Conservation amid

Eulalie Bashige Baliruhya
describes an experience of protecting World Heritage sites besieged by a series of wars

Straddling the equator, with a range of ecosystems, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Its 2.3 million square kilometres glory in low-altitude tropical forests and rainforests, afromontane forest, open forests (such as miombo), savannah, and mangroves, as well as majestic waterfalls, hotwater springs, picturesque grottoes and idyllic landscapes.

It boasts 11,000 plant, 409 mammal, 1,086 bird, 1,069 fish and 152 snake species. Among them are such rare ones as the dwarf chimpanzee or bonobo, the mountain gorilla, the eastern lowland gorilla, the northern white rhino, the okapi, and the Congo peacock.

Conservation pioneer
The country is also proud to be a pioneer of African nature conservation. Its territory includes the oldest park in Africa, the Parc Albert (now the Virunga National Park) established in 1925, and it has given humanity the World Charter for Nature.

The Congolese Institute for the Protection of Nature (ICCN), established in 1975 – a unique example of the centralization and management of protected areas by a scientifically and technically oriented public enterprise – has a remit to:

  • protect the fauna and flora in the wildlife parks and other protected areas;

  • encourage scientific research and tourism in these areas while emphasizing the principles of conservation;

  • manage the data collection stations both inside and outside the parks;

  • ensure the socio-economic development of the communities in the protected areas in the interests of equity and security.

It manages seven national parks and some 30 hunting and wildlife reserves – of which 14 are operational – covering more than 180,000 km2, nearly 9 per cent of the country. Five of the protected areas have been raised to the status of World Heritage sites (see box) because of the wealth of their biodiversity.

The ICCN has encountered a range of problems in managing these areas:

  • commercial poaching (bushmeat, ivory, skins, horns and domestic pets);

  • lack of infrastructure, material and financial resources;

  • lack of training and human resources;

  • lack of management and development plans;

  • absence of community development policy;

  • difficulties in communicating and managing information.

On top of these traditional problems we are now faced with the aftermath of successive armed conflicts. Three of them – the 1994 inter-ethnic war in Rwanda; the civil war which resulted in the victory of the Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo which brought Laurent Désiré Kabila to power on 17 May 1997; and the continued violence of 1998 – have all damaged the efforts to conserve DRC’s rich biological diversity.

The civil war in Rwanda caused a tide of nearly 2 million refugees who literally marched over the Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks, poaching and causing immeasurable deforestation.

The conflicts of 1996 and 1998 exacerbated and enlarged the destruction of ecosystems, and led to illegal exploitation and systematic pillaging of resources both on land (such as coffee, timber, bushmeat, ivory, etc.) and underground (coltan, gold, diamonds). Weapons proliferated and ICCN guards and managers were murdered by marauding gangs.

To save the threatened World Heritage sites, the ICCN proposed a project to support the management of biological diversity in times of conflict to the World Heritage Centre. The four-year project has an overall budget of $4,180,957, of which the United Nations Foundation contributed $2,902,024. It aims to:

  • provide support for World Heritage sites in DRC: bonus payments to guards; equipment;

  • build capacity: train guards; strengthen anti-poaching law; bio-monitoring; community development;

  • provide political and diplomatic support for conservation through the international community: diplomatic missions to urge antagonistic regimes to cooperate and consider conservation sites as neutral areas;

  • seek funding for sustainable financing of conservation;

  • draft a document on the lessons learned about site management in times of armed conflict.

Lessons have indeed been learned. We have found that support given directly in the field is an efficient means of safeguarding biodiversity in times of armed conflict. Diplomatic missions have meanwhile made it possible to maintain contact between warring sides and achieve some unity in coordinating antagonistic governments.

There has been collaboration with partners that are already well established in different sites – with local knowledge and mechanisms for channelling funds to them – so as to make efficient use of funds. Meanwhile the ICCN and its partners endeavour to collaborate through consultation at both national and site level.

Last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg highlighted the biodiversity of the Congo Basin and helped to ensure the earmarking of funds to safeguard the region’s forests. But the crisis in DRC still requires further support for natural resource conservation from the international community.

The ICCN, backed by the Government, aims to increase the proportion of the country devoted to conservation to 15 per cent. Sites must be declared protected areas, including the forests of Lomako, Itombwe, Lomami-Lualaba and Ngiri, and the Ishango caves.

Laws, plans and partners
Meanwhile the organization is involved in updating the law on nature conservation, in developing a national conservation strategy and in drawing up protected area development and management plans. It has plans to restructure and to train its staff. With the renewal of bi- and multilateral cooperation, it will acquire more partners.

It is considering setting up a consultation platform, the Coalition for Conservation in the Congo (CoCoCongo), and a data management and cartography unit with a view to improving coordination with its various partners. It believes this will provide a new springboard, after the recent period of turmoil, for the sustainable management of the country’s rich biological diversity

Eulalie Bashige Baliruhya is Director General of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN).

PHOTOGRAPH: Lori Nichols/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature | Make parks not war

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: