The Kahuzi-Biega National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a destination for many tourists to see the subspecies of gorilla Gorilla Gorilla beringei graueri, known as the eastern lowland gorilla and which only lives there, is a frequent scene of killings and human rights violations against the indigenous Batwa people. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Batwa were evicted from their land in 1970 when the National Park was created and have been living on its boundaries ever since, totally marginalised and without support from the authorities. However, other Batwa groups have moved into their original territory in order to survive, and park rangers and military units are massacring an unarmed civilian population and committing aberrations against the true owners of the land who have lived there for millennia without endangering any species or the ecosystem.
Survival International, in a press release, presents a devastating report published by Minority Rights Group International, entitled “To Purge the Forest by Force: Organised violence against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park”. The report is very detailed. The field research lasted nine months, between October 2020 and December 2021. The investigative team spoke to more than 590 sources, including 550 eyewitnesses to the violent joint operations by rangers and the army from July 2019 to December 2021. This included hundreds of Batwa civilians who fled afterwards after their villages were attacked, eight had visible injuries, and 13 women described being raped by rangers and soldiers. Eyewitnesses overwhelmingly describe a higher number of women in gang rapes. The report evidences the deaths of at least 20 members of the Batwa community, with many more likely to have been killed. The physical remains of villages shelled and strafed against unarmed civilians were verified and a variety of ammunition was recovered, including a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) container, a fully intact 60 mm mortar, as well as another mortar cap and dozens of shell casings from rounds used in AK-47s for automatic rifles and belt-fed PKM machine guns.
According to the above report, a joint operation was carried out with the army and rangers, opening indiscriminate fire on Batwa civilians with heavy weapons, forcing them to flee at gunpoint. In 2019 and 2020, more than 50 Batwa were arrested on charges of “illegal occupation of the park”, when it was a land where they had lived before there were countries and borders. In 2021, there was another attack on those who had not left the park, again by rangers and soldiers. This attack was more vicious than the previous one. They shelled villages, opened fire with automatic rifles on unarmed civilians, threw them to the ground and subjected the Batwa to acts of severe violence. The rangers and soldiers, the report continues in its opening pages, raped nine Batwa women, one of whom was 17 years old, for about an hour, tying them up and holding them on the ground in front of several park guards and soldiers, in a group of an estimated 20, and raped them. Two of them died days afterwards.
The aforementioned Investigation team visited the freshly dug graves of several children burned alive inside a house. Trophy mutilations were also described by eyewitnesses. In addition, the same team interviewed several rangers and soldiers who participated in this siege of Batwa village.
The first part of the report concludes that these events have contributed to the further fragmentation and oppression of a marginalised and subjugated indigenous people in decades of dispossession, cultural erasure, grinding poverty, death and discrimination on the outskirts of the park. Beyond the violations of the rights to life, liberty, security of persons, property, housing, effective remedy, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, discrimination of their collective rights to ancestral lands and resources, the violence organised by forest rangers with the support of their international sponsors and the Congolese army, all of this undoubtedly constitutes a serious violation of the rights to life, liberty, security of persons, property, housing, effective remedy, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, discrimination of their collective rights to ancestral lands and resources; all of which undoubtedly constitute crimes against humanity, including through widespread and/or systematic acts of murder, rape and persecution in pursuance of state policy.
The Park receives funding from the US and German governments and other international agencies including conservation organisations.
This genocide of the Batwa people in Graueri’s gorilla habitat is unacceptable and goes against all conservation principles and international law. What is stated in the published report, from which we have only collected a few data, is only the tip of the iceberg of what is currently happening to many indigenous peoples around the world. An ecosystem cannot be protected at the cost of the violation of human rights, of the expulsion from their lands in a genocide that is consented to and that becomes a crime against humanity, permitted by governments and the international community. At the Great Ape Project, we not only fight for the protection of the great apes’ habitat, but also for the protection of the native peoples who are the true guardians of our ecosystems. The park rangers are there to protect biodiversity, but also the culture of their people. The business of visiting the gorillas to see them in the wild has become an accomplice to the murder and rape of the Batwa people. Not a single euro of the amount that tourists have to pay to see them is destined for the Batwa, who are dying of hunger and disease, despite the fact that they are the millenary owners of the park.
For all these reasons, Project Great Ape (PGS) has joined Survival International’s campaign against converting 30% of the planet into “Protected Areas” by 2030, recognising instead the territorial rights of indigenous peoples as a more effective way to protect the environment.
The Great Ape Project also demands that the international community, the countries that finance the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, conservation organisations, tourism operators and the governments of Spain and the DRC should see:
- That the hostilities and human rights violations against the Batwa people cease immediately and that they be allowed to live on their ancestral lands.
- That the United Nations and the DRC open an investigation and arrest all those responsible for the murders, rapes and attacks with heavy weapons on the Batwa villages.
- The immediate cessation and prosecution for crimes against humanity of those responsible for the National Park, the rangers and the army units involved in the massacre of the Batwa.
- That the competent authorities urgently provide health care, food and reconstruction of their burnt villages.
- That the new people in charge of the park, once the responsibilities of the previous ones have been cleared, establish agreements with the Batwa people, respecting the biodiversity and culture of their people.
- That part of the benefits obtained from tourism be returned to the Batwa people.
- That a representation of the United Nations monitors the agreements and the protection of the Batwa.
- The withdrawal by UNESCO of the Park as a World Heritage Site while the siege and expulsion of the Batwa from their lands continues.
- That the countries or conservationist institutions that finance or support the national park cease to do so as long as the human rights violations against the Batwa continue.
- That the European Union support the rights of the Batwa and demand that the DRC respect their culture, their lands and their lives.
- The cessation of international aid until the facts are clarified and those responsible are arrested and brought to justice.
- The immediate closure of the National Park until an agreement is reached with the Batwa people and the expulsions and the violation of human rights cease.
- To ask the Tour Operators to withdraw the gorilla visits to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park from their offers until the Batwa return to their lands, until they are respected, until the necessary investigations have been carried out to arrest all those guilty of murder and rape, and until those responsible for the National Park and the park rangers and soldiers who have participated in the genocide of the Batwa are arrested and brought to justice.
That the Spanish government intervene to protect the Batwa people and ask the DRC for immediate clarification of the facts.
These demands are necessary and essential to clarify this crime against humanity. If they are not heard, all the above-mentioned actors will be accomplices to genocide and human rights violations against the original Batwa people.