Trouble in Virunga: the challenges of conservation amidst violent conflict

This is the post excerpt.

This blog post I wrote together with Blaise Muhire and Judith Verweijnen was originally posted on the website of the Congo Research Group, and the Congo Siasa blog by Jason Stearns.

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

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.


Why fighting fire with fire in DRC’s Virunga Park isn’t helping conservation

This blog was originally published in The Conversation

Judith Verweijen and Esther Marijnen

Conserving nature in areas immersed in prolonged violent conflict is challenging. One such area is the Virunga National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The park management tries to face these challenges head-on with the aim of protecting Virunga’s rich biodiversity. In particular, the survival of the well-known endangered mountain gorilla is at stake.

It would be wrong to question the objectives, dedication, and sacrifices made by the park management and staff. Many rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty. But based on our research in the region, we have doubts about the effects of the park’s current policies on conflict and violence in the wider Virunga area.

As we show certain conservation practices – like strict law enforcement to combat illegal resources exploitation by armed groups – can inadvertently aggravate violent conflict. They may, for example, reinforce the links between populations and the armed groups on whom they depend for their livelihoods. This undermines conservation efforts in the long-term.

Devising alternative policies for addressing armed groups is no easy task. But as we discuss in a recent article, there’s remarkably little debate on this issue. The media and policymakers pay limited attention to the effects of the park’s policies on the dynamics of violent conflict. In fact, the dominant story line is that the Virunga National Park contributes to peace building. But the reality on the ground is much more complex, as we discovered talking to people who live in the area.

Battling armed groups

A plethora of armed groups operates in and around the Virunga National Park. Their presence isn’t specific to the park: tens of dozens of armed groups roam the eastern Congo, reflecting a militarisation that has become self-sustaining. But there’s a particularly high concentration of such groups in the park.

It provides cover and access to populations and natural resources needed to generate revenue. For instance armed groups are engaged in facilitating charcoal production, poaching, illegal fishing, and “guerilla agriculture”, or cultivation where it’s forbidden.

The effects of these activities on Virunga’s biodiversity are devastating. Illegal fishing contributes to the rapid depletion of fish stock, not least as it often takes place in the waters where fish breed. Charcoal production, for its part, is at the root of intense deforestation, which has grave consequences for the entire ecosystem.

But while depleting the park’s resources, thousands of people living in the Virunga area depend on illegal resources exploitation for their livelihoods. They pay armed groups to access the park and protect such revenue generating activities. The resulting links between people and armed groups complicate efforts to tackle illegal resources exploitation.

As we discuss in recent work, the park management tries to address armed groups by collaborating with the Congolese army. So park rangers conduct joint operations with army soldiers to push armed groups out of the park. As a result, conservation has come to merge with counter-insurgency. But this approach is counterproductive.

The park management tries to address armed groups by collaborating with the Congolese army, this approach is counterproductive. Author supplied

Clashes in the park

First, the operations are not part of wider political and socio-economic measures to deal with armed groups. Thus far the Congolese government has failed to develop such measures. This means that the armed groups are temporarily dislocated, rather than dissolved. The result is a vicious cycle of attacks and counter-attacks between armed groups and the mixed units of park guards and army soldiers. This rising violence doesn’t only increase the insecurity of inhabitants, but also puts the lives of the park guards further at risk.

Second, the tensions sparked by the operations seem to drive people closer to armed groups, causing the park guards in turn to develop growing animosity towards them. Because populations depend on illegal revenue generation activities in the park, and no alternative livelihood activities are offered after the operations, people feel they have little choice but to solicit the protection of armed groups to re-access the park.

Third, the operations feed into conflicts over land, local authority and between different communities. In the Rutshuru area, for instance, tensions between Hutu and Nande populations have intensified over the past months. This is partly due to military operations by the Congolese army against a Hutu armed group that operates in the park.

Any attack against an armed group alters the fragile power equilibrium between armed groups, allied elite networks, and associated civilian communities which often have the same ethnic background as armed group leaderships. So efforts to push armed groups out of the park risk setting in motion a chain of reactions that may spiral out of control.

Dominant stories

It’s widely reported that the Virunga Park is plagued by armed conflict. But this reporting often echoes heart of darkness clichés or simple storylines pitting bad guys (savage rebels) against good guys (usually the park guards and staff). These narratives are rarely accompanied by indepth reflections on the causes of the violence, which tend to be simply ascribed to resources plunder.

Also, by stressing that Virunga is the most dangerous park in the world to work, it becomes taken for granted that conservation has merged with counter-insurgency.

Attention to spectacular figures like the heroic park guards and evil rebels overshadows attention to the people living in or along the borders of the park. Their voices are rarely heard. But their accounts give a different picture than mainstream representations and show how people are suffering under the rising insecurity.

Another reason why the park’s current policies aren’t questioned is that donors and the park management have institutional interests in diffusing a seductive “triple-win rhetoric.” They emphasise that the park promotes at once conservation and development as well as peace building. This would prove that Virunga is an area that works compared with the rest of the DRC, which is viewed as a “failed state”. Such narratives of success ensure that aid, mainly coming from the European Commission, and donations continue to flow.

The current park management is based on a public private partnership (PPP) between the Congolese state agency for nature conservation and a British NGO, the Virunga Foundation. The NGO has assumed full responsibility for the park’s management. As it’s a European NGO who supervises the park guards -– who moreover have received military training by former Belgian commandos -– western audiences appear to ask less questions about the ways in which violent force is employed and how this affects conflict dynamics and people’s security.

So the blind spots in the complex interplay between conservation and violent conflict stem to a large extent from deeply rooted unequal power relations between the North and the South. These inequalities cause certain narratives, policy options and voices to be heard, and others to be excluded. This means that the decolonisation of nature conservation is a precondition for its demilitarisation.