The decision of the indigenous Batwa to reoccupy parts of eastern DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park by force shocked many outside observers. They were further shocked when the Batwa started to ally with rebel groups, traders, and illegal timber cutters in order to exploit part of the ancestral forest they had been forced to leave decades prior. In a recently-published article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Fergus Simpson and Sara Geenen show why the Batwa’s decision to return to the park should in fact come as anything but a surprise.
During the 1970s, the Congolese government forcibly displaced the Batwa people, a hunter-gatherer minority group, from eastern DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park (Barume 2000). In the decades following their displacement, the Batwa would secretly re-enter the park to collect firewood and food and to practice customary rituals. But after a 2018 attempt to buy them land outside the park failed, several hundred Batwa violently reoccupied parts of the park’s highland sector. Park authorities were quickly overwhelmed; a series of clashes has since claimed the lives of at least eleven Batwa, two eco-guards, and a government soldier.
Once back in the land of their ancestors, the Batwa formed alliances with armed groups, traders, and Bantu peasants to exploit the park’s natural resources both for personal consumption and for commercial purposes. Interviews conducted with local conservation NGOs has shown that this has led to the loss of hundreds of hectares of forest. In addition, through the abovementioned alliances certain Batwa chiefs have been able to assert strong territorial control over parts of the park and have become wealthy as a result.
The Batwa’s decision to forcibly reoccupy the park should not come as a surprise. Rather, it can be explained by three factors: 1) the failure to secure compensation and access rights to their ancestral lands through formal and legal channels, 2) an increase in threats to the Batwa’s dignity, identity, and livelihoods over recent years, and 3) the emergence of opportunities to forge alliances with more powerful actors in a way that consolidated the group’s power and allowed it to exploit natural resources contained within the forest for commercial purposes.
Slow violence and everyday resistance
The Batwa had been the custodians of Kahuzi-Biega’s forests from time immemorial. Yet in 1970, the Congolese government introduced a decree which would invalidate the Batwa’s customary land rights, transforming their ancestral forests into a place of strict preservation, scientific research, and tourism. During the 1970s, the Congolese conservation agency (at that time the Institut Zaïrois pour la Conservation de la Nature) worked alongside the national army to evacuate people from the area without prior warning; they would simply show up and say ‘this is no longer your home’.
The Batwa fled to live in squatter camps among other communities at the park boundaries and were forced to eke out a meagre existence by stealing from their non-Batwa neighbours. Although there were occasional opportunities to do piecemeal labour on the farms of wealthy landowners, discrimination based on ethnicity hindered the Batwa’s ability to find work. Their living conditions were poor, with substandard medical care, education and inadequate housing, as well as nutritional deficiencies, poor hygiene and a high mortality rate resulting from the lack of a proper diet and the absence of water and sanitation facilities.
The Batwa were not just deprived of their means of subsistence; they were also cut off from their identity as forest dwellers and their spirituality that is linked to nature. When they were separated from the forest, they became separated from themselves. This erosion of their identity and means of livelihood through dispossession can be seen as a process of ‘slow’ violence, which Robert Nixon (2011:2) describes as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not viewed as violence at all’.
Unsurprisingly, the act of dispossession and subsequent slow violence did not go uncontested. Due to the presence of armed eco-guards and severe punishments for breaking park regulations, the Batwa mostly opted against risky forms of overt resistance in the decades spent outside the forest. Instead, they engaged in what James Scott (1989) calls covert ‘everyday’ resistance. Often under the cover of nightfall, they would illegally enter the park to collect food and firewood and to practice customary rituals that not only helped them survive, but also to make continued claims of their ancestral rights to the park.
All that changed in October 2018 when the Batwa decided to return to the park en masse, unleashing violent clashes and a wave of environmental destruction in the process. Based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork from August 2019 to February 2020, we tried to understand what led the Batwa to reoccupy their ancestral land.
Peaceful strategies had failed to deliver change
In the decade before the Batwa returned, Minority Rights Group worked with the local NGO Environnement Ressources Naturelles et Développement to create a lawsuit against the Congolese government. A case was brought to Bukavu’s Tribunal de Grande Instance in 2008, after which it was transferred to the Court of Appeal in 2013. It proposed that the Batwa had been expelled from the park illegally and should receive land, financial compensation, and continued access rights to the forest. The case was dismissed on the grounds that it concerned a problem of constitutionality and should therefore be resolved at the national level.
