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Trouble in Virunga: the challenges of conservation amidst conflict, violence and poverty

The following is a guest blog by Esther Marijnen, Blaise Muhire and Judith Verweijen, PhD Candidates/Researchers at the Insitute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Bayreuth University and Nordic Africa Institute, respectively.

Recently, the movie Virunga, and concerted efforts by numerous NGOs have focused attention to one of the main threats to the Virunga National Park: the prospect of oil exploitation within and near its borders. Yet, there are two other, inter-related threats to the park that have received comparatively less attention, but that must be addressed for ensuring its survival nonetheless: first, populations trespassing on its territory, often as part of wider contestations of its limits; and second, the presence of a multitude of state and non-state armed actors who are commonly involved in unauthorized resources exploitation. In this contribution, we present a brief analysis of these phenomena, drawing on fieldwork conducted periodically between 2010 and 2015 in and around the park.

It is important to outline that these recent ‘threats’ need to be seen in relation to the history of the park and violent conflict in the east of the DR Congo. In 1925, the then King of Belgium, Albert, founded the National Park first named in his honor, and today known as Virunga National Park. As documented by several scholars, including Paul Vikanza and Joseph Nzabandora, the creation of the park was characterized by contestations, which partly resulted from the displacement of populations without compensation, and several extensions of the park without much consultation of local stakeholders. Furthermore, the park is located in the epicenter of ongoing conflict since 1993-4, and is strongly affected by cross-border dynamics with both Rwanda and Uganda. These regional dynamics are entangled in complex ways with more national and locally grounded dynamics of conflict, having turned the park into a hideout for numerous foreign and domestic armed groups.

Ties between civilians and armed groups

Currently there are many peasants residing illegally in the park, having been driven there by a lack economic opportunity, land scarcity and a belief in ‘ancestral’ claims on the land. Others sporadically enter the park to carry out illegal activities, such as cultivation, logging, fishing, the production of makala (charcoal) and poaching. This is often made possible by the presence of armed actors, who do not only engage in such activities themselves, but also allow civilians to do so in exchange for protection fees. This means that a substantial part of the population living in or around the park currently collaborates with armed forces for ensuring a livelihood.

Armed groups and populations are also linked through multiple other economic ties, such as pre-financing arrangements and money lending. For example, many small-scale shops and taxi-motos in Kiwanja operate with armed group money. There is also collaboration in crime. Thechefferie (chiefdom) of Bwisha (in Rutshuru territory) is plagued by rampant banditry, like armed robbery and kidnappings. A part of this crime is not directly committed by armed groups, but by local gangs. However, these often operate under the protection of armed groups or the security services, to whom they give part of the proceeds of their activities. These practices demonstrate that armed groups do not only live off natural resources exploitation, but have multiple sources of income, including banditry, road-block taxation and income via civilian intermediaries.

The ties between armed actors and civilians are further strengthened by political elites, who seize upon and inflate existing antipathies towards the park. It should be emphasized that civilians in the region have ambivalent feelings about the park. While the idea of nature conservation is generally supported, and people are proud of the park, seeing the wildlife as their heritage, many feel that the park has expropriated their ancestral lands. Furthermore, many people feel unjustly deprived from the means of earning a livelihood in the face of severe poverty. Customary chiefs and politicians often take advantage of these sentiments as a means of reinforcing their popularity and power. Especially in times of elections, politicians try to gain votes by promising to revise the limits of the park. A number of these same politicians have been documented (e.g. by the UN Group of Experts) to finance armed groups operating in the park.

Politicians and allied armed groups have also been instrumental in perpetuating inter-community conflicts that have a long lineage. Each round of violence seems to revive and reinforce these conflicts. Most recently, the M23 rebellion ratcheted up tensions in Bwisha between (but also among) Nande, Hutu and Tutsi, which have continued after the rebellion’s departure. This is partly a result of the fact that most armed groups are tied to one community or competing network or another, which creates local security dilemmas.

Land conflicts can further fuel tensions between communities. For instance, there is a long-standing conflict between on the one hand, the Banande-led Syndicat Alliance Paysanne (SAP), which mobilized farmers to cultivate around Kahunga, in the hunting reserve of the Domaine de Chasse de Rutshuru (DCR) and on the other hand, the Hutu mwami (customary chief) of Bwisha, who blames SAP of bringing Banande from Lubero to cultivate in his chefferie. Recently, the park retroceded a part of the DCR to the population, which reinforced the existing conflict between SAP and the mwami. While SAP fought for years to gain access to the land, the mwami redistributed it mainly to his own constituency of (mostly Hutu) politicians, associations and businesspersons. Many of the Nande but also a few Hunde and Hutu peasants that formerly cultivated illegally in the area feel ‘trapped’, as they are now forced now to work for large-scale land-owners under exploitative agreements. Furthermore, in part because of the hydro-electric plant that is currently being built in the area by the Virunga Alliance, the value of land in Bwisha is increasing. This intensifies competition, which in the current power constellation often benefits the rich.

