A civilian peacekeeper explores the role of biocultural rights and responsibilities in achieving reconciliation and a lasting peace in conflict areas.
It was with some trepidation that, in April of 2016, I set foot in Bunia, the capital of the Congolese province of Ituri in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Seen from the plane, just a few minutes before landing, the town had seemed small, surrounded by an endless sea of bush, with the faint glimmer of Lake Albert in the distance.
Ituri had been the scene of an interethnic conflict in 1999 to 2003, followed by years of violence fueled by armed militias. Even long before this deterioration of security, however, the province had already been weakened by a myriad of conflicts related to land and the boundaries between the communities’ traditional territories, as well as disputes over administrative boundaries, mining rights, protected areas, hunting grounds, and more. Land disputes existed in the precolonial era, but according to local sources they were usually resolved through customary law. In colonial times, this balance was broken. Belgian officials evicted natives from their homelands to set up a system of plantations, while favoring certain communities at the expense of others.
Land disputes existed in the precolonial era but were usually resolved through customary law. In colonial times, this balance was broken.
The legacy of these policies is still being felt today. Complex interactions between local communities, chiefs, politicians, and local business elites lie at the core of land conflicts, making them hard to resolve. Ituri continues to experience tensions between pastoralists and farmers, particularly Lendu smallholders and Hema business people who own large agricultural estates on which they both raise cattle and grow foodstuff commercially. Decades of festering disputes over land and mutual accusations of armed violence have left deep scars on each community. In the absence of a truth and reconciliation process, many wounds have not healed.
As a civilian peacekeeper, I had come to the Congo with the noble goal of protecting civilian populations against armed violence, but the reality of the situation hit me hard.
As a civilian peacekeeper, I had come to the Congo with the noble goal of protecting civilian populations against armed violence, but the reality of the situation hit me hard. Over the months to come, daily attacks by armed groups against innocent villagers would become the norm, leaving a trail of rape, death, and destruction in their wake. Faced as people were with such predatory attacks, the public demand was clear: physical security. Yet, in a country in which the state could hardly exercise effective authority and institutional and political dysfunctions were the norm, people often had to fend for themselves, especially in the rural and remotest areas. As the UN team and its Congolese partners in the province worked tirelessly to help Ituri communities overcome their differences and restore peaceful relations, it quickly became clear that sustained engagement with public officials and community leaders was vital to address a situation that was more complex than anticipated. It was a humbling and challenging experience for an outsider like myself.
The joint efforts of the United Nations and Ituri leaders had entrained a process aimed at strengthening peace among communities and building trust between citizens and public institutions through dialogue, sensitization, and cooperation. Nonetheless, despite a relative improvement of the overall situation in the province, relations between the Hema and Lendu, the region’s two main ethnic groups, remained fraught with suspicion. Suddenly, by mid-2017, a series of attacks by CODECO (a coalition of armed militias that claimed to represent Lendu interests) ignited tensions. By early 2018, attacks on villages caused thousands of ethnic Hema people to flee. Since then, various community-based militias have plunged Ituri into chaos, and the death toll continues to rise.
Yet, despite years of suffering, communities remain aware of the risk of manipulation by warmongers and unscrupulous politicians. Committed to peace, they refuse to be played off against one another. In this sense, the engagement of the provincial, sub-provincial, and customary authorities and the support of the United Nations remain crucial to keep all channels of dialogue open and sustain goodwill. In the meantime, however, the armed groups have taken the population hostage.
Decades of instability have also been detrimental to local ecosystems.
Decades of instability have also been detrimental to local ecosystems, causing near-extinction of many animal species, depletion of fish stocks, overexploitation of forests, and contamination of waterways. Protecting the Congo’s biodiversity remains a difficult and risky endeavor, given chronic insecurity and social collapse. The large-scale devastation of Congolese land, rich in minerals, precious wood, and wildlife, is relentless. While militiamen and poachers put the lives of rangers and communities at risk, conservation authorities remain under-resourced. Artisanal mining encroaches onto protected territories, and elements associated with the national armed forces are illegally exploiting and trafficking natural resources.
This is notably the case with the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Ituri forest, home to nomadic Pygmy hunter-gatherers (Mbuti and Efe) and Bantu farmers. A unique sanctuary famed for the eponymous okapi and other endangered species, this UNESCO World Heritage Site occupies one-fifth of the Ituri forest and is one of the largest wildlife conservation areas in the country. Yet, it is far from immune to the ills that continue to plague Ituri and other resource-rich regions of the Congo: the plight of Indigenous populations (the Pygmies), local conflicts related to natural resource use, attacks by community-based militias (armed groups locally known as Mai-Mai), illegal mining by Chinese operators, and more. The depletion of Lake Albert, located between the DRC and Uganda, is another case in point. Africa’s seventh-largest lake, once known for its wide variety of fish, now faces the consequences of overexploitation and illegal fishing by local communities.
After sixty-two years of independence, the DRC is still undergoing dramatic change, and the upheavals of the last two decades have frayed the fabric of Congolese society. The situation is extremely volatile. It’s not just about the death toll and mass rapes; it’s also about the tragedy of forced displacement and destruction of livelihoods. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee organization, in Ituri alone over 1.5 million people have fled their homes over the past six years. In eastern Congo, communities move to other locations to avoid the risk of physical extermination. Living in survival mode, both the displaced and the host communities develop coping mechanisms that are not necessarily sustainable. In a context of ongoing instability, extreme poverty pushes people living in rural areas to do whatever it takes to support themselves. Combined with rapid urbanization and a fast-growing population, such factors are bound to affect the way in which people relate to their environment and their biocultural heritage.
