Fergus O'Leary Simpson
Discussion paper 2021.03

Abstract

It has been argued that protected areas give rise to forms of incremental ‘slow’ violence when populations are displaced from their lands and resources. The literature has shown how this can lead communities living at the edge of national parks to resist conservation regulations, often through everyday strategies designed to go under the radar of park authorities. I make an original contribution to this debate by exploring how conditions of slow violence and practices of covert resistance surrounding conservation projects can over time be transformed into forms of overt resistance and a state of ‘sudden’ violence. Taking a recent conflict over eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park as an illustrative example, I argue that an attempt by indigenous Batwa communities to violently take back parts of the park’s highland sector can be explained by three factors: first, the failure of forms ‘rights-based’ resistance strategies to achieve meaningful change; second, specific threats to Batwa livelihoods, identity and dignity that have emerged over recent years; third, the arrival of opportunities to forge new alliances with more powerful actors who could support their struggle. My overall argument speaks to the literature on conservation by exposing the intricate relationships between ‘everyday’ and ‘overt’ forms of resistance, and between ‘slow’ and ‘sudden’ violence. In turn, rather than romanticizing the Batwa’s actions, the paper shows how their struggle has ultimately intersected with elite interests, politico-military networks and wider conflict dynamics in a way that has led to widespread environmental destruction.