On 6 April 2022, Minority Rights Group (MRG) International published a report documenting the use of murder, rape, torture, and eviction against the Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega in Eastern DRC.
In a partial response to the report, a ‘mixed independent commission’ was established. The Batwa have denounced this ‘mixed investigation’ into the issues the report raises, viewing the investigation as not independent and fearing that it is further endangering Batwa lives. Additionally, no Batwa were approached or asked to be part of the commission.
In the MRG report, allegations were made that agents of the Congolese army and the National Park have committed appalling abuses against the Batwa, and the Batwa assert that the report is a true account of what they have experienced.
More than 100 people from Batwa communities around the Park have signed a declaration demanding that the people responsible for “heinous acts” against them be brought to justice.
The Batwa Declaration, sent to the Director-General of ICCN, on April 27, 2022, states:
“We disavow this commission which is neither neutral nor impartial. The results that will emerge from this investigation will only be in your own interests”
The Batwa denounce the ‘dismissive reaction’ of the Congolese nature conservation authorities to the report. As well as this, the community members point out that a commission composed of one of the institutions accused of the crimes (ICCN) and a conservation organization that has a formal financial relationship with that institution (WCS) will be neither neutral nor impartial.
“How could you conduct an investigation into serious crimes in which you (lCCN-PNKB) are yourselves involved? Why have you chosen to associate in your commission – only a conservation organization, who is your partner anyway?”
Batwa Declaration sent to the Director-General of ICCN, April 27, 2022
The declaration further points out that the investigation is having the effect of creating greater fear among the Batwa communities, and individuals have fled into hiding as the investigating commission tries to identify those who had testified about the abuses. These community members have experienced intimidation from the security services that appear to be directly linked with the investigation.
FPP shares the communities’ real concerns that this investigation is not independent and may be used to dismiss the serious allegations about human rights abuses that have been perpetrated on Batwa communities for the last three years.
The fundamental problem behind both the MRG report and the subsequent investigation is that the Batwa have nowhere to go. They were expelled from their ancestral land to create the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and decades later, the Congolese government is still unable to find anywhere suitable for them to live. In their statement, they ask for the immediate creation of a mixed commission between the ICCN/PKNB and the Batwa to work on allocating part of the land within PKNB to the Batwa.
Through this collaboration, the Batwa could return to caring for their lands and ensuring their protection.
Instead of being in conflict, the communities and the conservation bodies could be allies in protecting this invaluable ecosystem for current and future generations.
The ‘mixed independent commission’ was established including people from the national Congolese conservation agency (ICCN), GFA (a German forestry programme funded by KfW who also fund PNKB directly), the World Conservation Society (WCS – now joint park managers of PNKB), and the lead researcher into the report.
The original MRG report identified a pattern of violence and intimidation used against the Batwa between 2019 and 2022, and how it expressly focused on deterring Batwa people from returning to their ancestral lands from which they were expelled to make way for Kahuzi-Biega National Park. It identified that both the Congolese army and the conservation authorities were complicit in the violence and that, despite having frequently been alerted to the abuses taking place, neither institution nor the funding or technical partners supporting them, had taken any steps to investigate or address them.
In reaction to the report, Kahuzi-Biega National Park initially announced on its own website that the report was false, without providing any evidence. Since then, ICCN has put together this “mixed investigation” that includes ICCN, WCS (who have recently signed a Public-Private Partnership that establishes them as the new managers of PNKB), GFA (which is a forest association funded by the German development bank, KfW, who also finances PNKB), and, as the only independent individual, the lead researcher on the original MRG report. The communities have pointed out that there are no members of the commission that are from any of the affected communities and that they have not been shown the terms of reference for the investigation.
A final aspect of the declaration which is particularly powerful – and which illustrates the ongoing systemic marginalization of the Batwa – is the communities’ demand for access to land. As they point out, this is the fundamental problem with which they are confronted. They have been landless ever since they were evicted from their lands. Despite promises, they point out that “the Congolese government has been unable to find land for us outside the Park”. Their demand is for a mixed commission to work on allocating land to the Batwa inside PNKB.
We indigenous Batwa have learned with great astonishment the establishment of a so-called commission to investigate the serious violence perpetrated against our Batwa brothers and sisters in the National Park of Kahuzi -Biega (PNKB) between 2019 and 2021.
Indeed, you will remember that during the above-mentioned period, serious atrocities were committed against the Batwa living inside of the PNKB. The testimonies of our victimized brothers and sisters show that the armed forces of the DRC and the eco-guards of the PNKB are responsible for these crimes, as attested moreover in the recent report of Minority Rights Group International (MRG).
How could you conduct an investigation into serious crimes in which you (lCCN-PNKB) are yourselves involved? Why have you chosen to associate in your commission – only a conservation organisation, who is your partner anyway? Is the presence of one independent foreigner sufficient to ensure the commission’s impartiality? Why did you not want to share with your victims the terms of reference of this mission? How do you explain that after the announcement of your commission of investigation some of our leaders and some victims have been the target of threats and intimidation by the security services and are now forced to live in hiding? We therefore disavow this commission which is neither neutral nor impartial. The results that will emerge from this investigation will only be in your own interests.
We repeat our request to see all the authors of these heinous acts to be stopped and brought to justice as soon as possible, as we have indicated in our statement made by us in Buhoyi/Kalehe on 13 April 2022.
Regarding the problem related to the lack of land, with which we have been confronted for several decades now, we ask you to constitute immediately a mixed commission (ICCN/PNKB and Batwa) which will work on the allocation of part of the land within PNKB to the Batwa , given that the Congolese Government has been unable to find land for us outside the Park.