Media coverage of the M23 rebellion in eastern DR Congo has largely faded away in recent weeks, as is so often the case with Congo, but the Marjan Centre maintains its ongoing interest and focus on the region. This time, we look at a story that emerged of the rebels agreeing to allow a gorilla census to be carried out in the midst of war.
There was understandable concern over the plight of the gorillas in the region of the Virungas through which the M23 advanced. The gorillas are usually monitored by rangers of the three national wildife agencies in the area through a system called RBM (Ranger Based Monitoring). This is a simple, cost effective method to monitor the gorillas, giving rangers a GPS and information sheet and recording data as they patrol. The rebellion put a stop to the rangers’ patrols, however, and so monitoring was impossible. While the conflict raged on, and even threatened an invasion of Goma at one point, concern over the gorillas allowed for a moment of peace and, like the famous football match in World War I, hostilities were halted. In the brief peace, a team was sent in to check on the gorillas.
This is one of many examples of how conservation can help bring an end to hostilities. Indeed, the long term process of gorilla conservation in the Virungas has acted as a useful peacebuilding tool, bringing together three countries previously involved on opposite sides in what has been termed ‘Africa’s First World War’, to cooperate over conservation. Even while the countries were at war with one another, the rangers on the ground and the wildlife agencies cooperated with each other to ensure the safety of the gorillas. Since then, higher-level cooperation has taken place, promoting improved relations between the three countries, with an eventual hope to create a ‘Peace Park’ in the region.
Such a park would be one of many around the world, where national parks on either side of national borders are united into one trans-boundary protected area, coming under an independent, joint management authority. Such parks play different roles, from being symbols of peace, such as the Wateron-Glacier National Park on the border of the USA and Canada, to being a means through which to promote peace, such as the Selous-Niassa Peace Park between Mozambique and Tanzania, or emerging almost by default, such as the Korean DMZ (demilitarised zone), which has now become flush with wildlife due to the absence of humans.
What all of this shows is that conservation can create a ‘platform for peace’. Although work to conserve parks or species is unlikely to bring an end to war in and of itself, it can help the process along. As a neutral activity, conflicting sides can cooperate over conservation even while still at war, helping to build mutual trust and promote improved relations and channels for discussion that can promote a transition from conflict towards peace.
We see, then, that conservation can be about so much more than saving trees and animals, but also as a means to bring an end to conflict.
Richard Milburn, The Marjan Centre