In 2003, in front of a Congressional Committee, one of the United States’ most acclaimed conservationists pleaded for government support for protection of the wildlife of Africa’s rainforests. Talking of the success that the U.S. itself had had with preserving its ‘wild’ places in National Parks during the early 1900s, the speaker said that “My work in the Congo Basin has been basically to try to bring this U.S. model to Africa….”
But something important was missing from this vision, both in terms of what was intended for the Congo, and what had happened in the US in the past: people. Many of the areas set aside as America’s National Parks had, in fact, been systematically depopulated of their indigenous human inhabitants before they became ‘wildernesses’. Similarly, in the Congo Basin rainforests, as RFUK’s extensive community mapping over 15 years is showing, there is probably very little forest that is truly uninhabited, or that hasn’t been used in some form for hundreds of years. The conservationists’ requests to the US Congress were nevertheless successful; since that time at least $150 million in US government funding has gone towards the Congo Basin’s national parks and nature reserves, covering many millions of acres.
But in a new study resulting from two years of investigations and hundreds of discussions with people in the region, we have found that many of these strictly protected areas are causing serious conflicts with local people, and are even of questionable value in terms of safeguarding wildlife. Of the 34 strictly protected areas we have assessed, there has been displacement of local people in at least 26, and conflict with them in at least 21 parks. And whilst the region’s rural people – probably numbering millions in total – are being turned against conservation, wildlife continues to decline, as the forest’s customary guardians are forced out, leaving space for highly organised and heavily armed, large-scale, commercial poachers.
In western DR Congo, the two million acre Tumba Lediima Reserve was designated in 2006, though the area was inhabited by more than 100,000 people. The restrictions on hunting and fishing imposed by ‘eco-guards’ became so serious that by 2010 the United Nations had to be asked for emergency food aid to stop people starving.
In our view, the present approach to protecting the wildlife of Africa’s equatorial rainforests is unsustainable, is failing, and needs to be completely re-thought. A more sustainable form of conservation would, we believe, look to work with local communities rather than against them. It could seek to incorporate traditional systems of forest and wildlife management into protected areas’ regimes. It must serve to give people a long-term stake in the future of the lands that they inhabit, rather than dispossess them.
Even in America itself, the “US model” of depopulated ‘wilderness parks’ has proven ecologically problematic. In central Africa, it is an aberration which could actually hasten the end of the region’s fabulous wildlife.
To view our short film about Conservation in the Congo, please click here.
The full study can be downloaded here.