The Itombwe Massif lies northwest of Lake Tanganyika (28º02′ - 29º04′ E, 2º41’ - 3º52′ S), stretching over a vast area of 1,600 km2 that encompasses the territories of Mwenga, Fizi and Uvira. It forms part of the Mitumba mountain range, with altitudes ranging from 60 metres above sea level in the western portion to 3,475 metres (Mount Mohi) in the north, with numerous peaks of 2,000 metres or higher, then abruptly dropping to 770 metres in the east, where it borders on Lake Tanganyika.
The Itombwe Massif is an internationally recognised conservation area due to the extraordinary biodiversity of its forests, which need to be protected through rational use. However, its enviable wealth of farming, mining, forestry, water, tourism and cultural resources has been a constant source of conflict and war, leading to the ongoing suffering of the forest dwellers. Geographical isolation has also been an obstacle to economic development in this region, so rich in biodiversity yet forgotten by the rest of the world.
The peoples of the Itombwe Massif forests have never opposed their conservation or the designation of this site as a nature reserve. Their good will has been reflected in numerous ways, from the reception offered to visitors and delegations who come to the region to conduct research, to their response to invitations to participate in meetings on the subject and the statements made by their traditional chiefs.
At the same time, however, the traditional chiefs of Itombwe are firmly opposed to any attempts to convert the region into a strict nature reserve, because their peoples’ livelihoods and survival depend entirely on the forests. (Declaration of traditional chiefs of Itombwe, in French, at http://www.wrm.org.uy/countries/Africaspeaks/RDC_massif_forestier_dItombwe.pdf)
At a series of meetings held in recent years – in Kamituga on 23 September 2005, Bukavu on 9 April 2006, Kitopo/Itombwe on 28 and 29 June 2007 and a forum held 24 and 25 June 2008 in Bukavu, capital of the province of South Kivu – the traditional chiefs of Itombwe have reaffirmed their support for the protection of the forest’s flora and fauna, but have emphasised the need to guarantee the physical and cultural integrity of the local populations, given that the Itombwe forests play an essential role in the survival of their traditional, cultural and spiritual practices. They have also stressed their concern over the classification of the region with regard to the application of forestry legislation, particularly in relation to the interests of local communities and indigenous peoples when it comes to the implementation of participatory conservation mechanisms.
The forum held on 24 and 25 June 2008 in Bukavu was organised by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the WWF to seek the harmonisation of viewpoints of all parties involved regarding the conservation of the Itombwe forests. The Itombwe traditional chiefs once again had the opportunity to explain the five traditional practices that have allowed for the forest to be preserved since time immemorial. They noted that “the conservation method of the Bembe tribe, who make up the majority of the forest’s population, is so ancient that it dates back to the dawn of time of humankind.” This method can be summed up in five points, which until today have ensured a degree of environmental conservation worthy of considerable pride:
1. The year is divided into two seasons, the hunting season and the closed season.
2. The hunting of certain animal species viewed as guardian spirits is strictly forbidden, and can be punished by death or even the extermination of the hunter’s entire family.
3. Women and children are prohibited from eating certain species of animals and plants.
4. Some animals and plants can only be eaten by the traditional chiefs, known locally as “bami”.
5. It is forbidden to hunt in certain areas reserved as breeding grounds or for the practice of traditions and customs, such as ceremonies and ritual sacrifices.
In addition, both the traditional chiefs and NGOs that defend the rights of the forest dwellers have consistently stressed, in every possible local, national and international forum, than any strategy for natural resource management that excludes local communities is doomed to fail.
The conservation of the Itombwe forests must be participatory, and take into account the views of the forest communities and the five traditional conservation practices outlined by the chiefs. Any system implemented must allow for the immediate economic needs of the local populations to be met, so that the Itombwe Massif’s rich biodiversity can be preserved in a community-centred, sustainable manner, in the interest and with the participation of the people who live there, integrating conservation and development to tap the full potential of the region.
The forum held 24 and 25 June 2008 to reconcile the differences between the various stakeholders resulted in the establishing of a framework for ongoing consultation and dialogue, where all parties can voice their needs and expectations. It remains to be seen how effectively this process will work.
By: TRAFFED, Congolese NGO at the Itombwe Mountains, MAGUNDA/MWENGA, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Article sent by Pastor Jean-Pierre Ibucwa Lipanda, Coordinator of TRAFFED.