- The militarization of conservation has been heavily criticized by critical social scientists, Indigenous rights activists and NGOs for resulting in human rights violations and the marginalization of Indigenous and local communities.
- In war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), field research and interviews by Dr Fergus O’Leary Simpson of University of Antwerp finds that many Indigenous and local people perceive armed park guards in Kahuzi-Biega National Park as a source of insecurity while others see them as a source of stability. The effects on broader conflict and instability are mixed.
- The authors of this op-ed, Dr Fergus O’Leary Simpson and Professor Lorenzo Pellegrini of Erasmus University Rotterdam, argue that militarized conservation presents the only viable means of conservation law enforcement in regions like the eastern DRC, where multiple armed actors violently compete for control of land and resources within protected areas.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
The past decade has seen a wave of academic and activist writings criticizing the use of militarized conservation to protect nature. In this commentary piece, we argue that the use of armed park guards and soldiers from national armies to secure protected areas leads to violent outcomes for some Indigenous and local communities who venture into these areas — often their traditional lands. However, other people living around protected areas see militarized conservation as providing a source of security in regions where the state is weak and multiple violent actors vie for control of land and resources.
Militarized conservation, in other words, has ambivalent effects on security and stability in regions where armed conflict is present. As such, it is viewed both positively and negatively by the different people affected by it.
In 2022, Minority Rights Group shocked the world with the release of its report “To Purge the Forest by Force,” which detailed reported violent attempts by armed park guards to expel Indigenous Batwa people from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park — their ancestral lands — which some groups had forcibly returned to. With accounts of murder, torture and gang rape committed by armed park guards and government soldiers, for many observers the report epitomized the evils of militarized conservation that prevents Indigenous peoples from living on and off of their traditional lands by the threat of a gun. The report’s publication has fed into debates questioning and rebuking the use of these approaches in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (and other protected areas across the world).
Based on our extensive field research conducted around Kahuzi-Biega National Park since 2019, we propose a more nuanced account of the violence surrounding the park, as well as of militarized conservation in conflict zones more generally.
We worked alongside local Congolese researchers based at the Catholic University of Bukavu (UCB) and the Institute of Rural Development (ISDR–Bukavu) to conduct more than 200 interviews and 24 focus groups with Batwa and various Bantu communities living in and around the park’s highland sector in the territories of Kalehe and Kabare. We selected informants using a blend of purposive and snowball sampling techniques, whereby key gatekeepers to the field would be interviewed and then subsequently provide recommendations for additional people to talk to. For the safety of our interviewees, we’re keeping their identities anonymous.
Our findings show how the park has become a focal point for violent conflict and non-state armed groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and various Mai-Mai groups, since the 1990s, making demilitarization of park guards and the return of Indigenous communities a simplistic take to a complex, structural problem in the region.
Many of these non-state armed groups have been heavily involved in forms of illicit resource extraction that have degraded the park to accumulate wealth and buy weaponry. This has led to the decimation of biodiversity and ecosystems, including the habitat of critically endangered eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri).
Armed groups have also produced widespread insecurity at the forest’s edge, murdering — both Indigenous and local groups — kidnapping, raping, displacing thousands, looting and burning down their homes, especially when fighting one another and government forces over the control of informal gold, cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan mining sites inside the park. Since December 2019, leaders of at least three armed groups (Cisayura, Nduhye and Maribita), have been killed in contests over these mining sites, including the well-known Nyaweza River and Binjwiri River gold mines, in the park’s highland sector. The entire park is situated in a region exposed to armed conflict. Armed groups operate in both the highland and lowland sectors.
Several commentators (here and here) argue that the best solution to environmental destruction and violent conflict in Kahuzi-Biega National Park is to demilitarize conservation, give the Batwa full rights to their ancestral forests and create community forestry projects. Some say the Batwa should be the ones to protect the forests from militias with some support by security forces.
However, as we wrote in our recent report published in Development and Change, we challenge this and see the reality of wider dynamics of armed conflict and violent resource extraction as leaving militarized conservation as the only feasible form of conservation enforcement in this particularly volatile high-value conservation area — though mechanisms to monitor park rangers and protect human rights need to be put in place by park managers.
