Traditional livelihoods – Democratic Republic of the Congo

For Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, ‘fortress conservation’ has robbed communities of land and traditional livelihoods

Colin Luoma

Batwa of the Kahuzi-Biega forest belong to the forest-dwelling indigenous peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Their history begins with their life in the forests surrounding Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biega, the two extinct volcanoes that dominate the landscape and from which the park derives its name. Like other indigenous communities across space and time, Batwa maintain a sacred connection with their ancestral territories. For them, the forest was provider of everything, and they considered themselves fully integrated within it. 

For millennia, Batwa lived in harmony with the forest – their natural environment. Forest life physically sustained them, supplying a variety of food, medicinal and fuel sources. It served as the centre of their intellectual, spiritual and cultural life, the place where they worshipped their ancestors, buried their dead, and conducted their spiritual and cultural rites. 

Through their proximity and reliance on forest resources, Batwa cultivated an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna in the Kahuzi-Biega landscape. Their tracking skills and ability to navigate dense rainforest are still unparalleled, and they are considered the region’s best traditional healers and foremost experts on the use of medicinal plants in treating illnesses. This traditional ecological knowledge, passed from generation to generation, allowed Batwa to survive in the forest for many years without significant reliance on outside communities. They knew how to preserve the forest for future generations, just as their ancestors had done before them. 

As a traditional hunter-gatherer community with a cultural and spiritual connection to the forest, Batwa historically maintained an environmentally sustainable way of life. They used low-impact, traditional methods to hunt small animals and collect fruits, tubers, insects, plants and honey, which yielded a rich and sustainable diet. They principally hunted deer, porcupines, antelope and other small animals, but considered gorillas to be sacred and forbidden to hunt. Only certain community members were allowed to hunt, with restrictions on the type and quantity of animals that could be harvested. They did not fell trees but collected dead wood, and bushfires were socially prohibited and penalized by the community. Cognizant of the need to not deplete resources in any given area, they would move periodically throughout the forest to allow flora and fauna to replenish naturally. 

However, beginning with the Belgian colonial administration in the 1930s and continuing after independence, successive steps were taken to designate the forest as a protected area – and in the process, the rights of the Batwa communities to their land and resources were gradually undermined. In 1970, the government gazetted and expanded the area designated as a forest reserve into a national park, effectively creating the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (Parc National de Kahuzi-Biega, ‘PNKB’). Batwa families were initially displaced and relocated within park boundaries, but were allowed to continue living in the forest. Then, in 1975, the PNKB was expanded to encompass the lowland sector to the west, increasing tenfold from 60,000 hectares to 600,000 hectares of total area under protection. This expansion was accompanied by state authorities forcibly and violently evicting all Batwa living in the forest. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 Batwa were dispossessed of their ancestral lands to pave the way for the PNKB. 

In 2018, of the 365 people who worked in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, only 17 were Batwa.

Without access to their territories, resources and sacred sites, and denied the right to engage in subsistence activities such as hunting, gathering and cultivating in their traditional ways, Batwa have become deeply impoverished. After their expulsion from the PNKB, the Batwa community did not receive any form of compensation or relocation assistance from the state. Most were forced to find refuge on the edges of non-Batwa villages surrounding the highland sector of the park. Some were allocated small plots of land, but these were insufficient for Batwa to meet their basic needs, much less to maintain their traditions as a huntergatherer society. Even on these small plots, they are essentially treated as squatters, with no secure rights to the underlying land and subject to further evictions at a moment’s notice. 

While international donors have pursued a range of socio-economic initiatives in the PNKB, these have failed to transform impoverished and displaced Batwa communities into self-sustaining ones. While perhaps well intentioned, much of this programming is arguably a distraction from the more difficult task of meaningfully negotiating access to territories and resources, and integrating Batwa participation and traditional knowledge into local conservation strategies and methodologies. As for employment by the park itself, a mere handful of Batwa have been able to secure work: in 2018, of the 365 people who worked in the PNKB, only 17 were Batwa. Moreover, Batwa employment in the PNKB has traditionally been confined to poorly paid work as guides and in other menial positions, while administrative and other better remunerated positions are given to non-Batwa. These limited and sporadic employment opportunities do not begin to approach the types of compensation owed to Batwa as a result of their being deprived of their lands and livelihoods. 

