Rainforest communities living around Central Africa’s largest national park have been subjected to murder, gang-rape and torture at the hands of park rangers supported by funding from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and a range of international donors, an investigation by the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) has found.
RFUK’s investigators found evidence of widespread physical and sexual abuse being inflicted by ‘eco-guards’ employed by the Salonga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Serious incidents in recent years include two cases of gang rape, two extra-judicial killings, and multiple accounts of torture and other forms of mistreatment committed by park guards.
Around 700 communities, with several hundred thousand inhabitants, live around the park, which is becoming increasingly militarised through anti-poaching initiatives run by the Congolese protected area authority, ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature), sometimes in collaboration with the Congolese army. Since 2015, WWF has been responsible for the park’s management, with the financial support of various international agencies, including the European Commission.
Many communities now living outside the park were evicted from their lands when Salonga was established in 1970, and banned from accessing their ancestral forests, which they depend on for survival. These communities report widespread malnutrition, which they overwhelmingly attribute to conservation-related restrictions on traditional hunting and fishing activities.
“It is common for women who venture into the park to be raped, and men face extortion and torture”, a villager from Bongila, on the park’s boundary, told RFUK’s research team.
The alleged abuses in Salonga are just the latest to be documented by RFUK and more recently by Buzzfeed, which exposed similar concerns about ‘fortress conservation’ projects across Africa and Asia this week.
“These reports provide a snapshot of a wider problem of human rights abuses in and around rainforest protected ares across the Congo Basin and other rainforest regions. They must be investigated, the perpetrators brought to justice, and the victims compensated. International donors need to put rigorous systems in place to ensure such abuses are stopped and that the conservation projects they fund do not harm local people and to publish the results of any investigations into conservationist abuses,” said RFUK’s Executive Director, Simon Counsell.
“Conservation organisations have so far failed on their long-standing commitments to respect human rights. Conservation needs to engage local communities, not terrorise them, if it is to be successful and sustainable,” Mr Counsell concluded.