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Fortress Conservation and International Accountability for Human Rights Violations against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

5 May 2022

The Kahuzi-Biega National Park (‘PNKB’) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo presents an existential threat to the indigenous Batwa people. For millennia, Batwa occupied the forests surrounding Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biega, utilizing traditional ecological knowledge and sustainable practices to foster one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The creation of the PNKB in the 1970s forced Batwa from their ancestral lands, rendering them deeply impoverished, landless, dependent and culturally disconnected. When they seek to return home and access their lands and resources, they are subjected to extreme violence by park authorities who treat them as trespassers, poachers and enemies of conservation.

This report situates the serious human rights violations suffered by Batwa in the PNKB within the broader global phenomenon of ‘fortress conservation’ and analyses the respective roles and accountability of the park’s core international partners. Ongoing violence against Batwa in the PNKB is a stark reminder of the immense human and environmental costs associated with pursuing conservation policies that prevent indigenous peoples from owning, governing, accessing and benefiting from their territories and resources. These policies are bolstered by donors, global NGOs and international organizations which enable and tacitly uphold a violent and anti-indigenous status quo in the PNKB and other protected areas.

Donors, conservation organizations and other international partners of the PNKB have failed to adequately ensure that their support did not contribute to human rights violations committed against Batwa. These international partners had explicit knowledge of unresolved human rights abuses committed by ecoguards, as well as threats of imminent violence against Batwa communities living inside the park. Yet, they continued to equip, fund and train ecoguards and actively promoted the increasing militarization of the PNKB. This militarization has resulted in overly aggressive policing and military-style actions by ecoguards (often jointly with the Congolese Army) who explicitly target, criminalize and brutalize Batwa. At the same time, the park consistently fails to meet environmental expectations and objectives.

Thus, the PNKB represents a clear case of how fortress conservation fails both people and the environment. Regrettably, it is not an isolated example of flawed conservation policy. Instead, it is indicative of the institutional shortcomings and systemic failures inherent in the dominant ways in which conservation is pursued by states and promoted by international conservation actors in the Congo Basin and in other parts of the world.

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Colin Luoma