On 12 February 2007, a brief report on the state of conservation of the five DRC World Heritage properties was submitted by the State Party. The report provides a short overview of on-going park management activities, but unfortunately does not provide detailed information on the implementation of the corrective measures.
During the 2006 monitoring mission, an emergency action plan was developed by ICCN and its conservation partners to support the implementation of certain recommendations of the mission. A 3 year budget of USD 300,000 is made available through the second phase of DRC programme. Main components are the reinforcement of the cooperation between the park authority, its partners, the DRC army, the provincial government and the United Nations Organization Mission in DRC (MONUC), the continuation of efforts to evacuate the encroached parts of the property in a consensual manner, strengthening law enforcement and surveillance of the property through the materialisation of park limits, guard training and equipment and sensitisation of local communities, political and military authorities.
The main obstacle for the implementation of the corrective measures and the emergency action plan remains the prevailing insecurity in the region. The security situation around the park degraded significantly in the run up to the presidential and provincial elections. In July 2006, the dissident General Nkunda started a new rebellion, installing his operational base in the park in the Kirolirwe region. Following clashes with the DRC army and MONUC forces in November, Nkunda forces fled through the park and installed a new base close to the Mikeno sector of the park, where an important part of the gorilla population lives. In August 2006, Mai-mai fighters also invaded the central sector of the park, establishing camps on the shores of Lake Edward.
The implementation of the corrective measures has been hampered further by the first multiparty presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections which dominated the public agenda since the 30th session (Vilnius, 2006). As many corrective measures require political decisions and commitments, little progress was made so far. New Provincial Governors and the new Government were appointed in February 2007.
The increased insecurity seriously hampered the implementation of some of the corrective measures but also led to increased poaching and deforestation. The population of hippo around Lake Edward has been further decimated and it is now estimated that less than 300 survive (down from 20,000 at the time of inscription of the property and from an estimated 900 in 2005). In early January, 2 solitary silverback gorillas were killed by soldiers belonging to Nkunda. Until the writing of this report, 4 more gorillas are still unaccounted for. Both the World Heritage Centre and the DRC office of IUCN wrote to the Special Representative of the UN in DRC to request support from MONUC to evict these rebel troops from the park, but MONUC seems hesitant to engage in these operations without a clear responsibility for environmental protection in their mandate. Deforestation activities in the Mikeno area for charcoal production also increased significantly, with support from elements of the regular army.
Fortunately, the security situation has improved recently. On 18 January 2007, an agreement was brokered between the Government and General Nkunda, under which his troops are to be integrated in the army, and this process is currently underway. The DRC army is also undertaking some operations against Mai-mai and Rwandan rebels in the park. On 22 February 2007, two main camps of the Mai-mai on the shores of Lake Edward were attacked by the army, and 300 fighters surrendered after the attack.
This difficult situation has again resulted in a heavy toll on park staff. In the various attacks, several guards were killed or wounded. In early November, the head of the Rumangabo station was tortured by the Commander of the army camp in Rutshuru, probably to discourage his efforts to control the charcoal production which involves individual members of the military. Following international protest, the Minister of Defence ordered an investigation into this tragic event. In the wake of the Nkunda troop movements in December, guards from 3 patrol posts had to flee their homes with their families (totalling more than 100 people), leaving their belongings behind. Through the Rapid Response Facility grant, they have been receiving humanitarian aid (shelter, medicines and food). On 16 February, 2 of the abandoned patrol posts were re-occupied by the park staff.
The deterioration of the security situation together with elections has so far prevented much progress being achieved with the implementation of the corrective measures:
a) Establish a “Committee to Save Virunga” (CSV) to address the threats to the property;
Due to the situation, this committee has not yet been set up but discussions are underway with the local military autorities and local MONUC commanders.
b) Reduce significantly the number of military positions inside the property, and ensure a close follow up on cases of illegal activity by military personnel;
Following the decision to integrate the Nkunda troops in the army, many of them have left the park. However, after being re-integrated in the army (by mixing them with regular troops), some of these units have been again assigned positions in the park. After the recent operations by the army, there has also been a reduction of Mai-mai and Rwandan fighters in the park. A workshop is planned in April between ICCN and its partners and the army to discuss the role of the army in the conservation of the park and possible troop reductions in the park.In the mean time information leaflets on the importance of the park have also been distributed in the different military positions in the park.
c) Immediate closure and removal of the Nyaleke army reunification and training camp, as decided by the Minister of Defence;
In spite of promises by the Minister of Defence to close down the camp in April 2006, this has still not happened. On 12 February 2007, a joint mission of ICCN and the army to the site concluded that USD 316,318 would be needed to relocate the camp. Early April, a new training cycle for troops will start and moving the camp before that does not seem feasible anymore. Moreover, during the mission, army officials pointed out that after the reunification training process will be finalised, the training camps will continue to be be used as permanent training facilities. There seems to be a real risk that the Nyaleke camp will become a permanent facility.
d) Continue the efforts to evacuate in a peaceful and integrated way all illegal occupants in the property, accompanied by appropriate measures to assist the reintegration of the populations in their regions of origin;
Little progress could be made as a result of the prevailing situation, in particular in the main encroached areas of Kirolirwe and the shores of Lake Edward. With the recent improvement of security in the Kirolorwi area, a census of the illegal occupants and a sensitisation campaign, involving provincial parliamentarians has started. For the western part of the park, 28 communication agents have been recruited from amongst the communities to sensitise the occupants. A survey of possible sites to re-install the migrants is also underway.
e) Strengthen cooperation between ICCN and its partners by developing a joint plan for all interventions in the Park, with clear responsibilities and an implementation plan;
For the southern sector of the parks; a joint strategic plan was developed by ICCN and its partners. The plan was sent for approval to the ICCN headquarters.
f) Develop a strategy to share any profits, such as from tourism related to gorillas, with the local communities, in order to improve relations;
Tourism remains low in the park, as a result of the insecurity. The development of the strategy will need to involve the new authorities, which are currently being put in place following the elections. ICCN is also undergoing a restructuring process.
g) Strengthen law enforcement in the property, concentrating on priority areas. At the same time, it is also important to reinvigorate Park staff and improve their efficiency through specialized training;
The advance ranger force is now fully operational. A truck was supplied in the framework of the emergency plan. Whilst the advance force was unable to control the fierce poaching by armed groups during the election period, recently they have been quite effective in securing the Mikeno sector and the Ishango area on the shores of Lake Edward, home to one of the last remaining hippo groups. Several mixed patrols were also organised recently with the army around the fishing village of Vitshumbi.
h) Establish a trust fund for the rehabilitation of the DRC World Heritage properties;
It is hoped that the new government will honour this commitment made at the 2004 Paris conference. UNESCO and WWF are discussing with the Belgium Government on funding to allow the preliminary studies to set up such a fund.
As mentioned in the report on Kahuzi-Biega, a recent map published by the mapping office of the ministry of mines showed that several exploitation permits were granted inside the reserve. Following an intervention by ICCN with the Minister, this issue is currently being studied by a working group set up between ICCN and the ministry.
So far no benchmarks or timeframe have been established. The World Heritage Centre, in cooperation with IUCN is currently discussing with ICCN the development of benchmarks. It is currently proposed that the benchmarks will be developed at a workshop in the site at the end of 2007, when the evaluation of the emergency action plan will be undertaken. In preparation for this discussion, a Statement of Outstanding Universal Value was developed for the park and submitted to the Committee for approval.