While we recognize the injustice of militarized conservation in zones that aren’t affected by armed conflict, in Kahuzi-Biega National Park neither unarmed park guards nor the granting of regulatory responsibility to Indigenous and local communities would be able to protect the forest from the immense incentives that foreground violent extraction intensifying armed conflict dynamics.
Unarmed Indigenous and local forest protectors living in the park would be put in the line of danger against armed militias, while arming them would generate unintended consequences by increasing their power position in relation to other social groups as well as further spread weapons in the region. Already, some Batwa chiefs are involved in battles inside the park and militias utilize Indigenous anger against the park authorities to further gain access to resources.
Having locals living inside the park with support “by security forces upon request” also assumes all local people will be motivated to protect the park — even though recent extensive deforestation events for charcoal and timber in the park’s highland sector by Batwa communities suggest this is not always the case. In turn, given the region’s ongoing conflicts between members of different communities (for example, between Batembo and Bahutu social groups), the militarization of conservation “upon request” should be used with caution, as one group may use it strategically to gain the upper hand against another.
Militarized conservation as “fundamentally unjust”
Militarized conservation, some researchers argue, inevitably leads to gross human rights violations and the alienation of local communities. Furthermore, critical social scientists often assert that it focuses on the symptoms of illegal resource uses such as poaching and logging by Indigenous and local communities, rather than on addressing their fundamental causes, which are rooted in global inequalities and excessive resource consumption from the rich world. In other instances where militarized conservation takes place in zones of armed conflict, like Virunga National Park in the DRC and Benin’s W National Park, its critics contend that it exacerbates and entrenches violence and conflict dynamics, negatively impacting both human and environmental security.
These accounts tend to view all militarized conservation initiatives as the latest embodiment of fortress conservation, a model first established in the colonial era that depended on the separation of people from nature to create protected areas. According to a well-known book on the subject by Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees, this model has resulted in the displacement of millions of Indigenous people from their traditional lands, and provoked vehement resistance to conservation regulations by Indigenous and local people alike. Prominent conservation social scientists have thus said all militarized or fortress conservation is “fundamentally unjust.”
And a simplistic reading of the case of Kahuzi-Biega National Park vindicates these arguments. In this region, an Indigenous Batwa population who had traditionally protected their ancestral lands and forests was forcibly displaced to create the park in the 1970s, leading to the group’s deep impoverishment and marginalization. As a result, the Batwa resisted conservation rule and, as of October 2018, reoccupied parts of the park to rebuild their villages and practice a traditional way of life. In response, park guards working alongside the Congolese military engaged in a brutal campaign to expel the Batwa from the forest once more.
Minority Rights Group’s report details three military operations between 2019 and 2021, which targeted seven Batwa villages inside the park’s highland sector. According to the report, these operations resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Batwa, more than 30 cases of sexual violence, and the displacement of hundreds of Batwa from their villages inside the park. Separate research by the human rights network Institute for Equality (IfE) suggests as many as 29 Batwa were killed by eco-guards and government soldiers between 2017 and 2021 for venturing into the park to construct houses and gather food or medical plants.
Robert Flummerfelt, the author of MRG’s report, argues the action of the park authorities, their international supporters and the Congolese military are “illustrative flashpoints in the decades-long process of marginalization and brutalization visited upon Batwa in the name of conservation.”
The MRG report has been referenced in numerous online articles (here, here and here), on podcasts, in a short documentary, and on the websites of Indigenous and human rights NGOs. The message is clear: militarized conservation is a brutal and inhumane violation of Indigenous peoples’ identities, lifestyles and most basic rights. It must, therefore, be stopped.
While there is much to commend in the work of activists and NGOs to secure justice for Indigenous and other peoples adversely affected by conservation, a much more complicated story can be told about militarized conservation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and other protected areas located in regions of protracted armed conflict.
Conservation amid insurgency
In regions like the eastern DRC, militarized conservation does not only restrict Indigenous and local communities’ access to their land and resources. It also restricts the operations of non-state armed groups and violent resource extraction in order to secure national park boundaries and the biodiversity located within them. In such contexts, militarized conservation effectively takes place in a context where numerous activities are also highly militarized.
