RFI has received testimony suggesting the government-funded French Development Agency is preparing to take over funding of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega Park from Germany. The alleged murder, rape and immolation of Batwa people living in the park was recently documented in a report by the NGO Minority International.
In an article published in April, RFI covered the reported killings and rights abuses of Batwa indigenous people in the Kahuzi-Biega Park.
The accusations were based on a report by Minority Rights Group International (MRG), which alleged that guards and Congolese soldiers had carried out attacks between 2019 and 2021 in an effort to expel Batwa from their native land.
The park, a haven for endangered gorillas and one of the DRC’s biggest tourist attractions, gets most of its funding from the German government in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
In April, following the allegations, German authorities set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged killings.
In its findings, published on 1 June, the commission said that no widespread atrocities had occurred on their watch.
The Batwa who were killed, it said, had been used as “human shields” by armed groups during clashes between park guards, DRC army units and poachers.
One of the investigators was journalist and researcher Robert Flummerfelt, who wrote the original MRG report.
He distanced himself from the probe’s findings, calling it a “cover-up”.
Immediately afterwards, Flummerfelt was tipped off that armed men were coming to kill both him and his Congolese co-researcher.
The two men have since fled the country, and Batwa sources have been forced into hiding.
“Sources were threatened and investigators laughed about gang rape,” says Flummerfelt.
The government-funded French Development Agency, AFD, has also shown an interest in supporting the park.
While the Germans were carrying out their probe, AFD confirmed to RFI that it was carrying out its own feasibility study.
Flummerfelt questions the timing.
“The French government began publicly exploring the prospect of funding the park in the precise moment that the German government freezes funding in response to documentation of serious atrocities,” he says.
Contacted by RFI, AFD said their study was ongoing and following its usual procedures.
But French senator Guillaume Gontard, a member of the Greens, is deeply concerned.
“Regardless of the German and American institutional partners, the French Development Agency cannot and must not finance this project,” he told RFI.
“I am obviously worried and outraged.”
Conflict of interest?
While French financing may not yet be signed and sealed, RFI has obtained evidence that a government-funded agency is already playing a key role in the German-backed commission of inquiry, which includes officials from the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), which runs the park.
“Mr Martin was chosen to support the work of the commission based on his outstanding and highly relevant credentials as an expert in conflict and post-conflict settings and decades of experience working on the protection of civilians in the context of international peace operations in DRC and across the region,” the letter reads.
Martin was, however, also hired by AFD to conduct its feasibility study.
“The same ‘international expert’ was working for both governments at once, investigating atrocities for Germany while working to bring new funding online from France,” says Flummerfelt. “This is an enormous conflict of interest.”
Fiore Longo, the head of Survival International’s French office, says he is also shocked.
“I find this disgusting. I don’t have any other word to describe this,” she told RFI. “It’s one of the worst scandals I’ve witnessed in my professional life. It shows that they [conservationists] think they’re above everything.”
RFI has obtained audio recordings in which Baptiste Martin can be heard saying that funding Kahuzi-Biega was “theoretically” based around the feasibility study he was carrying out.
“That’s the formal process [but] the reality is we’ve already announced it to ICCN and now we’re just working on the details of how to make it happen,” Martin can be heard saying.
The recordings, which corroborate a separate Al-Jazeera investigation, show Martin was conducting the German on-the-ground probe on 6 April, as per the final report, at the same time as he was organising his participation, and that of AFD team members, in the German inquiry.
Members of AFD’s team in charge of the environment portfolio were also present from 6 to 10 April.
In their written response to RFI, AFD said that, as they were not “stakeholders” in the German investigation “AFD therefore neither assisted nor participated in the investigation activities”.
But the audio recordings suggest otherwise.
“AFD wanted to go to the area as well, so we’re taking one from AFD,” Martin says in the recording.
Flummerfelt liaised with Martin over the sites they would visit for the investigation. On the audio file, Martin says he wants to bring the groups to more “touristic” Batwa villages.
“We’re asking questions way far from the specific topic,” he laughs.
As a number of Batwa villages are outside the area in conflict, this was not hard to organise.
“The international expert working for the German and French governments specifically sought to organise the trip of the French officials so that, while they rode along for the German-funded investigation, they would not see the direct effects of atrocities, trying to avoid villages where Batwa women were raped or Batwa civilians killed,” says Flummerfelt.
Given the audio evidence points to AFD showing interest in funding the park, Flummerfelt is calling for a rethink.
“The French government must be asked to explain whether they are still happy to fund a park that is the centre not only of accounts of organised violence against indigenous people but also of efforts to hunt down and potentially kill indigenous leaders, a Congolese human rights investigator and an American journalist,” he says.
Senator Gontard, who is also the vice president of the French Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces Commission, has taken action.
On 9 June he wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna, urging the ministry not to fund Kahuzi-Biega Park. He has not yet received a response.
Gontard told RFI that if the allegations of murder and rape outlined in the Minority International report are proven, and AFD decides to go ahead with funding the park, “there could be a risk of complicity in the possible prosecution of these crimes”.
AFD funding would also contravene Law No.2021-1031, he says. Passed by the Senate in August, the legislation explicitly refers to conservation projects carried out in areas where indigenous people live.
“When their territorial rights are recognised and respected, [indigenous peoples] ensure the effective protection and sustainable management of the natural environment, on which they depend for their subsistence, their health and their way of life,” says Gontard, adding that this was an effort to prevent land grabbing.
“France’s participation via AFD would be unacceptable.”