The transition of power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – following the Presidential election held in December 2018 – offers the vital opportunity to rethink government policy in numerous domains. One of these domains is nature conservation, and in particular Virunga National Park. Once popular with tourists, located in war-ridden eastern DRC and largely managed by the British NGO The Virunga Foundation, its relationship to the local population needs urgent attention.
A counterproductive ‘zero tolerance’ policy
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the current approach to nature conservation in Virunga National Park is not always mild towards the people living close outside its borders. Many of these people enter the park regularly to collect firewood and branches, to cultivate small plots of land (often in places that the population claims are outside the park), or to exploit charcoal, sometimes in close collaboration with armed actors.
The local population engage in these activities in part driven by necessity, as they are very poor, as well as out of a sense of entitlement and historical injustice. The land on which the park is currently located used to belong to their ancestors. In the eyes of many, it was dispossessed unfairly, and promises of compensation, for instance in the form of constructing schools and roads, were never respected.
In January and March 2019, we conducted scientific research in 11 villages around Virunga National Park and in the city of Goma in North Kivu province. Based on this and previous research in the Virunga area, we have come to the conclusion that the park’s policy towards people who enter it to ensure their survival is rather harsh.
The park’s leadership prefers for those who commit this type of infraction to be arrested, thrown into prison and, at times, prosecuted by military justice based on the accusation that they collaborate with armed groups. At the same time, the financial and political weight of the park, and its influence on justice, creates imbalances in the resulting judicial procedures.
Far from supporting impunity for those who commit infractions, we call the long- term efficacy of this zero tolerance policy into question. It undermines people’s possibility to cater for their livelihoods, and feeds into animosity towards the park. Yet without collaboration from the local population, the project of nature conservation cannot succeed.
In the village of Nyamilima, in the territory of Rutshuru (a subdivision of North Kivu province), interviewees testified:
‘When the guards conduct patrols, they arrest people. On 3 December, they arrested 6 people, who were liberated in Rutshuru [town] after paying 120,000 Congolese francs ($75 USD). When they arrest people, the guards also seize machetes, hoes and bicycles’.
During our research, numerous people highlighted the heavy-handed nature of arrests by the park guards: those who are arrested are beaten and their hands are tied, and then they are thrown into vehicles and brought to the rangers’ main bases. Subsequently, they are transported to the civilian or military prosecutor’s office.
On Lake Edward, located in the park, fisherfolk claimed they were arrested in a violent manner. ‘When they get arrested’, a man in Vitshumbi explains, ‘they are blindfolded with red cloth, like someone who is going to be slaughtered’.
The current policy of frequent arrests differs from the previous approach that emphasised negotiation and punishment on the spot, such as the confiscation of tools to cultivate the land. Those targeted would then be rapidly liberated. In the past, the rangers also showed more compassion for those experiencing difficulties, such as widows. ‘If your wife had just given birth, you could negotiate and go and search for firewood or water’, said a man interviewed in Kanombe.
The park, for its part, emphasises that human rights principles are strictly respected during arrests. It also highlights the difficulties of fostering respect for the law in a context of poverty and animosity towards the park. Moreover, that animosity is often nourished by politicians who instrumentalise the populations living next to the park for electoral purposes.
Unfair judicial procedures
Those who are arrested have limited prospects of a fair trial. The problem starts at the level of the official report on the infraction written by the judicial officer (OPJ) of the Congolese Organization for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the body under which the park rangers fall. According to a lawyer encountered in Rutshuru town: ‘Their judicial officers have a stake in the conflict, therefore they cannot do their work properly.’ Since working for the park, the OPJ have an interest in demonstrating that the arrest was justified and therefore endorse the version of the facts provided by the park guards.
A lawyer often handling cases for the park told us nevertheless that the park’s judicial officers are well trained and do a ‘good job’. But that opinion was not shared among other judicial professionals contacted during our research.
That the park’s judicial officers are suspected of being partial is even worse given prosecutors’ lack of funds and means of transport to conduct on-site investigations. The park only helps their work with transport for investigations in cases where park rangers have been attacked. Magistrates therefore have to rely only on the reports composed by the park’s judicial officers, while having little knowledge of the isolated areas where the infractions were allegedly committed.
Another illustration that the judicial procedures initiated by the ICCN are skewed is that the accused are not assisted – not even pro bono – by defence lawyers, neither during the pre-trial phase nor at trial. This also undermines their ability to appeal their sentence.
