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Many of the DRCNDF members in this picture work in an insecure area with active armed forces and over exploitation of the Environment (NBD Archive)
On November 6 every year, the world celebrates the International Day for the Prevention of Environmental Exploitation in War and Armed Conflict. In the Congolese Nile basin, NBD members operate in an insecure environment where natural resources are exploited by armed groups operating in Northern Kivu. Mr. Elias Paluku TAHAWASIMA, the DRC NDF National Technical Support Expert shares experiences and challenges the NDF Membership go through while contributing to the livelihoods of the grassroots communities in that region.

Knowing that some of your members operate in an environment where armed groups are found, what challenges do you encounter?
Mr. Elias Paluku TAHAWASIMA, the DRC NDF National Technical Support Expert
Mr. Elias Paluku TAHAWASIMA, the DRC NDF National Technical Support Expert
Some of our members work in armed gang target areas and these organizations face several challenges in their daily work notably: sexual violence, kidnap, looting of their work tools, murder among others. This is what exactly happened 2 years ago, to the agents of our member Hydraulique Sans Frontière (HYFRO) in the territory of Rutshuru where 2 of its agents were killed and another kidnapped by the militia while they were constructing water tanks for communities  in that area. Sudden militia attacks negatively affect regular implementation of activities, deeply traumatize both the staff of our member organizations and the communities that benefit from our intervention.

Share with us; what pushes you to continue your activities in this environment despite the almost permanent insecurity?
Our members continue to work despite the insecurity because they are committed, and have a strong determination to work for the community, in the hope that this insecurity will one day end. So in order to properly carry out activities in such places, the first element to respect and control is information (communication) in all its forms: information about the movements of armed groups, information on the current security situation, information about the behavior of the local population towards armed groups, etc. Also, we target areas that are secure in a sense, because we cannot expose ourselves to danger. For insecure areas, we use locally recruited agents who have mastered in the field and have adapted to the circumstances, because these armed groups consider that an NGO agent, who works near them, is a spy for the benefit of the enemy. This is the case with the Mai Mai in the territories of Rutshuru, Lubero and Beni, and the CODECO militia in the province of Ituri. This is why they kidnap aid workers to demand huge sums of money for their release. In any case, we work under stressful conditions every day, living in fear that anything can happen to you while you are working.
In 2015, KAMBALE LOBILO, a Coordinator of ADPDH - one of our member organisations from Rutshuru was attacked by a militia on his way to attend a DRC NDF members' meeting in Butembo, looting all his all his belongings including a phone, computer, clothes and money. He arrived at the meeting empty-handed; that is the life of the staff of our member organisations go through when armed conflict is at peak.

Are there cases where insecurity contributes to the exploitation of the environment in DR Congo, specifically in the Congolese Nile basin?
Yes, there are a lot of them in the Congolese Nile Basin.

Can you give typical examples?
We can cite a few in this story: Many armed groups are forming and / or finding refuge in the Virunga National Park which is the very first park created in Africa in 1925, and which is located entirely in the Congolese Nile Basin. This park is full of incomparable beauty of flora and fauna. But with the permanent presence of local and foreign militias and armed groups, there is the untimely cutting of trees for timbers, firewood and charcoal to make money. There is also an upsurge in the poaching of animals for meat and specifically elephants for tusks. During the last 2 decades, there was mass killing of Hippos whose waste used to contribute towards fish feeding in the surrounding water bodies which would result in an overproduction of fish in Lake Edward. But with what we call “environmental genocide” in the Park, the lake has become unproductive, with a decrease of fish volumes in the lake which is also accompanied by the increase in illegal fishing supervised by these same militias. Also, during wars, we witness destruction of forests by bombs and rockets, and wildfires from the local population's agricultural activities. In short, militias, armed groups and even the regular army are over exploiting the environment to meet their needs and enrich themselves by destroying the region's land and lake ecosystems.
In the event of war, there is great pollution of the environment by light and heavy weapons. This causes massive displacement of some animals and birds from their usual environment to other places. In addition, the formation of camps for refugees and war displaced persons causes an upheaval in the environment around the camps, leading to cutting of wood all around, and an over exploitation of the environment to create farming fields by displaced people who want to protect themselves against hunger - in short they force life around the camp.

What message would you send out today on the International Day for the Prevention of Environmental Exploitation in War and Armed Conflict?
First, I appeal for the establishment of peace throughout DRC in general and particularly in the Eastern part of the country which has long suffered from the atrocities of militias and whose consequences are clear. All local, national and international authorities will have to fight against the exploitation of the environment by armed groups and militias because the negative impact of this exploitation is visible in the community and actually affect beyond the environment; but livelihoods in these communities, particularly the impacts of sexual violence, murder, wild fires, un-productiveness of the soil, looting, the tourist deficit, growing poverty, illiteracy, etc.
Thus, I will propose that the international community, especially the United Nations, initiate a law annexed to those found in the United Nations Charter which would qualify the exploitation of the environment in times of war and conflicts as a crime against humanity and that the culprits can be punished on an equal footing with those who commit crimes of genocide and other crimes. Also, the government at local and national level should get involved in securing the population and its environment.

Happy International Day for the Prevention of Environmental Exploitation in War and Armed Conflict

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