Straddling Equateur and Bandundu provinces on the eastern flank of the Congo River, the 741,000 hectare Tumba Lediima Reserve is an area of undoubted biodiversity value.
It harbours important populations of bonobos and some of the most important swamp forest on the planet.
But conservation measures are having serious impacts on the local population, including severe restrictions imposed on forest-based livelihoods and widespread reports of human rights abuses by ‘eco-guards’.
Meanwhile logging companies have been granted access to the reserve, with three concessions covering around half of it.
So what’s gone wrong and is this part of a wider problem?
The absence of consultation and participation
A recent review of the reserve by WWF, the lead technical agency for the reserve, and the Congolese government’s Nature Conservation Agency, ICCN, was unable to point to evidence of any consultation with the local population having taken place prior its creation in 2006.
This is particularly baffling given that the reserve is occupied and used by more than 100,000 forest-dependent people, who have demonstrated very long standing and well-defined customary claims over nearly the entire area.
Local NGOs CADEM and GASHE have found confusion among the communities about the limits of the reserve and what activities were permitted, when and where. This is perhaps not surprising given that, ten years in, there is still no management plan for the area.
Human rights abuses and malnutrition
CADEM and GASHE have also documented numerous incidences of beatings, torture and even rape at the hands of certain eco-guards, and local people accuse them of extortion and racketeering.
So severe has been the impact of conservation enforcement on the local population, preventing subsistence hunting and fishing, that in 2010 the local authorities called in the World Food Programme to provide supplements following a spike in malnutrition. Following protests, eco-guard patrols were suspended by the Provincial Minister for the Environment, in 2014, but appear to have resumed in late 2015.
The ICCN director for Equateur province, Bantu Watumba, has acknowledged the failings on Tumba Lediima:
“The consent process was not done properly. ICCN already knows this. One of the supporting partners has acknowledged this publically. Ultimately it [this approach to conservation] has led to a botched process.”
But where does responsibility for this lie? WWF has denied blame for the problems in the reserve, pointing instead to ICCN.
Ultimate responsibility does lie with the state institution, but WWF was the driving force behind the creation and management of the reserve and has mobilised millions of dollars from international donors including USAID, KFW, and Norad to support its work there.
Moreover, that WWF was apparently unaware of the alleged human rights abuses until 2014 when local people were able to formally voice their concerns during meetings organised by the NGOs (in the local town of Lukolela on 24-25 March and in Kinshasa on 5 November) raises serious questions about its internal safeguard policies.
What’s next for Tumba Lediima?
The WWF/ICCN review comes after a three-year struggle by local communities and NGOs to address the impacts of the reserve and to seek a way forward.
The review sets out a number of scenarios for the reserve ranging from maintaining the status quo to total or partial declassification to accommodate the three logging overlapping concessions or, more promisingly, the establishment of community conserved areas.
Yet the review doesn’t go nearly far enough. The 198-page document devotes not even a page to the allegations of human rights abuses, and proposes no process through which these issues could be resolved or what should happen next.
The review was funded by the same three international agencies that have funded the reserve to date.
Joe Eisen, Research and Policy Coordinator at Rainforest Foundation UK, argues that,
“A necessary first step would be to remedy these past injustices by investigating and holding to account those responsible for the alleged abuses. A consultation process concerning the future of the area should then start from scratch, involving all stakeholders and carried out according to international norms on Free Prior and Informed Consent, land tenure and participation.”
An isolated case or symptomatic of wider failings in the protected area system?
It is of particular concern that the review omits any analysis of WWF’s own role in Tumba Lediima’a failure or of relevant international norms on human rights, FPIC and land rights.
It raises the prospect that these mistakes are being repeated in other protected areas in DRC (and indeed the wider region), where local communities may not be sufficiently empowered or resourced to hold conservationists to account.
A recent study by the Rainforest Foundation UK based on a sample of 34 protected areas across Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo found that in the majority of cases local and indigenous communities’ rights to lands, livelihoods, participation and consultation were consistently neglected, and their most basic human rights violated.
Protected areas currently account for 11% of the national territory with legally binding plans to increase this to 17% by 2020. Lessons must quickly be learnt.