Conflict and environmental insecurity in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sadiki Koko is a Senior Researcher with the Multilateral Affairs Programme at Babhuti Research Institute (BRI) in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The author wishes to convey special thanks to a distinguished colleague, Martha Bakwesegha, for having taken time to read through an earlier version of this paper.


Despite receiving much attention in literature, the ongoing conflict in North Kivu has yet to be systematically studied with respect to its impact on environmental security. This paper seeks to contribute toward filling this gap. The paper argues that, notwithstanding natural factors such as the volcanoes – and social ills caused by poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment – environmental insecurity in North Kivu is caused by the ‘relative scarcity’ of land. The land crisis is aggravated by land ownership systems, demographic pressure, unregulated migrations and related identity disputes, short-sighted state policies and involvement by neighbouring polities; all of which set the stage for cyclic violent conflicts. In order to break this vicious circle, the article calls for the emergence of a strong and brave political leadership in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as well as in the region, capable of establishing political, social and economic policies conducive to addressing the roots of the problems.


From the Kinshasa hinterland or the degraded peri-urban halo around Bukavu where hundreds of Rwandan refugees amassed in 1994, to the emblematic nature reserves such as Virunga, Kahuzi-Biega, Garamba … or Salonga, environmental degradation translates into human deprivation. The impact of this degradation, moreover, will be felt long after hostilities have ceased (Trefon 2005:135).

This accurate comment by Trefon is shared by many other concerned observers and practitioners that have visited the Kivu region since its descent into crisis in the late 1980s, but escalating in the early and mid-1990s. However, Trefon’s reminder is yet to capture the meaningful attention of policy makers, both within the country and among its bilateral and international partners, as well as of the very local and immigrant populations participating – mostly out of ignorance and social hardships – in the perpetration of environmental insecurity in the area.

Since the inauguration of the democratisation process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in April 1990, the North Kivu province has witnessed repeated cycles of violence and armed conflicts involving ethnic communities, militias, rebel movements, and regular armies – both local or national and foreign. Disputes over land, aggravated by demographic pressure, have been at the centre of the violence. And while internal disagreements within the area already posed daunting challenges to transitional institutions increasingly losing control over society due to a crisis of legitimacy, the crossing into the province of approximately 850 000 Rwandan Hutu refugees in 1994 further complicated issues on the ground, exacerbating both the conflict and the land crisis in the region. The provincial ecology has since undergone systematic destruction, leading to what can be described as increasing environmental insecurity.

This article analyses the impact of the conflict on environmental security in North Kivu. The article discusses the concept of environmental security, reinserting it into the general human security debate (section one) before locating North Kivu within the national (DRC) and regional (Great Lakes) perspectives (section two). Section three summarily presents the biodiversity of North Kivu while section four explains the conflict and its impact on environmental security in the province. Lastly, section five makes recommendations for a way forward through a proposal for an environmental peacebuilding strategy in North Kivu and the Great Lakes region.

1. The concept of environmental security

That human security has imposed itself as the new and latest paradigm in the general understanding of the concept of security is self-evident. The speed with which it has been propagated is putatively proportional to the ‘revolution’ in the debates about national and international security. However, rather than attempting to overtake the traditional, national or state-centric approach to security, human security simply seeks to complement the former by providing it with a human face and content. And, despite an apparent rebound on the part of the state security approach as a consequence of increasing terrorism threats, but also due to some weaknesses and imprecisions in the new concept, human security will undoubtedly continue to shape the security discourse as international society moves toward more globalisation and the general triumph of the democratic system of governance.

Emphasising ‘freedom from wants’, ‘freedom from fear’ and ’empowerment’, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1994 Report on Human Development – believed to have first publicised the concept – pointed to seven indices as pillars of human security: food, economic, health, political, personal, community and environmental security.

As such, environmental security is not a new concept. Jeffrey Stark (2005:17) argues that the origin of the concept could be traceable to the 1977 work of Lester Brown, an environmental pioneer from the Worldwatch Institute, as he pleaded for the ‘inclusion of environmental problems in national security planning’. Although ‘time was not yet ripe for environmental security to enter the mainstream of policy discussions’ (Stark 2005:17), a wide range of authors continued to build a consensus on the concept, relating it to ‘scenarios of political, economic, and social conflict due to resource scarcity in combination with population growth’ (Stark 2005:17).

However, taking advantage of the (third) wave of democratisation that emerged in the early 1990s and the security predicament that ensued, characterised by the generalisation of intrastate (civil) wars, the notion of environmental security turned out to be a concept to be reckoned with in both the theory and practice of security. It was, therefore, no surprise that while declaring 2003 the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) environmental year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen clearly stated that ‘environmental security is as important as economic and political security’ (Stark 2005:18).