In a context of ongoing instability, extreme poverty pushes people living in rural areas to do whatever it takes to support themselves.
After decades of armed violence, brutal rule, and social disintegration, exploring the role of rights and responsibilities in achieving a biocultural resurgence may seem counterintuitive in a place like the DRC. Yet, might taking responsibility for preserving biocultural diversity provide an entry point for conflict resolution and the pursuit of positive peace?
In my view, until a fully functioning state is capable of mediating conflicts and providing basic services to the citizens, peacekeepers should place the emphasis on achieving land use agreements as well as resolving the countless disputes over boundaries between communities. Given that peacekeepers’ capacity is stretched to the limit, while local authorities have traditionally had a crucial role in conflict resolution, disputes should be prioritized and tackled by local experts, with the authorities in the lead and the United Nations only providing support as appropriate.
Any search for a lasting solution lies in addressing the root causes of each conflict as they relate to land use, sustainable management of natural resources, and respect for the biocultural environment.
At the same time, it would also be necessary to tie peacemaking efforts to the sustainable use of ecosystems, the protection of biodiversity, and the preservation of biocultural heritage. With so much at stake — security, livelihoods, lifeways, ecosystems — for millions of people not only in Ituri but also in the Kivus or in the Kasai region of south-central Congo, any search for a lasting solution lies in addressing the root causes of each conflict as they relate to land use, sustainable management of natural resources, and respect for the biocultural environment. Doing so may allow Congolese peace actors and their partners to help communities articulate their interests and reconcile their differences.
Admittedly, such an endeavor may take years, if not decades, and is beyond the mandate and capacities of a UN peace operation. Also, it would require close collaboration between Congolese experts, customary authorities, and local peacemakers. Yet, by structuring negotiations, rules, and sanctions according to the local context, stakeholders could be held accountable and encouraged to adhere to sustainable practices.
Engaging Congolese citizens in the conservation of the country’s rich biocultural diversity should serve as a basis for national recovery. In practice, however, as long as security conditions deteriorate in a country often presented as a prime victim of the resource curse, establishing an “environmental peacebuilding” framework will remain daunting. The question persists: how can we realistically expect people to exercise their biocultural responsibilities in situations in which their most basic rights are suppressed and their protection is not even guaranteed?
How can we realistically expect people to exercise their biocultural responsibilities in situations in which their most basic rights are suppressed and their protection is not even guaranteed?
Arguably, customary governance systems, limited means of communication, and geographic isolation have helped maintain traditional ways of life in most parts of the DRC. Customs and memories of past events are relatively well-preserved in oral tradition, but for how long? I heard local chiefs and public officials deplore the fact that the memory of historical peace agreements between communities (in particular, those sealed through “blood pacts,” a traditional form of covenant) was quickly fading away. They worried that in this very young country (an estimated two-thirds of the Congolese population are below twenty-four years of age), the new generations would not learn from past mistakes and would forget their roots. Some Congolese observers note that a declining knowledge of history, customs, and values has caused an identity crisis among the youths. Could new forms of deculturation and a relative decline of traditional authority have contributed to the “normalization” of violence in Congolese society?
Restoring local-level mediation mechanisms could help avert community conflicts. Peacebuilding efforts necessarily involve revitalizing customary chiefs’ conflict resolution and resource management roles. Even if customary authorities alone cannot compensate for the shortcomings of a failing government, their legitimacy and influence still make them relevant players. In addition to enabling consensus-based solutions, this approach provides the additional advantage of geographic proximity and linguistic access for populations whose vernacular tongues are the main mode of communication.
My years in Ituri led me to ask myself questions about the links between environmental, cultural, and linguistic diversity. I felt, albeit confusedly, that these were elements that mattered. I wondered to what extent a long history of violence had impacted the way people related to their natural and cultural heritage. I offer no diagnosis, but I wish to share this lesson: If you want to understand the people you are mandated to serve, in particular the most vulnerable groups of society, you must look beyond the immediate political and social aspects of conflict resolution and consider the wider picture. Accomplishing this requires developing an appreciation of the populations within their own context and of the way in which they value their environment, their history, and their culture.
I believe that it is essential for peacebuilding, as well as for humanitarian and development aid, to consider how programs and policies emphasizing principles like “resilience,” “inclusiveness,” and “sustainability” may apply in the local context and be expressed in local languages and in accordance to local cultural practices. To do so, we must first strive to understand the norms and habits of the communities we aim to serve. The question of identity is central, as people’s sense of identity comes from belonging to a group and having an emotional bond with their biocultural environment. Acknowledging notions related to collective identities and biocultural heritage is crucial to understand the context fully and to properly address the needs of populations.
A comprehensive and holistic approach to peacebuilding should emphasize the importance of healing both individuals and the environment affected by conflict. By addressing the emotional and physical scars of conflict and promoting environmental restoration, peacebuilders can contribute to the long-term well-being and resilience of communities affected by violence. Such an approach recognizes the interconnected-ness between human beings and their environment, paving the way for sustainable peace and reconciliation.
Paulin Regnard is a peacebuilding specialist. He worked in UN peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, South Sudan, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This story is mostly based on his fieldwork in Ituri Province, eastern DRC (2016–2019).