Two more cases were brought to DRC’s Supreme Court in Kinshasa in 2013 and to the African Union in 2015; both remain pending. From 2014, Forest Peoples Programme also facilitated a dialogue process between the Batwa and park authorities to agree upon appropriate compensation and identify sites inside the park for the Batwa to continue cultural and subsistence activities. But negotiations broke down after ICCN repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises.
As a result of these failures, the Batwa came to distrust the NGOs that support them, pushing them a step closer toward violent reoccupation. The level of scepticism is exemplified in the statement of one Batwa chief:
An NGO invited me in several different meetings, but this NGO lies that they are going to plead for our rights and bring projects. They swallow the money and then claim in their reports that they are pleading on behalf of the Batwa!
An increased threat
In August 2017, in a prelude to the mass reoccupation, a Batwa man and his son went into the park to collect medicinal herbs and were shot by park guards on patrol, leaving the father wounded and his son dead. This provocation led to almost instantaneous uprising. The Batwa took the boy’s body to park headquarters in protest. As the hours passed, tensions increased. Some Batwa even started waving sticks and machetes, threatening to reoccupy the park.
In the months after the killing, a representative of the Batwa in Bukavu told me how an international donor attempted to buy land for the Batwa to settle on outside the park. But the director of a local NGO who received the money on behalf of the Batwa then proceeded to buy a house and a car with the cash. It was at this point that the Batwa decided to violently retake the land of their ancestors by force, feeling that they could trust no-one and had to rely on themselves to take back what they saw was rightfully theirs.
Alliances with more powerful actors
Both before and after the national election in December 2018, the Batwa took advantage of opportunities to form strategic alliances with more powerful actors to consolidate their control over parts of the park and extract its resources. First, they allied with non-state armed groups operating in the park’s highland sector. This provided them with access to weapons and soldiers to assert control over their reoccupied territory. The Mai-Mai Cisayura is reported to have helped a group of Batwa attack a patrol post in Lemera, killing one guard in the process. On the side of these armed groups, they claimed to be ‘helping the Batwa claim their rights’ as a way to legitimate their presence in the park and extract minerals.
Second, the Batwa collaborated with businessmen and politicians from the provincial capital Bukavu who typically control the region’s trade networks. Over several months, trucks filled with bags of charcoal and planks of wood could be seen leaving the villages on the edge of the park for urban centres in Bukavu and Kavumu. These alliances enabled the Batwa to sell the resources that they were extracting from the park and led to significant deforestation, which continues up to this day.
Third, the Batwa deepened their commercial relationships with Bantu peasants to access expertise, financial capital, and technology to exploit resources. One group of Batwa even started working with Bantus who own a chainsaw to cut wood inside the park. This ensured that they had enough power to maintain the occupation and that they could more effectively exploit and sell natural resources extracted from within the park.
Fighting against slow violence
The above observations all reveal that the reoccupation of the park by the Batwa followed decades of slow violence, manifest in the gradual erosion of their group identity and sense of dignity. It also reveals that the event should not be considered surprising, as numerous related events led up to it. The sudden transition of the forest from a protected to an exploited zone raises further questions about whether the exclusion of indigenous groups from protected areas can have the perverse effect of severing their relationship with the land they once conserved, which in the case of Kahuzi-Biega National Park led to both large-scale deforestation and violent clashes.
Based on our research, we argue that a better understanding of the factors which push communities from covert resistance toward overtly violent forms of contestation against conservation could help prevent the social unrest and environmental destruction we have seen in Kahuzi-Biega over recent years from being repeated elsewhere. Such knowledge could also be used to inform a contemporary conservation movement that is more environmentally sustainable and socially just for future generations of indigenous people.
 The park, which extends over 600,000 hectares, is home to the endangered eastern lowland gorilla and 13 other species of primate. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site mainly because of the diverse mammal and bird species it houses.
Barume, Albert Kwokwo. 2000. Heading Towards Extinction?: Indigenous Rights in Africa : The Case of the Twa of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. IWGIA.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbsgw.
Scott, James C. 1989. ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 4 (1): 33. https://doi.org/10.22439/cjas.v4i1.1765.
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About the author:
Fergus Simpson is a Joint-PhD student at the University of Antwerp’s Institute of Development Policy (IOB) and the ISS funded by FWO. He is also a member of the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) at the Université Catholique de Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His research focuses on the intricacies between environmental conservation, armed mobilisation and conflicts surrounding natural resources in eastern DRC’s South Kivu Province.
Sara Geenen is assistant professor in International Development, Globalization and Poverty at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp, Belgium. She is co-director of the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI) at the Université Catholique de Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her current research interests lie in the global and local development dimensions of extractivist projects, addressing questions about more socially responsible and inclusive forms of globalization.
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