The territories of South and North Kivu that surround Kahuzi-Biega National Park have been the locus of virtually continual conflict and armed group mobilization since the 1990s. For instance, in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, members of the ex-Rwandan government and the Interahamwe youth militia took refuge within the park. The latter eventually went on to form the FDLR rebel movement, which wreaked havoc on communities across the eastern DRC, including those living around Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Over the course of the Congo’s conflict — which is little influenced by conservation policies — a variety of local defense forces formed in the region of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, including those associated with the Mai-Mai and Raia Mutomboki rebel movements. According to Kivu Security Tracker’s report, 15 armed groups operated in the vicinity of the park in 2020.
Some of these groups have sought to counter the influence of the FDLR, others opposed the influence of Rwanda in the broader region, while others formed to defend different ethnic and social groups during periods of severe insecurity. Over time, many armed groups developed an interest in the park’s resources, in particular minerals including gold, cassiterite and coltan, which a number of armed groups continue to mine inside its boundaries.
Looting, kidnapping, banditry and sexual violence have become commonplace at the forest’s edge. For instance, from 2019-2020, these conditions led thousands of people to flee their farms and villages in the locality of Kabushwa adjacent to the park’s highland sector in Kabare territory.
A non-state armed group led by an ex-army captain named Chance Mihonya had established its headquarters in the area, using the Batwa’s knowledge and anger against the park to gain access to the forest. Chance formed this armed group in 2019 after the Batwa returned to the forest, falsely claiming to be a Mutwa (the singular of Batwa in Swahili) in order to justify his mining activities inside the park. He was eventually arrested by a joint battalion of park guards and government soldiers and sentenced to life in prison for murder, rape, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the destruction of a protected area.
The Batwa cannot be viewed as separate from this broader context of conflict. They have at times been caught in the crossfire of battles between different armed actors when venturing into the protected area, occasionally causing some of the Batwa to flee from the forest for safety. While pro-Batwa NGOs and activists frequently frame all Batwa people as peaceful forest guardians, some Batwa chiefs, like Amani Douze, Kamola and Kasula, operating in the park’s highland sector adjacent to the Irhambi Katana and Kabare territory, have at points armed themselves, or collaborated with traders or other armed groups such as the Mai-Mai Cisayura and the group of Chance Mihonya, in order to secure territory inside the park or facilitate the extraction of timber and charcoal. Far from protecting their ancestral forests, their actions have contributed to extensive deforestation.
The armed groups do not only pose a threat to communities living around the forest. They also pose a threat to park guards, who are frequently shot at while on patrol. Even though park guards are themselves armed with AK-47s, this has not prevented at least five of them from being killed and many more from being injured since 2018. The total number of park rangers killed in recent years is likely to be even higher than this, but it is difficult to say how many because of the complex security situation on the ground.
We spoke to a group of eight park guards at a patrol post located the edge of the forest in July 2021. One of them had been kidnapped by an armed group and shot several times, another had been shot in the buttocks, and another lost his finger during an altercation inside the forest. They described how two of their colleagues were killed when ambushed by an armed group the previous year. Another guard was killed just last month, on May 10, 2023, while on patrol inside the park.
Rather than being a tale of repressive conservationists versus victimized Batwa, the reality of militarized conservation in this park resists neat categorization. Park guards represent but one armed group among a sprawling morass of armed actors, which have at points included members of the Batwa community, that vie for control of the park’s resources.
Where there are few options to be taken seriously by armed groups other than the threat of violence against them, sending unarmed park guards as some have suggested to prevent poaching, mining and logging by these militias would be both dangerous for the guards and an ineffective approach to conservation law enforcement.
As shown by satellite data from Global Forest Watch, the forest closer to park headquarters in Tchivanga, where park guards have a stronger presence and conduct regular patrols, remains relatively intact. On the other hand, extensive deforestation has occurred further south by armed groups, mining and farming activities and up north in the Kalehe region of the park’s highland sector where the Batwa established villages. These are where patrols have been significantly reduced since 2019 due to violence and insecurity.
