By Chris Lang
One night in late January 2020, dozens of soldiers and eco-guards stormed into Jean-Marie Kasula’s hut and dragged him and his wife away at gun point. Four other people from the same village were taken away barefoot.
Kasula is the chief of the Indigenous Batwa village, Muyange, which is on the edge of the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Less than a week after the arrests, the Bukavu Garrison Military Court convicted eight Batwa people and sentenced them to 15 years in prison.
Writing in the German newspaper taz, Simone Schlindwein points out that since 1986, the German bank KfW has been paying a monthly bonus to the more than 200 eco-guards that patrol Kahuzi-Biéga. But since September 2019, there has been no money – KfW told Schlindwein that it could “not provide any information” about payments “for contractual reasons”.
Schlindwein’s reporting is part of an important series titled “Green Army: Militarized nature conservation in Africa”.
The management of the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park has recently made unfounded accusations against Kasula that pose a grave danger to him and those that support him. Forest Peoples Programme has been working with the Batwa for many years, and has put out a statement about the false allegations:
In an article, dated 15 October 2020, the official spokesperson of Kahuzi-Biega National Park accuses a Batwa leader, Jean-Marie Kasula, of carrying out an armed attack on a convoy including the provincial Minister of Agriculture. The article also suggests that CAMV, FPP’s Congolese partner, and FPP itself could have provided the weapons for this attack.
In the context of South Kivu, where instability and insecurity are, sadly, the norm, this kind of unsubstantiated public statement is incredibly dangerous. We fear for the safety of M. Kasula and his family and we fear for the safety of our friends and colleagues at CAMV: unfounded accusations about involvement in attacks on prominent people put lives directly in danger.
We also contest the whole basis of the article, which is false or misleading in almost every respect….
The article also directly accuses M. Kasula of attacking the convoy, but provides no evidence for this at all. It suggests that the attack was directly encouraged by CAMV and Forest Peoples Programme, again providing no evidence, and even hints that that our organisations might have armed the attackers. This latter statement is utterly unfounded and defamatory.
Forest Peoples Programme has requested that the Kahuzi-Biéga management takes down the article and issues a public apology for its defamatory statements.
Yesterday, the Initiative for Equality put out a letter in support of Jean-Marie Kasula and the Batwa. The English version of the letter is posted in full below. A French version is available on IfE’s website, along with references about the current situation and the history since the arrests.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
False allegations and rumors have been circulated about Jean-Marie KASULA, one of the eight indigenous Batwa defendants who were imprisoned last February for attempting to reclaim their traditional lands within Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB), Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kasula, who is chief of the Batwa village of Muyange just outside the park, was provisionally released from prison by the military court on 27 August, while his conviction is under appeal.
Since his release, officials at PNKB have used their website and interviews with local news media to accuse him of a variety of illegal activities since he left the prison. Specific allegations, for which no evidence has been provided, include:
* escaping from prison “mysteriously”
This is ridiculous; he was allowed to leave the prison by a judge in the military court after his attorneys argued in court that as head of the village, he was not a flight risk and will not escape justice. This is a standard procedure under Congolese law.
* destroying natural areas within the park by cutting wood to make charcoal, and by digging for minerals
There is no evidence whatsoever that Kasula is running such operations; he would need to be a very busy man to accomplish all this during the past 6 weeks since his release.
* organizing an armed militia
Again, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that he has done this. The man he is alleged to have met with to form a militia has recently moved away from the region, and has no need to defend his village now that a militia leader (that had earlier threatened to attack the village) has been put in jail. Kasula’s record shows that he is a moderate leader with strong principles, who prefers to negotiate rather than to fight. In addition, it has not been proven that Kasula and his codefendants were part of an insurrectionary movement, as claimed once again by the PNKB; no proof of any criminal association was produced by the PNKB, which was unable to demonstrate the role played by each codefendant.
* ambushing the convoy of the provincial Minister of agriculture and others as they passed along the road RN3 through the park, and robbing all their valuables (on Thursday 15 October)
This is completely impossible, because Kasula and his codefendant were with their attorneys at the military court in Bukavu on that day.
* a local organization (CAMV) and an international organization (FPP) are alleged by the PNKB officials to support Kasula’s illegal activities
Once again, there is no evidence for this, and there is no reason why these organizations would support illegal activities. They were involved in public education and peaceful negotiations with the PNKB over several years. CAMV has sent a petition to national officials in Kinshasa, provincial officials in Bukavu, and the PNKB and ICCN, strongly condemning the false accusations and holding the Park officials responsible for any harm that comes to their staff because of the allegations.
We, the undersigned organizations, work on behalf of the well-being of the Twa communities around the PNKB, including that of Jean-Marie Kasula, and to defend their human rights and indigenous rights, including their right to be considered innocent of charges when there has been no legitimate judicial review based on credible evidence.
We hereby reject these rumors and false allegations, and call on the officials of the PNKB to immediately retract all statements made for which they cannot provide compelling evidence.
We also call on the news media to provide balanced reporting, in which all parties to the dispute are given equal time to address any statements, facts, arguments, and conclusions.
We stand in solidarity with Chief Jean-Marie KASULA, who has represented his people’s interests in a peaceful manner and to the best of his ability, despite the terrible circumstances to which they were forced to submit after the Twa community was expelled from the Park in the 1970’s, with no alternative provisions made for lands or means of living.
We also stand in solidarity with Centre d’accompagnement des Autochtones pygmées et Minoritaires Vulnérables (CAMV) and Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), who for many years have done their best to support a peaceful process of restoring rights and means of living to the Twa community living around the PNKB.
We call on all those who receive this letter to consider doing the following:
(1) Challenge any undocumented statements made about Kasula et consort, CAMV, FPP, or others involved in this matter, and demand to see the evidence.
(2) Stand in solidarity with Kasula and his supporters, and do not fall into the trap of false allegations that the PNKB uses in order to divide and throw into disarray the Twa and other indigenous rights supporters.
(3) Ask your local news media to cover these issues fairly, gathering documented information from both sides.
(4) Support the peaceful resolution of the dispute between PNKB and the indigenous peoples (Batwa) living nearby the park through restoring the human rights, indigenous rights and land rights that were so cruelly taken from the Batwa when they were expelled from the Park with no alternative means provided for them to live.
Thank you for your understanding and support.
Elikia AMANI for Réseau Congolais des Forestiers de la RDC (RCF-RDC)
Maître Adèle BISHARHWA for the attorneys of Jean-Marie KASULA
Julien BASIMIKA for Association pour le Regroupement et l’Autopromotion des Pygmées (ARAP)
Stéphane ILUNDU for Action Communautaire pour la Promotion des Défavorisés Batwa (ACPROD BATWA)
Elie MWANDA for Initiatives pour la Promotion des Femmes Autochtones et de l’Environnement (IPROFAE)
Deborah ROGERS for Initiative for Equality (IfE)
PHOTO Credit: Muyange village. Screenshot from “When nature protectors become the enemy”, taz, 23 March 2020.