In Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, park guards and Congolese soldiers, with support from Conservation International, launched a brutal three-year campaign to violently clear the park’s home of the indigenous Batwa people. That’s according to a new report by Minority Rights International, a London-based human rights group.
With the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and USAID, Congolese security forces destroyed villages, killed at least 20 residents, collectively raped at least 15 women, and killed hundreds of women in their name. Batwa Displaced Conservation and Protection of Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB). The Batwa are an indigenous people with communities throughout Central Africa and have inhabited what is now the PNGB area since ancient times.
The report said the funding, material support and training provided by international organizations and U.S. agencies violated UN Security Council arms embargoes and other international laws. Minority Rights International also claimed that groups and agencies were aware of the attack on Batwa that took place between 2018 and 2021, but did not take any action.
Lara Dominguez, acting director of litigation for Minority Rights International and an attorney representing Batwa, said the report helps illustrate fundamental problems with the global model of protection, which she says is fundamentally racial ism, did not lead to any real protection.
“PNKB’s donors and international partners have flagrantly disregarded international law and the rights of the Batwa,” said the report’s author, Colin Loma. “This raises serious doubts about the willingness of these actors to put human rights at the centre of their protection efforts.”
The park was established by Belgian decree in 1937, when the country was still a Belgian colony. But even after independence, the newly formed Democratic Republic of Congo chose to expel the indigenous Batwa community from the park’s boundaries at the behest of Belgian environmentalist Adrien Deschryver, who lobbied the government to expand the park. Batwa received neither land compensation nor new housing. Instead, they were forced to settle on the outskirts of the park, where they faced persecution and discrimination. An estimated 50 percent of the population died within two decades of eviction.
“Death has been behind us since we were evicted from our land,” said the Batwa community leader at the time. “We are burying people almost every day. Villages are becoming empty. We are heading towards extinction.”
In October 2018, fed up with decades of persecution and distrust, Batwa began to return to the forest. But the response was swift and brutal: In February 2019, the Park Guard began working with the Congolese military, coordinated by General Charles Mundos, who was sanctioned by the UN Security Council in 2018. In April 2019, PNGB Director De-It was reported that Dieu Bya’Ombe had given a public ultimatum to all Batwa people in the park to either leave or be killed.
Since then, the report’s authors have documented three waves of violence and displacement: the first in July-August 2019, the second in July 2021, and the third in November-2021 December. The report described it as “escalating terrorism and violence aimed at driving the Batwa from their ancestral homeland and preventing their return.”
According to the report, the attack involved a joint contingent of park guards and Congolese army soldiers using mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to destroy the village. They also had Batwa women raped en masse at gunpoint, burned Batwa alive, and dismembered their bodies. At least 20 Batwas were reported to have been murdered in these attacks, according to eyewitness accounts of Batwa and the Park Guard. The true number is probably much higher, as many Batwa fled into the forest and were never seen again. It is believed that they may have starved to death.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to improve park enforcement and wildlife safety. WCS has partnered with Maisha Group Limited, a private security company founded by Israeli special forces operatives, to provide training through 2017. About two months after the August 2019 attack, WCS brought a law enforcement advisor to the park to train park guards in weapons, fight and patrol.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is subject to a legally binding arms embargo by the UN Security Council, which means member states providing “assistance, advice or training related to military activities” must notify the UN. The UN Security Council, which was not notified of any of these activities, reported that the Wildlife Conservation Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife violated the arms embargo.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park is a popular tourist destination, with tourists from all over the world paying more than $1,000 per person for safari tours to see gorillas. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is recognized as a special habitat for tropical rainforests and gorillas. The UNESCO citation says: “Although most of the property is inhabited, some villages were included in the park when it was expanded in 1975, which created disputes with local residents. These issues must be addressed to enhance the effectiveness of conservation actions. “
The Wildlife Conservation Society is a nonprofit organization that owns or supports parks and conservation projects around the world. In the US, this includes the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, and the Central Park, Queens and Prospect Park Zoos. In 2020, WCS apologized for its long history of racism and promised to do better.
In a statement, WCS said: “We strongly disapprove of any allegations of alleged abuse described in the WCS engagement report. We believe that all of our activities within and outside the KBNP contribute to this goal and are constructive, And fully respect the rule of law and human rights.” The statement also accused the minority rights group of “substantial false accusations,” including any support or training of the military.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife said “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes all allegations of human rights violations seriously” but did not respond to specific allegations about its role in the violence. A spokesman for USAID said they were concerned about the situation and needed to take concrete steps to address the park’s management challenges. USAID also said its support for the PNKB ended before the alleged incident.
Lara Dominguez said the violence against Batwa by the international community was an indictment of the way many conservation programs operate. “There’s actually no interest in keeping myself informed about the local situation,” she said. “What I see is a culture of willful blindness and reasonable denial.”
Minority rights groups international report that Batwa remain displaced and face poverty and persecution.
*correct: This story originally used the wrong Wildlife Conservation Society name in two instances.