All is not well in the Virunga Natonal Park
The Virunga National Park was created in 1925 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Alongside essential conservation work, the Park says it’s committed to supporting local communities and has a vision for responsibly harnessing the Park’s natural resources to create new opportunites for the four million people that live within a day’s walk of its borders. Virunga says it aims to foster peace and prosperity through the responsible economic development of natural resources.
Its creation required the contribution of the indigenous people who agreed to leave their ancestral land. Naturally, the indigenous people are essential partners in the protection of the region’s ecosystems. Their voice is vital in the fight against the exploration and exploitation of oil in the Virunga Park which has a negative impact on the environment surrounding the drilling areas.
However, all is not as it should be.
Sadly, it seems that over the years the indigenous population, in particular the Pygmies, have been largely excluded and forgotten. Not involving the Pygmies in the protection of the area has led to conflict between the National Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and its indigenous people.
Access to forests is essential for Pygmies to survive as they need to hunt game, fish, gather fruit, honey and firewood. The current situation faced by Pygmies doesn’t give them a choice – they have been forced to illegally exploit the resources of the Virunga National Park.
The indigenous people, Pygmies in particular, are not getting the support they need, and deserve, from the ICCN. They are not being informed about their rights and benefits, nor educated about how they can contribute to protecting the Virunga National Park and, crucially, the ICCN is not involving them in community development projects that would have a positive impact upon their lives and ability to provide for their families and make them less dependent on the Virunga Forest.
Instead, ICCN eco-guards are arresting Pygmies for exploiting the resources of the Virunga National Park, the consequence of which could jeopardise efforts to protect this global site. Once in custody, we understand ICCN is currently transferring detainees to a military prison where the conditions of detention are extremely inhumane and degrading, torture is commonplace, fair justice is almost impossible, and visitors have to pay if they wish to visit their loved ones.
Although there are a few projects being carried out in villages and towns bordering the Park that benefit some of the regions indigenous population it’s not enough. Currently, there are none that integrate the natives in the southern region from Mugunga (Goma) to Mubambiro (Sake).
The government must be persuaded to help the indigenous people, in particular Pygmies, who live around the Virunga National Park as they have a right to a peaceful existence.
For Barbara asbl
Paul Lughembe, Coordinator and World Animal Day Ambassador DRC