At the continental level, African leaders aligned themselves with the emerging trend when they adopted, in 2004 in Sirte (Libya), the Solemn Declaration on a Common African Defence and Security Policy (CADSP) in which they identified ‘protection against natural disasters as well as ecological and environmental degradation’ among aspects of the ‘newer and multidimensional notion of security’. At the international level, the awarding in 2004 and 2007 of the Nobel Peace Prize to environmental activists clearly asserts the consolidating linkage between environmental issues on the one hand and social, political, economic and security problems on the other hand.1

As a region, Africa needs to domesticate the debate on environmental security while playing an increasing role within international forums and networks relating to the topic. The direct reason for this call for a shift stems from the economic predicament of the continent as it relies on natural resources production, the exploitation of which brings about continuous environmental degradation. This fact is further compounded by the material conditions of the African populations whose farming practices and social lifestyle impact negatively on the maintenance and renewal of the environment.

As far as the DRC’s North Kivu province is concerned, the imperative of environmental conservation for human security faces the challenge of pressures arising from natural disasters and catastrophes (such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), population growth (both naturally and as a consequence of immigration and population movements), economic decline as well as the inability on the part of state institutions to inspire confidence among the population and to impose law, order and compliance with rules and regulations in all spheres of national life, including environmental preservation. This raises the more important question of fully re-inserting the North Kivu province within the Congolese national framework while ensuring that Congolese state institutions and their external partners understand that the restoration of peace and stability in the DRC in general and in the North Kivu province in particular involves re-affirming the role of the state as well as adopting a holistic approach of security that combines state security and human security. At the same time, there is a necessity to reinsert the North Kivu province within the regional context of the Great Lakes, the natural framework through which it is likely to achieve its full development.

2. The case for North Kivu: The province in the Congolese and regional perspectives

In his massive book, Histoire Générale du Congo, Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem (1998:211, 226) refers to the Kivu as the Congolese region comprised between the volcanoes (the active Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira as well as the extinct Mikeno, Karisimbi, Visoke, Sabinio, Gahinga and Muhavura) and the Great Lakes (Albert, Edward, Kivu and Tanganyika). According to Jan Vansina (1966:105–114, 201–223), the Kivu region comprises three cultural areas, namely the North-East populated by Nilotics (Alur) combined with Bantus, the Great Agrarian Kivu region inhabited amongst others by Nande, Shi, Haavu and Hunde as well as the Maniema forest region occupied by Bembe, Lega and other smaller groups.

The ancient Kivu region shared many characteristics with its adjacent neighbouring societies located in contemporary Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. Besides many commonalities in social organisation, the people occupying the Kivu region shared with their regional neighbours stunning similarities with regard to their political organisation grounded in kingship, based on succession.

Jourdan (2005) has observed that ‘[h]istorically the Great Lakes Region has always been characterized by important migration fluxes, even before the colonization period which established previously unknown frontiers’. The advent of colonisation in the Great Lakes region resulted at first into a separation of people whose social activities and organisations compelled them to coexist. This was mainly the consequence of the diversity of colonial regimes that landed in the area as the Belgians took control of the current DRC; the Germans occupied Burundi, Rwanda and mainland Tanzania (at least until World War I) while Uganda fell under British control. Later on, however, colonisation would facilitate the ‘mix-up’ of populations in the region, especially as far as the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi were concerned. This emerged as a consequence of both the development of the Congo that required larger working forces and, more importantly, the take-over of Burundi and Rwanda by Belgian authorities from Germany after the First World War.

Within the Belgian colonial framework in the Congo, Kivu maintained a low status as the Belgian colonial strategy focused on the production of raw agricultural materials and minerals and, thus, put much emphasis on the south, west and the equatorial regions of the country, easily connected to the strategic Congo River and its tributaries. Apparently, besides its inclusion in the early general ethnographic studies undertaken by colonial administrators and religious missionaries, Kivu started receiving sustained attention only in the late years of colonisation (1956–1960). This shift was mainly conditioned by developments not within the Congo per se, but by the beginning of turmoil in Rwanda and Burundi. By the time the Congo gained independence (June 1960), the Kivu region had hosted scores of Rwandan and Burundian populations that had relocated to Congolese territory through a number of processes including Belgian-planned transplantation policies, clandestine migration as well as asylum seeking (mainly by Tutsi) in the aftermath of the Belgians-backed ‘Hutu revolution’ of 1959 that resulted in the dismantling of the Rwandan Tutsi kingship.

