Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. The park’s 7800 square kilometers (3000 square miles) includes forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.The northern sector’s defining feature is the Rwenzori Mountains that border Uganda. At over 5000 meters (16,400 ft), the summits of the Rwenzoris are permanently snow-capped. Snowmelt from the Rwenzoris is one of the primary sources of the Nile River. Okapis can be found living along the Semliki River valley below.(1)
In August 2017, three park rangers were killed in an attack on their position in the northern sector by Mai-Mai militia.
The CREDDHO (Center for Research on Environment, Democracy and Human Rights) is concerned about the illegal distribution of plots of land in Virunga National Park (ViNP), an area protected by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). It is intolerable and inconceivable that this World Heritage is prey of land grabbing practices. Certain farmer organizations are manipulating communities and distributing them land within the boundaries of this protected area.
The last case is the one observed in the localities of Butuka Kitaghu / Bulongo, Kyavikere / Nzelube, Kinyatsi, Hululu and Kilya, where certain local community members, unaware of the legislation, were trapped by men encouraging them with false promises to farm within the boundaries of the protected area Virunga National park; this illegal practice was also denounced by the ICCN in its recent statement on the sale of land in the Park (source).
These so-called organizations have already distributed members cards to about 50 potential beneficiaries of plots of land removed from Virunga NP in the localities of Kinyatsi, Hululu and Kilya .
In other areas, particularly in Muramba, Museya and Mayangose near Mangolikene, land distribution seems to be facilitated by some local chiefs and dignitaries, in complicity with armed groups.
It should be noted that this situation is a bottleneck not only for investment, nature conservation but also for the development projects initiated in this area by the ICCN and its partners. It increases the insecurity with the presence of Mai-Mai militias who take themselves as “”warlords”. They kill rangers, threaten environmental defenders and profit from the illicit exploitation of natural resources and from the illegal sale of land in and around Virunga National Park.
Another rural commune, close to the park, Kasindi is not spared from this illegal practice. In this specific case it is more a form of mismanagement. In this area we can find part of the cemeteries located in the Congo Ya Sika district. This land was granted by the ICCN to the neighboring communities to avoid the destruction of the park. Today part of this land is used for farming activities in favor of people considered as internally displaced persons, with the risks that in the long-term these displaced populations will, take the land and expand into the protected area; this could aggravate land conflicts in this area, as stated by one of the local ViNP managers who shares the same fear as the CREDDHO.
In view of the above, CREDDHO denounces these illegal practices and:
- Discourages any kind of actions taken by these farmer organizations to manipulate the communities, pushing them to the illegal exploitation of this protected area in the Virunga Landscape;
- Urges the Congolese Justice to prosecute, without complacency, these organizations and their representatives involved in these bribes, considered as economic and environmental crimes;
- Pushes for a closer collaboration between the ICCN and other Environmental actors involved in the conservation of the Virunga landscape;
- Recommends that Virunga surrounding communities remain vigilant and not to be led into the destruction of Virunga National Park, whose conservation is intended to contribute to their development. This said, CREDDHO recognises the high level of vulnerability and poverty in which many of these communities are found.
CREDDHO calls on all the stakeholders to support community conservation and environmental protection actions; to work for the restoration of a climate of peaceful coexistence in this protected area and the Virunga landscape and recalls the respect for the legal regulations and human rights for the safeguarding of this Natural World Heritage for the whole humanity.
Source: The CREDDHO – No. 011 / CREDDHO / FS / COORD / 09/2017 – unofficial translation