The extreme poverty experienced by Batwa outside of their ancestral lands is often cited as a reason why biodiversity is suffering in the PNKB. High levels of poverty in many communities around the highland sector, including Batwa, have placed untenable demands on forest resources. In the PNKB, local populations, including Batwa, regularly enter the forest to access and extract natural resources. They hunt and trap small animals, collect firewood and gather medicinal plants. Some Batwa engage in more substantial activities, such as artisanal mining and charcoal production. None of this is unique to Batwa and, in fact, non- Batwa communities and armed groups engage in extractive practices on a much larger scale. However, unlike armed groups and politically powerful farmers causing massive destruction in the park, marginalized Batwa are an easy target for park law enforcement. 

This was illustrated in late 2018, when community members from several Batwa villages returned to live on their lands inside the PNKB. Park authorities blamed Batwa for deforesting over 300 hectares of woodland inside the park, causing an outcry and condemnation among conservationists and academics. This proved to be a simplistic response, however, to a more complex dynamic around resource extraction that was occurring in the park: the return of Batwa presented an opportunity for other groups to exploit resources under cover of the Batwa’s historical and legitimate claim to the forest. Numerous sources, including the PNKB, acknowledge that Batwa were instrumentalized by more powerful groups, who paid Batwa minuscule wages for the extremely dangerous work involved in producing charcoal. Minimal benefit actually flowed to Batwa communities, while non-Batwa suppliers and trading networks in Bukavu allegedly made large profits. This is characteristic of the treatment of Batwa more generally, whom other communities often considered to be their serfs and property. 

When Batwa seek to engage in their traditional, subsistence activities inside the forest, they are met with extreme violence at the hands of park authorities. This response represents a classic case of ‘fortress conservation’, whereby Batwa were violently expelled when the park was created, and their removal continues to serve as the impetus for their insecurity, socio-economic deprivation and ongoing exclusion from their lands. The PNKB relies on a heavily militarized form of conservation, characterized by the use of military grade weapons and surveillance technologies, paramilitary training by foreign contractors and joint patrols with state armed forces, which has led to serious human rights abuses against Batwa. This violence reached a new crescendo between July 2019 and December 2021 when, armed with heavy weapons and accompanied by Congolese security forces, park guards waged numerous, coordinated military-style assaults on Batwa civilians living inside the park. These resulted in a level of death and destruction against Batwa characteristic of full-scale attacks against civilians, with dozens of victims of direct violence and thousands more whose lives were, once again, upended in the name of conservation. 

The decades-long struggle of the Batwa of the Kahuzi-Biega forest is inextricably rooted in the dispossession of their ancestral lands and the theft of their resources in the name of nature conservation. More than 50 years after their original eviction, Batwa have not been integrated into the management of the PNKB in any meaningful way. Protected areas like the PNKB are supposedly part of the solution to the environmental crises facing our planet: for decades they have been touted as a cornerstone of biodiversity protection and a key climate change mitigator. Yet their doubtful environmental efficacy and incredible human costs bring these claims into serious question. The PNKB, and other state-managed protected areas established on indigenous territories, are designated and cordoned off as national parks, game reserves and nature sanctuaries for the benefit of others (Western tourists, scientists and even extractive industries), but not the indigenous peoples who have long lived in symbiosis with their natural environments, shaping and responsibly safeguarding them for future generations. Instead, these original guardians are abruptly transformed into poachers, criminals and trespassers on their own lands by laws that effectively criminalize their ways of life and fail to recognize indigenous customary titles.

Photo: Ruins of a destroyed Batwa home within the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Robert Flummerfelt

Additional reading

This case study is excerpted from the following report: 

Luoma, C., Fortress Conservation and International Accountability for Human Rights Violations against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, London, MRG, 2022. 

More information and supporting references can be found there.