Democratic Republic of Congo

Once ‘Masters of the Forest,’ DRC’s Pygmy Community Is Being Forced Out of National Park

Despite a 2022 law that protects indigenous land rights, evictions from Virunga National Park leave little access to traditional ways of life.

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Once ‘Masters of the Forest,’ DRC’s Pygmy Community Is Being Forced Out of National Park

Illustration by Matt Haney, GPJ

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Until June 2022, Biranda spent most of his days surrounded by the whispers of trees. He was born and raised inside Virunga National Park and, for most of his life, has found little need to venture into the outside world.

“The atmosphere [is] so good,” says Biranda, who requested to be identified only by his surname for fear of retribution.

The park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — boasts the greatest biodiversity of any park in Africa, with about 2,077 plant species, 218 mammal species and extremely fertile land. In it are savannas, plains, swamps, unique vegetation, two of Africa’s most active volcanoes and the endangered mountain gorilla.

This rich ecosystem has always sustained Biranda and members of his community; it is their primary source of livelihood.

Biranda’s daily routine was always the same. He would wake up, put on his boots, and spend the day scouring the park for honey, edible herbs and medicinal plants. For the 51-year-old man, a day in the park was like a day in the market. He could find most of what he needed there. From what he remembers of his childhood, there was never a shortage of food, given the park’s rich biodiversity. There was meat aplenty, he says. His parents were expert hunters. In the evening, the whole community would sit around a fire. Adults would drink kasiksi — a local brew made from honey or banana — and keep the children busy with stories.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

But Biranda and other members of the indigenous Pygmy community in Democratic Republic of Congo no longer have access to this idyllic life and the land that was once their home.

In June 2022, park rangers from the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the state agency that oversees Virunga National Park, expelled him, his family and other members of the community from the park, plunging him into a world he knew little about.

Just a month after these evictions, in July 2022, President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo signed a law to protect the indigenous Pygmy people. The law acknowledges the discrimination indigenous people have faced over the years and grants them key fundamental rights, including the right to their land and natural resources. It is the first law in the country to recognize the rights of indigenous people.

But over a year since the president signed the law, the Pygmy community is still being evicted from and denied entry to the park, leaving them with no land rights nor access to their traditional way of life and struggling to access food.

“I’d give anything to go back,” Biranda says.

Biranda’s Pygmy community is part of a larger community of hunters and gatherers believed to have first occupied the Great Lakes region of central Africa. They are spread across Uganda, DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, according to reports by Minority Rights Group International, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of minorities and indigenous people.

In DRC, they are between 600,000 and 700,000 in number, according to a 2019 Equator Initiative report, in a country of around 100 million people, per 2022 World Bank data.

While these communities share ancestry, their names vary depending on location. In DRC’s North Kivu province, for example, they are the Batwa or Bambuti. In Central African Republic, the Baaka live in Lobaye forest. Regardless of location, these communities face discrimination, human rights violations, lack of food, lack of land rights and marginalization by other groups and national policymakers.

In DRC, they continue to grapple with displacement without compensation from what they consider ancestral land. It is a pattern that, according to reports, has its roots in colonial DRC, when the Belgian colonial government began establishing parks such as Virunga National Park and Kahuzi-Biega National Park, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“There are still obstacles to overcome.”Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochthones

Rubin Rashidi, member of Parliament for Kindu town, the capital of Maniema province, in eastern DRC, says these persistent evictions compelled him to support the law on the protection and promotion of the indigenous Pygmy people in Parliament. He says he wanted members of this community to live in a world where they did not feel threatened.

“Pygmies in North and South Kivu in Democratic Republic of Congo are threatened with eviction from their ancestral lands and harassed, arrested, beaten, tortured and even killed,” he says.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme, the process of drafting and passing the law involved consultation with Pygmy communities across the country and indigenous groups in neighboring countries such as Central African Republic. Civil society organizations also engaged legal experts and international human rights bodies, and lobbied legislators to defend the bill in Parliament.

Among the guarantees of the law, which took effect in February 2023, is that there will be no relocation of indigenous communities without their “free, informed and prior consent,” which should come with compensation in land or equivalent resources decided by the community. The law’s successful implementation hinges on the collaborative efforts of the central government, the provincial governments and the decentralized territorial entities.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

While a big step, it will take time for the law to yield results, says Patrick Saidi, coordinator of the Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochthones, a network of civil society organizations that advocated for the law. He points out that simply passing it was a difficult process.

“We knew that there were many people who would, for example, benefit from the eviction of the Pygmies, because they might need to use their land for commercial purposes,” he says.

Saidi adds that they will keep working to ensure that indigenous peoples enjoy their rights and are no longer evicted without consent. However, he says, it will require long-term financial, technical and political commitment and support, both nationally and internationally.

“There are still obstacles to overcome,” he says.

For successful implementation, Rashidi says that all political partners, as well as the public, must be involved.

“Indeed, having the text is one thing — enjoying the rights it contains is another,” he says. “Unfortunately, I can say that the proper implementation of the law will take longer, perhaps a year or more.”

