Kidnapping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is common. Militia and rebel groups continue to stage regular attacks, especially in less populated areas.
In the region surrounding Cool Earth’s Lubutu partnership, the threat to personal safety is high, especially outside the provincial capital of Goma, where Cool Earth’s partner NGO Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has its local office. Aid and conservation workers are not immune. Attacks and kidnappings of aid workers in eastern DRC have increased, especially since the early part of this year.
It didn’t make it any less of a shock when we heard from FFI that two of their staff had been kidnapped.
A team including members of REGOLU Reserve, an officer from ICCN (the Congolese government conservation partner) and FFI’s staff were carrying out a ten-day field activity mission collecting data on agricultural methods and techniques. They had driven for nine hours to reach a village called Obolemba, in the Lubutu partnership. During a meeting with the village leader, a representative from the Simba militia stormed in, closely followed by four heavily armed men. In the presence of the community they demanded to know who they were and where they were from.
They searched the team and took the motorbikes belonging to FFI, cameras, GPS units, phones, a medical kit, and backpacks containing food and money. They were then driven to a different village nine kilometers away, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
A meeting was convened the next day and after a sleepless night the FFI team and their colleagues were told that the militia were not intending to harm any members of the group. Because of the association with the government they wanted the team to transmit a very firm message to the local authorities. They said that the government had promised this branch of the militia, who have been living in the forest on the borders of the Maiko national park since the 1960s, that they would be given jobs within state institutions such as the army, and would be re-integrated to the community.
The team’s release was eventually secured after the local community stepped in to negotiate with the militia.
In a turnaround of events, the local militia commander commended the efforts of FFI in improving the lives of local people. All the equipment was returned. But the money stayed in the hands of the militia. It’s a small price to pay for the safety of our team on the ground.
This story does have a silver lining. It proves the strong working relationship between the project team and the local community. Having assisted in their release, the community supported the team further by housing and feeding them for the rest of the mission. The fact that they were prepared to go to such lengths to make sure the survey team could carry out their work demonstrates how crucial the partnership with Cool Earth and FFI is to the people of Lubutu.
This kind of attack will continue to pose a significant threat in Lubutu for the foreseeable future, as many of the underlying causes of conflict remain unaddressed: political rivalries, longstanding ethnic tensions, and competition for resources.
But one thing’s for sure. The community in Lubutu are not going to let it stop them protecting their rainforest.