Until the Congo’s independence from Belgium, Kivu’s political, economic and strategic importance remained relative. However, this trend slowly changed as the DRC experienced its first armed conflict starting in 1961. Like much of the eastern part of the country, Kivu fell within the rebels’ zone of influence. This state of affairs persisted, amidst periods of interruptions, until 1965, and was followed by a brief re-appearance of Belgian mercenaries in the late 1960s attempting to control the region. This same period witnessed the initiation of an internal armed resistance at the heights of Hewa Bora plateaus in South Kivu. Initially, Kinyarwanda-speaking populations or Banyarwanda – likewise other communities in the region – had sided with the rebels before turning against them when the latter engaged in the systematic killing of their cattle in order to supply themselves with the much needed food.

Eventually, the national army – to which the Banyarwanda had allied themselves – succeeded in eradicating the rebellion by the mid-1960s, leaving a bitter taste about the Banyarwanda among other local communities. This resentment is believed to have been the trigger of what is commonly known as the ‘Kanyarwanda war’. A ‘first public display of anti-Tutsi sentiment in post-independence Zaire, [i]t lasted from 1963 to 1966 and resulted in large-scale massacres of Hutu and Tutsi’ (Lemarchand 2009:13). Much of the war took place in the Masisi area, pitting a coalition of Hunde and Nande, on the one hand, against the Banyarwanda (supported by the Bashi), on the other hand. The conflict revolved around the issue of land, much of which had fallen under the control of Banyarwanda.

The return of stability in the country in the early 1970s coincided with the increase in migration in the region from Rwanda and Burundi due to political turmoil and radicalisation in both countries.2 This was almost concomitant with the ascent of individuals from Rwandan origin to strategic positions of power within the Congolese national institutions (the most prominent case being the appointment of Barthélemy Bisengimana Rwema3 to the position of Chief of Cabinet in the presidency between 1969 and 1977), resulting in their improved political, economic and social status, enabled by the enactment of Ordinance-Law nº 71-002 of 28 March 1971 and Law nº 72-002 of 5 January 1972 on citizenship. Both legislations are explained later in the text.

Until 1987, North Kivu was simply a district of the Kivu province that encompassed the current provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema. It is only at the Fourth Ordinary Congress of the then single party in the country, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR), held in Kinshasa in May 1988, that a resolution was put forward that ‘in order to draw the masses closer to the leaders’, provinces should be downsized. However, very surprisingly, Kivu – one of the smallest provinces in the country at the time – was chosen as the first case in this experiment. It was split into three different provinces, namely South Kivu, North Kivu and Maniema.

This ‘administrative reform’ thus brought about by the single-party Congress resolution contributed to placing North Kivu into the contention perspectives of both national and regional politics. At the national level, the provincial status implied more political awareness and activities as political opportunities and incentives drew closer to the masses. At the regional level, it provided higher levels of authority – both civilian and military – and competence to enforce, or sometimes curtail, compliance on issues of land and citizenship.

3. Snapshot on the biodiversity of the North Kivu province

Until 1990, North Kivu was a marvellous province in the DRC, one of the main tourist attractions in the country. The province encompasses a wonderful and diversified fauna and flora, comprised of a large variety of species, including endangered ones. The province is home to extinct as well as active volcanoes which include Nyamulagira (the one that commands) and Nyiragongo (the one that smokes). The six extinct volcanoes are Mikeno, Karisimbi, Visoke, Sabinio, Gahinga and Muhavura. The Virunga volcanic rift is 90 km long and between 20 and 30 km wide. Adjacent to the volcanoes is Lake Kivu at about 1 500 m altitude. Rich with methane gas, the lake is 485 m deep and lies on 2 700 km2. Of much importance in the Virunga volcanoes setup is the Mikeno sector. It is the portion of Virunga National Park that forms the Congolese component of the Virunga Massif and the dormant volcanoes. It is contiguous to Rwandan Volcanoes National Park and Ugandan Mbahinga Gorilla National Park. With an area totalling 250 km2 (more than the half of the Virunga Massif), it is the largest component of the Virunga volcanoes and is, in terms of biodiversity, the richest. It is, according to Kalpers (cited by Hecker 2005:10), ‘the only component to have conserved its lower reaches, which play an important role in the seasonal movements of a number of animal species: buffalos, elephants and, especially, gorillas’. Lastly, Lanjouw and others (cited by Hecker 2005:10) noted that ‘[u]ntil the recent crisis in the region, the Mikeno sector of the park was the primary source of income for the protected area authorities, generating funds through tourism for the protection of all the parks in the country. Most of the funds came from tourists visiting the five groups of habituated gorillas in their natural habitat’.

