Militarised Conservation Threatens DRC’s Indigenous People/1

Mudja/Biganiro (DRC) – It is late afternoon when a light drizzle begins to fall over a group of young men seated together in Mudja, a village that lies approximately 20 kilometres north of Goma on the outskirts of the Virunga National Park. Mudja is home to a community of around 40 families of indigenous Bambuti, also known as ‘pygmies.’*

One of the men holds out his arm to show an injury he received from a park ranger. Others chime in.

“Just the day before yesterday, they shot at me when I was looking for honey and firewood,” says Giovanni Sisiri. “I abandoned everything, took my tools, and ran.”

Armed paramilitary rangers from the Virunga National Park are tasked with protecting the park from poachers and trespassers, often at risk to their own lives. In Congolese law, human habitation and hunting within the park is forbidden, including for the Bambuti, its original inhabitants.

The Bambuti living in Mudja said that at times they defy these laws, venturing inside to collect wood, hunt small animals and gather non-timber products, but recently it has become more difficult.

“A pygmy cannot live without the park. Before, they could enter secretly,” said Felix Maroy, an agronomist and livestock farmer who works with Bambuti communities. “Since January 2015, the guards are always patrolling the area. And there are other armed groups too, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).”

Imani Kabasele, a resident of Mudja and the head of the local branch of an NGO, Program for the Integration and Development of the Pygmy People (PDIP), said that two years ago, a Mbuti resident of a neighbouring village, Biganiro, went to look for honey and disappeared for three days. His body was later discovered, cut up by a machete. Kabasele believes it was someone from the FDLR that killed him.

Militarisation and colonial conservation policies

The initial demarcation of the Virunga National Park boundaries dates back to 1925 when it was first created by King Albert of Belgium.

The oldest national park in Africa, it was later expanded to include over seven thousand square kilometres of land. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it is now managed by a private-public partnership between the National Park Authority of the DRC (ICCN) and the EU-funded Virunga Foundation, and is home to about a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas. Congolese farmers living around the Virunga said that its colonial history creates the impression that it was “created by the Mzungu (white man), for the Mzungu.”

By Zahra Moloo

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation

*The word ‘pygmy’ has negative connotations and is used widely in the DRC. According to Survival International, it has been reclaimed by some communities as a term of identify.