policies that consider local and indigenous communities in the protected areas management policies.

Sustainable biodiversity conservation towards the Aichi biodiversity targets in DRC

There is no conservation success without sustainable peace. Recovering peace in DRC is the main way to undertake a path to achieving the national and global policies including the Aichi biodiversity targets. Starvation caused by the recent economic and political crisis is the main factor that led the people to destructive activities in the park. Conflict between the park authorities and unemployed local people could be an important additional factor that predisposes individuals to hunt gorillas and destroy biodiversity in DRC. For many local residents, the Kahuzi-Biega National Park had been a long-standing source of resentment and conflict. Indigenous people and local communities were expulsed from their lands and territories the national government gazetted the forest in national park in 1970. They were also prohibited from shooting the elephants and other wildlife that frequently raided their crops. Furthermore, local villages were ordered to absorb the people who were evicted from the new reserve without any mean of resettlement. Strong Roots Congo, a Conservation and Sustainable Development Organization was created to mitigate these growing conflicts, promote local conservation knowledge, and improve the quality of life in the communities’ areas.

The role of local NGOs in the conservation of natural resources has become increasingly important in the areas with political instability and permanent threats of the gorillas survival in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park as well to other wildlife in other adjacent forests. With weak enforcement of rules and regulations and national institutions in disarray, local people in the region have made decisions according to short-term personal or local interests. Park authorities are powerless to stop local people from using protected areas for agricultural production and mining. Local NGOs, such as Strong Roots, are cooperating with international NGOs to reinforce conservation knowledge among local people and provide various conservation and alternatives to destructive activities to support the park. Scientists are also contributing to use scientific knowledge for creating appropriate conservation measures.

Acknowledgements

Our sincere gratitude to Partners In Conservation at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Canadian Ape Alliance, Zero Footprint, Conservation International, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Equator Initiative, the Enough Project and the Kyoto University for their support to Strong Roots and its members in biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in DRC. Many thanks to Jenny Murphy, Diane Cowel, Chieko Ando, Joanne Richardson, Margaret Johnson, Betty Merner, Rick Murphy and Laurenz Leky with all Strong Roots staffs for their time and dedication to biodiversity conservation in DRC. We are also grateful to the DRC Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism, and to the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, for their official support.

About Strong Roots

Strong Roots (his Congo based organization) focuses on conservation and sustainable development through educating and empowering the local and indigenous communities that live in the region of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DRC. The efforts have also been directed towards policy work now that the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has plans to expand the nation’s protected areas.

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