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To Purge the Forest by Force: Organized violence against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

5 April 2022

The Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a protected area and UNESCO World Heritage site that has received funding and material support from the German and US governments among other international supporters, has long been celebrated as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. However, park authorities there have engaged in a three-year program of violent forced expulsions targeting the original human inhabitants of the park—the indigenous Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega, who are among the most marginalized groups in the country.

This report, To Purge the Forest by Force, documents the highly organized, grievous and widespread human rights abuses jointly carried out by park guards and Congolese Army soldiers against Batwa between 2019 and 2021. In October 2018, after four decades of broken promises of resettlement, reparations and justice from the Congolese government and other stakeholders, segments of Batwa communities returned to the park, rebuilding villages on their ancestral lands. Their return was met with swift and devastating violence by park authorities. The report presents evidence of park guards and soldiers conducting three large-scale operations between 2019-2021, targeting at least seven highly populated Batwa-inhabited villages inside the park, along with numerous smaller-scale evictions and acts of repression. Among other abuses, dozens of Batwa have been killed, injured, arbitrarily detained or subjected to violent group rape, in what amounts to a systematic campaign of violence designed to terrorize Batwa and drive them out of the park.

These large-scale operations are illustrative flashpoints in the decades-long process of marginalization and brutalization visited upon Batwa in the name of conservation. Ongoing violence is rooted in the original expulsion from their ancestral homeland to pave the way for the creation of the park in the 1970s, forcing an already marginalized indigenous community into decades of grinding impoverishment, landlessness and displacement.

The story of the Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega is not an isolated incident. Instead, it is emblematic of the widespread, systemic violence inherent in the rigidly colonial conservation model widely used in East and Central Africa, funded and facilitated by a network of international entities, with deadly consequences for indigenous peoples and local communities living in the vicinity of protected areas. The tragic events detailed in this report have been made possible by a culture of impunity that devalues indigenous life in service of a highly militarized approach inherent in the ‘fortress conservation’ model, excluding the land’s original inhabitants in violation of international law.

Cover photo: Burn scar and burnt home after a major attack targeting Batwa villages in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Credit: Robert Flummerfelt.

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Robert Flummerfelt