The pitfalls of ICCN–FARDC cooperation

The national armed forces are an integral part of the complex violent political economy in and around the park. Not only are certain units, like the naval forces on Lake Edward, heavily implicated in the protection business and other illegal revenue-generation activities, they often collude with armed groups. Furthermore, there has been fierce competition between different units and networks within the armed forces, pitting for instance the navy against the infantry. These conflicts were not resolved when the infantry started to collaborate more closely with the ICCN in mixed units in certain parts of the park––which further drew the ICCN into the mess of Congolese army politics. Yet, in the face of rampant insecurity, and the tendency of the Congolese army to get involved in resources exploitation when left unchecked, there seem to be few alternatives to this collaboration.

One of the problems is that the parts of the army not included in the collaboration are envious of the much better service conditions enjoyed by ICCN agents and the soldiers in the mixed units. While part of the ICCN, the Virunga National Park is formally managed under a public-private partnership, and its daily management is largely in the hands of the NGO the Virunga Foundation. The latter tops up the meager official wages of the guards with extra fees, and provides them with three meals a day and proper health care, while also ensuring they have sufficient equipment and transport. Most of this is financed by development aid from the European Commission.

Another problem with the FARDC is that the operations that it conducts against armed groups in and around the park often exacerbate tensions. For instance, the Kimia II/Amani Leo operations in 2009-2010 led to an upsurge in instability in Bwisha, in part because they did not manage to cut the ties between armed groups and populations. Moreover, the FARDC sometimes took over protection rackets ran by armed groups. The recent operations against the FDLR launched in the park seem to have a similar fate. While the operations initially halted makala production, the trade has slowly resumed, but now under the protection of the FARDC.

Furthermore, the operations of the mixed units, which often target populations living and working in the park, have at times reinforced the ties between rebels and civilians. Last year, the park decided to destroy a number of farms located within the area of Kibirizi (in the park), sending a mixed unit of around 30 FARDC soldiers and 9 park guards to patrol the vacated area. The population found itself in difficulty as many depend on cultivating in the park for their livelihood. In reaction, a part entered even further into the park, in a zone controlled by the FDLR, which ‘rents out’ small plots of land to civilians. The reinforced ties with the FDLR resulting from this arrangement later hampered FARDC operations in the area. However, the army did manage to disperse the rebels, which has contributed to increased insecurity for civilians along the Kibirizi – Rwindi road. As a consequence, the population has developed negative feelings towards the mixed FARDC-ICCN unit located there, believing it only chases farmers out of the park, but does little to protect civilians.

Beyond hoping for change

In the light of ongoing armed group activity and violence in the Virunga park, it is somewhat ironic that it occasionally presents itself as an“island of stability”. Unfortunately, neither the Congolese government nor its international partners have developed a coherent policy for dealing with the armed groups present in the park and the conflict dynamics that feed them. This also appears to apply to the park management. In its public communications, the park commonly portrays armed group activity as resulting primarily from the illegal exploitation of natural resources. From this perspective, pushing them out of the park through military operations would seem an adequate solution. Yet, the causes for armed group activity in the Virunga park are much more complex, and are also fed by factors such as communal conflicts, unscrupulous behavior by politicians and local authorities feeding off animosities towards the park, the militarization of politics, a malfunctioning security apparatus, regional interference and long-standing social ties between populations and armed groups. Addressing these various factors is urgent for ensuring that stability becomes more than just a vain hope.

The park’s current approach to conservation and development projects around appears to have done little to mitigate conflict dynamics. For example, while the park has toughened its approach to the illegal exploitation of natural resources ––whether by civilians or armed actors––it has been much slower in the creation of livelihoods for civilians. Certainly, the park promises to create many jobs through the projects of the Virunga Alliance, although most of these have not yet materialized. Not only do these initiatives take time to come off the ground, they seem to be hampered by the current situation of rampant insecurity in and around the park.

Even when jobs providing alternatives to unauthorized resources exploitation will materialize, they might not directly sever the links between populations and armed groups, nor de-escalate conflict dynamics. In fact, depending on how it is managed, the availability of jobs may actually reinforce conflicts between and within communities and elites, as it raises their stakes. Where recruitment is believed to benefit only certain ethnic groups, factions or networks, those perceiving to be marginalized will protest. For example, in September 2014, youngsters from Rutshuru demonstrated in front of the headquarters of the park in Rumangabo, as they found that too many people from the ‘outside’ were working in high positions for the Virunga Foundation. The manifestation was handled in a heavy-handed manner by park guards, which created further antagonisms. In the current climate of militarization, such discontent is dangerous, as it may draw in the armed actors to which politicians and local authorities are often linked, a risk that is especially elevated in the context of elections and the ongoing decentralization process.

It would be therefore seem important for the park to adopt a more conflict sensitive approach to conservation, which would also require a more participatory orientation. This would demand an increased effort by the park to improve its local communication, which has been lagging behind on its internationally oriented publicity, although a number of recent initiatives point to improvement in this domain. However, it is also important to realize that there is only so much the management of the park can do to end the interlocking cycle of conflicts and violence. Many of the solutions for Virunga’s problems are in the hands of politicians and institutions located far away from the park’s boundaries. It is the primary responsibility of these actors to find integrated solutions for the different rebel groups residing in the park. Similar to other parts of the Congo, the current emphasis on stand-alone military operations has proven little effective up till now.

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