The magistrates that we interviewed also believe that certain cases brought by the ICCN were minor infractions, concerning for instance elderly women collecting branches in the park. As one of them testified: ‘The people we encounter, the majority of the defendants are poor. The prosecutor’s office does not always find it judicious to send them to prison and ends their instruction by closing the case without further action taken.’
Such decisions are not to the liking of the park’s administration. According to the testimonies of numerous lawyers and magistrates, it rather wants defendants to be sentenced.
Civilians before military courts
The park’s leadership also seems to prefer for the cases referred by the ICCN to be treated in more repressive judicial institutions. For an official of the prosecutor’s office of Rutshuru territory, this is amongst the reasons that they transfer cases implicating civilians to the military prosecutor, even if the defendants were unarmed when the infraction was committed, and the latter is not of a military nature.
The DRC’s military judicial code of 2002 contains numerous clauses that authorise military courts to prosecute civilians – which violates international human rights norms.
The park’s officers invoke the same clauses to justify sending civilians to military tribunals, a practice that other judicial experts condemn. According to these experts, paying armed groups to go fishing on Lake Edward or transporting a sack of charcoal for economic networks spearheaded by rebel groups does not imply the people involved participate in an armed movement nor that it concerns armed infractions or crimes.
For a magistrate working at the military prosecutor’s office: ‘It’s the policy of the ICCN that all environmental crimes are sent to the military prosecutor, because these prosecutors have exorbitant power … They can keep a defendant in detention during 12 months without presenting them to a judge’. To add to that: ‘It’s the policy of the ICCN to discourage the destruction of the park, even those who cultivate, they want them to be kept in jail as long as possible’.
According to statistics obtained from the register of the military prosecutor’s office in Rutshuru, no less than 102 civilians were accused there by the ICCN in 2018. This represents a steep increase compared to the previous year, when only 39 civilians were accused. At the same time, a slight decrease can be observed in the amount of people accused by the ICCN at the civilian prosecutor’s office in Rutshuru: 206 defendants in 2018 against 216 in 2017.
Deteriorating park-people relations
Massive arrests give the population the feeling that the park is all-powerful. They also weigh heavily economically on a population that is already very poor. It often occurs that farmers are arrested when they are sowing or harvesting. Moreover, their harvest is directly destroyed, implying the loss of an entire agricultural cycle. Once arrested, people are no longer capable of generating income. Even worse, they have to pay fines of between 75 and 150 USD or more – sums that represent several times their monthly earnings.
Those who are sentenced and sent to prison also have to pay an amount – locally called la bougie (the candle) – in order to have liveable conditions of detention. In the prison of Rutshuru, those who are not able to pay ‘the candle’ are put in a cell called gondagonda (from the Swahili word for losing weight), where they risk dying of starvation.
In order to find sufficient money to be liberated, detainees have to turn to their extended family for contributions or they get heavily indebted. Others are forced to sell their goods, which undermines their possibility to earn a living in the future.
As the village chief of Rumangabo, in Rutshuru territory, explained:
‘People are arrested because of makala [charcoal]. They are then forced to sell their fields and plots to pay the fines. After that, they have no longer any other work, and enter the park again to cut makala. Arresting people does not work. It is a vicious cycle.’
Towards genuine community-based conservation?
During our research, we observed that the people living next to the park generally acknowledge that the latter is a world heritage site that needs to be protected. However, the relations between these two neighbours are often marked by conflict.
For some people, the repressive policies of the park evoke the sentiment that nothing has changed since the colonial era and that community-based conservation, where local communities are implicated in decision-making, has failed to materialise. In Vitshumbi, an informant told us that: ‘There is no community-based conservation. It’s a façade. The park prefers law and order to community-based approaches’.
Others argued that decision-making in the park does not occur in a participatory manner, that they are rarely consulted and that there are very few projects for the community, such as agricultural projects and the construction of schools. Moreover, these projects are managed in a top-down manner.
The Virunga Foundation and its partners, under the banner of the Virunga Alliance, do try to promote sustainable development around the park. However, the majority of our interlocutors stated that they do not yet feel the impact of these investments.
Faced with this resentment, the new Congolese government and the park’s international donors should encourage the park’s management to rethink its approach. Certainly, infractions should be punished. But it is imperative to find a balance between the necessity to protect the park, on the one hand, and the socio-economic and civil rights of the local population on the other.
Photo: Man cutting down a tree to produce charcoal, Yangambi, DRC. Credit: Axel Fassio/CIFOR