Human Rights and Protected Areas

Looking at Kahuzi Biega National Park in the DRC
Indigenous people in Kalonge village near the park
Photo: © Joseph Itongwa (REPALEF DRC)

To improve the living conditions of the population while promoting respect for human rights, including those of indigenous peoples, has been a stalwart principle of German Development Cooperation from the onset of the engagement in forest and biodiversity conservation. At the same time, international human rights standards and BMZ’s development policy requirements continue to evolve.

Meanwhile, Germany’s support to nature conservation through protected areas in the Congo Basin has come under increased scrutiny by human rights organisations and members of parliament in Germany. Against this backdrop, SNRD Africa member projects in the region have dealt intensively with the topic in the past year and have exchanged on experiences jointly with KfW looking at six key human rights issues demanding particular attention.

Human rights issues that demand particular attention

  1. The right to free, prior and informed consultation or consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples
  2. Other forms of participation and co-determination, including complaints mechanisms
  3. Resettlement and restriction of the use of natural resources (physical and economic displacement) resulting from the establishment and management of protected areas
  4. Rebuilding the livelihoods of the local population, including compensation arrangements
  5. Human rights violations in the context of combating poaching and law enforcement
  6. Handling historic injustices concerning the establishment of protected areas (e.g. lack of consultation, lack of support for rebuilding lost livelihoods) that still affect the present situation

The Congo Basin is one of the most challenging environments for supporting the realization of a human rights-based approach that promotes the conservation of biodiversity as well as the rights of indigenous peoples’ and local communities to economic, social and cultural development, participation and access to justice.

Group picture of the dialogue between the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and communities, especially indigenous peoples in the presence of the Director General of ICCN and other provincial authorities
Photo: © Joseph Itongwa (REPALEF DRC)

Example: Kahuzi Biega National Park in the DRC

The Kahuzi Biega National Park (PNKB) in the Democratic Republic of Congo can serve as an example. The park was established in 1970 with an area of 60,000 ha by President Mobutu, who expanded it in 1975 giving it a total area of 600,000 ha. In 1980, PNKB it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, since 1997, it has been on the list of sites in danger, amongst others, due to the armed conflicts prevalent in the eastern part of DRC for more than two decades.

The relations between the responsible park administration of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the local communities have always been marked by latent tensions, particularly due to the expulsion of the indigenous and local population during the extension of the park without any compensation for loss of land or resource access. Yet, the important role played by local communities during the war in conserving park property and the assistance provided by the park administration to the affected population have also contributed to building trust to some extent.

Unfortunately, since August 2017, relations between the PNKB and indigenous peoples have deteriorated considerably. That goes back to the death of a young indigenous Batwa who died from gunshots fired by an ecoguard during a patrol in the park. Since then, both the ecoguards and indigenous peoples have suffered several deaths, which each side attributes to the other. A reflection of this situation is the occupation of some areas of the park by indigenous groups since August 2018. Although incidents are reported and complaints have been lodged with the competent local judicial authorities, the follow-up of these cases is of mixed quality. The indigenous population is under the impression that decisions are taken in favour of ICCN leaving them even more marginalized.

Actions of the BGF

In view of this very worrying situation, the Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Forest Management Programme (BGF) has initiated several actions to help ease tensions between the PNKB park administration and indigenous groups.

  • Setting up dialogue platforms between Indigenous Peoples (IPs) and PNKB administration: A workshop supported by German Development Cooperation in September 2019 resulted in a ‘Bukavu Declaration’ signed by the conflicting parties, in which they commited themselves to work together to restore peace and peaceful coexistence between ecoguards and IPs for the conservation of the outstanding biological values of PNKB.
  • Continued support to the implementation of ICCN’s community conservation programme enabling PNKB officers to interact with community governance structures, in which IPs are represented, on conservation and local development issues. One of the main objectives of this support is to improve the consideration of IPs’ interests within these governance structures.
  • Capacity building for indigenous communities through their own associations to ensure that they are able to know their rights and defend their interests without having to go via intermediaries.
  • Advisory support to the development of a grievance mechanism accessible to the local population: As a first step, a typology of existing conflicts between stakeholders has been elaborated to better understand those issues that can be addressed by such a mechanism.
  • Enhancement of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) through the identification and recognition of potential sites. BGF is also supporting the discussion on ICCAs at the national level, and raising awareness among stakeholders on the subject to find appropriate community governance and management models for these forest areas.

Addressing systemic deficiencies

Aware of the limitations and operational challenges development cooperation faces in addressing systemic deficiencies in partner countries in the region, a number of avenues have been identified. They need to be further explored to make conservation measures more equitable and accountable, more collaborative and rooted deeper in local communities. Amongst others, there is a need to support the development and implementation of grievance mechanisms adapted to the local context, and to enhance the diversity and quality of governance models for improved ownership of the local population in nature conservation and sustainable natural resource management.


Kirsten Probst (FMB, Eschborn) and Danièle Fouth (BGF, Kinshasa)