Guardians of the forest? A study of how indigenous Batwa people relate to their ancestral lands after returning to Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Fergus O'Leary Simpson

The paper on which this presentation is based delves into the intricate relationships between indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands and resources, while also shedding light on how different interest groups frame these interactions. Drawing on a combination of satellite images, document analysis, and in-depth qualitative fieldwork, it focuses on the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DR Congo. The Batwa, an indigenous group, were forcibly expelled from the park in the 1970s but started to reclaim their lands by force from October 2018 onwards. The framing of the Batwa's relationship with the forest varies significantly between indigenous rights activists and park authorities. The former depict the Batwa as peaceful “forest guardians” oppressed by coercive conservation policies, while the latter have at times resorted to portraying the Batwa as violent “forest destroyers”. Although both narratives tell part of the story, they also simplify complexity in order to serve political objectives. To understand the forces driving the destruction of human and non-human nature inside the park, we emphasize the need to understand the broader political economy of violent extraction in which the Batwa have become (reluctant) participants. We conclude by questioning the usefulness of stereotyped portrayals of indigenous peoples to deliver either social or ecological justice.