By Marine Gauthier and Riccardo Pravettoni
“The conservation of this forest will be done with us, or it won’t be done at all,” says Baati Gozi Irangi, a Mbuti pygmy and community leader in reference to the conservation of the Itombwe Nature Reserve in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Officially gazetted in 2006, the boundaries of the Itombwe Nature Reserve and the management of the forest from the perspective of conservation, sustainable use, and human development have been subject to fierce debate and endless controversy.
As the DRC Government, conservation organizations and other local actors debate how best to protect Itombwe, this pygmy group opted against passively observing from the sidelines. “We were afraid that they would steal all of this (land and source of livelihood) from us. So we met and decided that we’re not going to let this happen,” recalls Marie, a timid woman of Kital Village, located in the north of the Mountains in the South Kivu Province of the DRC.
By dint of force, these communities have succeeded in winning the right to participate in the creation of a new reserve project, rather than see their lands confiscated by international conservation NGOs and agents of the state. As a result of a recent investment of $300 million by a consortium composed primarily of European countries, including the UK, coordinated efforts are now in place to save the forest of the Congo Basin and find new ways of protecting these lands without damaging the communities which are dependent upon them.
“We’re not going to let this happen.”
Reaching the Itombwe forest and its people isn’t easy. A muddy path from Bukavu, the region’s capital, traverses this mountainous region, crossing on its way a multitude of armed militias. Accessing the region is difficult for anybody: the resident NGOs working to intervene in the area, but also the merchants and miners who hope to benefit from the coltan, gold or wood to be found there. In the heart of the second largest forest basin in the world, an incomparable wealth of biodiversity has been preserved through the ages: one still finds elephants in Itombwe, along with rare trees, tropical birds and the last gorillas on the planet.
But the mountain range is rapidly changing. International pressure on natural resources, fueled by the country’s runaway economic and population growth, and consequent appetite for exploitable land, have begun to take their toll on the forest. At the same time, following the complex and violent war in neighboring Rwanda in the 90s, and successive rebellions against the Congolese government, the forest of the Congo Basin has become host to myriad rebel groups which hide in the mountains and live off of the illegal exploitation and trafficking of its natural resources.
Map of the Itombwe Nature Reserve in DRC. Credit/Riccardo Pravettoni
“The state is itself a threat to our forests: it is they who make a complete mess of things by handing out timber licenses. They give them to anyone willing to pay, and we see these people come and cut down our trees with impunity. They cut down our medicinal trees (and with them, the bark and fruits used for our medical treatments), they cut down our caterpillar trees, our oil trees.” Irangi, a Bambuti pygmy in his 30s, lives on the edge of the Itombwe Reserve. With despair, he has watched as his trees have been chopped down for charcoal to be sent to Bukavu and neighboring Rwanda, both hungry for resources. “These people come with their weapons and take everything: the trees, the animals,” Irangi explains, “They even kill species whose hunting we forbid, like the pangolin and the gorilla. Because they have weapons, they believe that they’re above our laws. We also know that our subsoil is rich,” he continues, “One company has already come to dig for gold. If we don’t protect our forest, more aggressors will come and invade our lands. This is why we have to conserve it.”
Confronted with this situation, the government of the DRC decided in 2006 to create the Itombwe Nature Reserve, supported by the WWF and the WCS, two large conservation NGOs. Drawn up on paper, the reserve delineated an area of 15,000 square meters within which all human activity was to be forbidden – a square which recalls the many African borders determined in offices rather than on the ground, and which rarely correspond to local realities. The forest sectioned out by this square doesn’t simply contain wild flora and fauna. It is also home to indigenous people, the Bambuti, of which Irangi is a part. The Bambuti have lived and depended on for their survival upon this ecosystem for millennia. And they weren’t about to pack up and leave. “When we learned that the reserve was created we were angry,” recalls Marie, a timid woman who is nonetheless deeply proud of her village of Kital in the north of the mountains.
“Would you be happy if you found out that the land on which food is grown, derive medicine and on which your ancestors were buried was about to be taken away? We were afraid that they would steal all of this from us. So we met and decided that we’re not going to let this happen.”