"We’re just masters of the forest because it’s our home."

Biranda says he is unaware of this new law but welcomes it all the same. What he knows is that life has changed for his community, now restricted to Muja, a village at the edge of Virunga National Park. About 20 makeshift huts, made of wood and covered with old canvas, dot the village.

With no other means to earn a living and unfamiliar with the terrain, those living in the villages are forced to sneak back into the park to find what was once readily available. Each trip is a test of how well they can outmaneuver the ever-watchful ICCN rangers. It helps that they know the park well and know where to go, even at night.

“We don’t have any special tricks. We’re just masters of the forest because it’s our home,” Biranda says.

Biranda’s wife, Iramba, who also requested to use her surname for fear of retribution, always accompanies him. Like many members of her community, she understands the park’s unique biodiversity. Once inside, her first task is to find food, such as vegetables, for their five children. Then she looks for medicinal herbs for her 4-year-old daughter, who suffers from stomachaches.

“My daughter has been constipated for two days and has no appetite. I know which herbs will help her feel better,” she says.

Even with their time-tested knowledge, there is always the risk of encountering ICCN rangers. Biranda says that now, they travel in groups of five to protect each other, machetes in hand. If rangers catch them, they fear they will beat or arrest them.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

Biranda remembers an encounter in September 2022. He was among a group that had spent the day in the park, gathering food. On their way home, they encountered park rangers who accused them of killing monkeys, then arrested them.

“Of course, we were innocent. We didn’t kill the monkeys. We just went to get herbs for medical treatment, but they didn’t believe us,” he says. They weren’t charged. After three days in jail, the rangers gave them an ultimatum, with a warning to never return to the park.

In a written response to Global Press Journal, Virunga National Park spokesperson Olivier Mukisya said they did not have a record of the arrest of Biranda and members of his community.

However, he said that rangers will sometimes arrest people to protect the park, as mandated by DRC law, but they are expected to treat them with sensitivity. Most of the people intercepted for illegal activities are escorted out of the park and released without charge, but with an explanation for why they were escorted out and the illegal nature of their activities. According to Mukisya’s statement, repeat offenders or those who have committed more serious offenses are referred to the courts.

Mukisya says, “The law in question was established to protect indigenous communities, not to create a basis for the destruction of natural habitat for illegal purposes by rural populations entering the park from outside its borders. If you can access satellite images from 10 years ago, I think you’ll find that there were no permanent settlements or agricultural activities at that time in this area of the park.”

But Patient Nkulu, a lawyer in Goma, says that while the park is a protected site and should not be inhabited, even by those who were born there, such as the indigenous Pygmy people, the law requires that they be consulted before evictions.

“They should also be involved in the management of the park,” he says, “because their daily contact with the forest gives them in-depth knowledge of its natural resources — knowledge that can be used to conserve it.”

“We ask the authorities to let us live peacefully in our forest.”Pygmy community leader

Bonane Muhindo, a Pygmy community leader, says the continued evictions from Virunga National Park violate the community’s fundamental rights. The Pygmy people are accustomed to living like their ancestors by hunting and gathering, he says. But now, they are finding it difficult to cope in a world that is alien to them, surrounded by people who discriminate against them daily.

“We don’t know any other life than the forest. Our medicine, what we eat, what we drink, everything we need comes from the forest,” he says. “We ask the authorities to let us live peacefully in our forest, because it is our home.”

He adds that every time the government, in collaboration with the ICCN, evicts the community, they only tell them where to settle, without any efforts or resources to help them adapt to their new surroundings. It’s why they always end up returning to the park, where they risk being evicted again and again.

Like Biranda, Muhindo was forced out in 2022. The eviction was brutal, he says. “Since we don’t normally have many belongings, everyone took their few clothes and kitchen utensils and went to the nearby village here in Muja, where we [have] struggled to integrate with the local community.”

"I had to fight to survive in an environment that was new to me."

ICCN rangers evicted Karoli Mbusa and his family from the park two years ago. He says he has done everything he can to begin a new life outside the park. He rents a small two-bedroom house in Mabanga neighborhood, Goma town, where he lives with his wife and five children.

To make money, Mbusa wanders the streets of Goma, a bag of traditional medicine on his back and a battery-operated microphone in hand. He uses the microphone to call attention to his medicine. Having lived most of his life in the park, he knows plenty about traditional medicine — what it does and where to find it.

“When we were evicted, some of us wanted to resist and stay in the park, but I decided to leave and settle with the other inhabitants. It wasn’t easy at first because I had to fight to survive in an environment that was new to me, but today I have integrated,” he says. “Every time I pass by, people call me ‘Mbuti’ [mockingly], but I don’t mind, as long as they buy the medicine I offer them.”

While Mbusa has heard “rumors” about the law, he isn’t sure if they are true.

“If it turns out to be true and is implemented,” he says, “I will be happy to return to the forest and continue my research into traditional medicine in peace.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct a reference to North Kivu, which was previously misidentified. Global Press Journal regrets the error.

Noella Nyirabihogo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.

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