Community-based Conservation: Looking Forward After Attacks on Ekolo
We remain committed to our mission: to save and protect bonobos and their rainforest home alongside local partners - despite violence that disrupted operations at Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve in June.
Here is our plan for moving forward.
In June, we experienced a serious security issue around the Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve. For two weeks, a group of armed men spread terror as far away as the town of Basankusu. While no humans were injured in our area, at least two bonobos were killed. In addition, village camps and some of our facilities were burned or damaged.
The perpetrators of the attacks are from the Ilonga-Pôo community, though there is no indication that their violent actions represent their community as a whole.
There's still a lot we don't know, but some information is starting to emerge. For more details about what happened, please read our previous blog post.
What does it mean to be a Community Reserve?
The Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve is so named because communities with customary rights to the forest have freely decided to participate, and are co-managers of the reserve with ABC.
The free, prior and informed consent of communities is a key principle of our approach. Community engagement, participation and satisfaction are essential to the success of the project.
In order to stop the attacks, soldiers were deployed at the end of June in support of the local police and eco-guards. Since then, the situation has been under control. Military police remain in the area. We resumed patrols and other activities in the reserve and launched efforts to resolve the crisis, in partnership with local authorities and communities.
In early August, a meeting of the Conflict Resolution Committee (CRC) took place, bringing together local, provincial and national authorities, our representatives (ABC staff and leaders), and representatives of all community partners. The CRC exists to give everyone a mechanism to address any grievances that arise. Each group involved in the reserve has 6-7 delegates, including ABC, the government, and each community.
The CRC was created to air and resolve tensions and conflicts before they escalate. Unfortunately, the young men responsible for the attacks did not air any grievances at any of the regular meetings leading up to the attacks, nor did they request a CRC meeting.
The CRC meeting in early August is a first step towards a lasting resolution of the crisis.
At this meeting, Ilonga-Pôo representatives expressed some concerns about the state of the reserve. Thankfully, the community as a whole also showed a desire for conversation and a peaceful resolution. They shared a variety of complaints - some rooted in misunderstanding and misinformation and others that we will continue to discuss in future CRC meetings.
Because none of the complaints or grievances were expressed by the Ilonga-Pôo during the CRC meetings prior to the attacks, no one knew of their concerns. As we learn more about the basis and validity for the concerns, we will update you on how we intend to move forward.
Regardless, none of them justify the violence perpetrated at the beginning of the summer.
The other communities that are partners in the Ekolo ya Bonobo Community Reserve, as well as the local, provincial and national authorities, denounced the violence and expressed their allegiance with ABC and their continued commitment to bonobo protection and the Ekolo Reserve.
State officials also requested that the Ilonga-Pôo make reparations, perhaps in the form of a traditional ceremony.
As the situation is now stable and as we continue to better understand what happened and why, we can begin to refocus our efforts and energy towards the future. The bonobos still need us, and we need to rebuild what has been destroyed, as well as take steps to make sure this sort of attack doesn’t happen again.
So far, we have identified the need for the following actions.
We will upgrade security in the reserve by:
Hiring approximately 15-20 more forest guards (all from local villages);
Working with local law enforcement to investigate the attacks and damage, and to arrest the perpetrators;
Covering the deployment costs of military and police so they may remain present until our new forest guards are properly trained and the December elections have passed.
Rebuilding and repairing
We will rebuild and repair damaged or destroyed infrastructure, such as:
Forest Guard housing that was burned down.
Elonda Camp - this was the staff, visitor and research center. Elonda camp also served as a forest guard support facility. We will rebuild infrastructure on site, though we may decide to move some of the previous facilities to a more central location, as the reserve continues to grow. Regardless, we will need to rebuild everything from the ground up.
Facilities on Totaka Island - where bonobos live semi-wild for months in quarantine before joining the others in Ekolo to live fully wild.
Preventing future attacks
We will begin the long-term work of preventing attacks in the future by:
Supporting the prosecution of the perpetrators to the full extent of the law;
Expanding community-based socio-economic development projects with local communities;
Expanding our conservation education programs in the local communities;
Conducting more information sessions, conservation presentations, and consultation meetings with local communities and government stakeholders.
The process of rebuilding and resolving the crisis will be demanding, but it also opens up new opportunities.
We are more determined than ever to work in strong partnership with local communities to rescue bonobos, protect their rainforest home, and tackle the root causes of the bushmeat trade - extreme poverty.
We're so grateful for your overwhelming support. You are the reason we can continue this journey.
Killing bonobos is against the law
State officials also made it clear at these meetings that the killing of two bonobos is against the law. There will be an investigation, and the perpetrators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
We will support the investigation and prosecution with vigor and persistence.
In the DRC, the pre-election period is often volatile with candidates sometimes instigating conflicts to serve their own political ends. (Elections are scheduled for December 2023). The frustration of some young people with the lack of opportunities and poverty in their region may have been galvanized for political ends. While the situation around Ekolo ya Bonobo has calmed down, violent incidents continue in other more distant areas.