A potential source of security for some
Although some academic and activist accounts are replete with cases where militarized conservation has led to injustice for local, particularly Indigenous, communities, there are also cases where it is seen as a provider of stability and security. This appears to be the case according to some of the people we interviewed in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Several non-Batwa peasant farmers living in villages at the boundary of the park’s highland sector in Kalehe territory viewed the fragmentation of the Congolese conservation agency’s (ICCN) authority in the area as coinciding with further insecurity, in particular by restricting their ability to live and practice farming at the forest’s edge. Under these conditions, they want more park guards and government soldiers to establish basic law and order in the area. For instance, during an interview, one peasant farmer living at the edge of the park’s highland sector in the territory of Kabare demanded that the ICCN “build patrol posts for park guards all around the park so that they can ensure the security of the surrounding population.”
On occasion, park guards have intervened to protect local people from looting by armed groups. For instance, in a village located next to the park headquarters in Tchivanga, an old man described to us how a park guard helped him when members of the FDLR group attacked his house. Although the man was shot, severely wounded and left disabled, he credits the park guard for saving his life: “He heard the FDLR soldier shoot me and then came out of his house shooting in the air to chase the soldier away. I owe that man my life!”
Our point here is not to downplay the violence that is produced by militarized conservation. We spoke to both Bantu and Batwa people who had suffered at the hands of armed park guards.
This violence was most clearly evident during the ICCN’s operations against impoverished Batwa communities who have resettled inside the park and individual Batwa while hunting and gathering resources from their ancestral forests. Their houses and farms had been burned and numerous Batwa killed, injured and raped. These violent experiences and their expulsion from their ancestral lands has led a large majority of the Batwa people seeing park guards in a negative light. Throughout the course of our research, we also uncovered several cases of non-Batwa peasants who had suffered similar abuses as a result of coercive conservation methods in and outside of the park boundaries.
However, the effects of militarized conservation on local livelihoods, as well as on wider dynamics of violence and conflict, are not simple or unidirectional. To the contrary, these effects are hugely complex and involve a variety of consequences for different social groups over different periods of time. Armed law enforcement operations might be viewed as a source of instability or injustice for some people, but they are also perceived by others as a contributor to security and a deterrent to the operations of non-state armed groups.
This finding is not entirely unique to our case. For example, Alice Kelly, then a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, found that residents near Waza National Park in Cameroon viewed armed park guards as having a role in providing security and protection from armed militia groups in the area. This complex dimension is, however, largely unanalyzed in the heated debates about the militarization of conservation.
Militarized conservation should not be discounted
Several commentators have called for the wholesale demilitarization of conservation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and other protected areas. Based on our research, we contest this sweeping request and question the feasibility of pursuing conservation through means other than militarily where armed conflict is so widespread and the state fails to secure territory.
Our goal is not to downplay the human rights abuses committed through militarized conservation. To the contrary, we see those abuses as detrimental to achieving the dual objectives of both social and ecological justice. We therefore urge park managers to urgently put in place mechanisms to monitor the activities and behavior of armed park guards, to report violations when they occur, and to train them in non-violent means of de-escalation. Whenever coercive force is used as a tool in conservation management, it must be underpinned by a thorough commitment to uphold human rights at all times.
However, even though they would likely rather find alternative means, park authorities must find ways to operate where multiple armed actors are engaged in violent resource extraction. In this setting, militarized conservation, just like poaching, is itself a symptom of a much deeper structural malaise, one that will not be solved by simplistic calls for demilitarization.
The research this commentary is based on is part of Fergus O’Leary Simpson’s joint Ph.D. at the University of Antwerp and Erasmus University Rotterdam. The Ph.D. was funded by Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO) and the field research upon which this article is based was funded by grants from FWO and Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad (VLIR).
Banner image: Kahuzi-Biega National Park rangers standing in formation in the park in October 2016, by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.
Read another perspective:
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at the history and social impacts of “fortress conservation,” its intersection with conservation militarization, and the violence endured by the communities who inhabit protected areas. Listen here:
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Simpson, F. O. L., & Pellegrini, L. (2023). Agency and structure in militarized conservation and armed mobilization: Evidence from Eastern DRC’s Kahuzi‐Biega National Park. Development and Change, 54(3), 601-640. doi:10.1111/dech.12764
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Simpson, F. O. L., & Geenen, S. (2021). Batwa return to their Eden? Intricacies of violence and resistance in eastern DRCongo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 1-19. doi:10.1080/03066150.2021.1970539
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