The region also plays host to a rift of mountains, from one of which Goma, the name of the capital city of the province, is derived. Farther in Nande lands, the province includes part of Lake Albert lying between the DRC and Uganda. The recent discovery of oil reserves in the lake has sparked suspicion and tension between the two countries. The exploitation of this wealth, it is argued, will either accelerate cooperation between the DRC and Uganda or contribute to further severing the already tense relations between them. The Grabben plateaus in the same area provide not only fertile soil to agriculture, but also utility grazing for cattle. Moreover, prospecting projects conducted in the area have attested of the existence of vast oil reserves. With regard to farming, North Kivu has been until recent years one of the most productive provinces of the DRC, supplying markets in both the east and the west regions of the country.

More importantly, human resource is another valuable asset the province boasts. With an area amounting to 59 631 km2, North Kivu is literally larger than Burundi and Rwanda combined.4 Besides Kinshasa which, in Congolese administrative legal framework, enjoys a provincial status, North Kivu is the province with the highest population density in the country: 80 inhabitants per km2 (as opposed to an average of 26 for the country).5 This density would under normal circumstances give impetus to the province in terms of productivity and growth.

The weather in the province is significantly shaped by the region’s landscape and ecology, making it one of the most balanced in tropical Africa. Lastly, the Virunga National Park stands out to embed the very identity of the whole province. The park was established in 1925 and has been subsequently designated a World Heritage Site and a World Heritage Site in Danger in 1979 and 1994 respectively. Running over 8 000 km2, the park ‘encompasses a remarkable variety of ecosystems: high altitude forests and mountainous habitats, low-altitude forests, lava fields, plains and savannas, lakes and wetlands’ (Hecker 2005:10), to which should be added mountain gorillas as well as some eastern lowland gorillas.

The biodiversity described above presents North Kivu with valuable opportunities, conducive to accelerated growth and development in the province. Up to now, the province has instead been caught between new theories of ‘resource curse’ as the availability of natural resources turns out to be the very factor triggering and escalating violent conflicts in the region.

4. Conflict and its impact on environmental security in North Kivu

Background to the conflict in North Kivu

The root causes of the conflict in North Kivu are as complex as the conflict itself. They may be located in such diverse factors as the dual land acquisition and tenure systems (customary and common laws), the unwillingness and/or inability of the state (both colonial and post-colonial) to scrutinise Rwandans’ and Burundians’ migration and settlement in the region, the crisis of citizenship, demographic pressure, the political manipulation of identity as well as the impact of crises in neighbouring countries – especially in Rwanda. Rebellions and other armed groups that have been operating in the province prior to and since the settlement of Hutu Rwandan refugees in 1994 are simply symptoms of the conflicts while poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment can be considered as accelerating conditions.

According to Vlassenroot (2006:52), ‘[w]hile the nature of the Congolese political system has undeniable impact, the local potential for social conflict [in Kivu] rests on its geographical position and local history. Political events in both [Kivu] provinces have always been linked to the social and political dynamics of neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, illustrated by the history of the Banyarwanda and Barundi migration to Congo’.6 He, therefore, asserts that ‘the conflict in the Kivus [is] based mainly on issues of land access and citizenship’.

Lemarchand (2001:25–26) has identified land as the single independent variable in the unrest in the Kivu region. He writes, ‘Basically, the roots of the Kivu crisis center on land issues. These are traceable in part to the legacy of Belgian policies, in part to the critical role played by one of Mobutu’s most trusted advisers and chief of staff – a Tutsi “fifty-niner”7 named Bisengimana’. In an attempt to locate the source of the crisis, Lemarchand (2001:26) argues that [t]he key to the situation lies in Rwanda. Land hunger in the Kivu would have never reached such critical dimensions had it not been for (a) the long-term effects of Belgian policies in ‘facilitating’ the immigration of tens of thousands of Rwandan families to North Kivu in order to meet the labor demands of European planters, along with the designation of hundreds of thousands of acres as ‘vacant lands’ so as to turn them into protected parklands; and (b) the crucial role played by Tutsi refugees from Rwanda revolution (1959–1962) in appropriating large tracts of land at the expense of the ‘indigenous’ communities. This is where Bisengimana – himself, like many of his kinsmen, one of the largest landowners in the Kivu – bears considerable responsibility in heightening tensions between the Banyarwanda and native Congolese.

But the confusion brought in by the Belgian colonisation and the Mobutu regime was further aggravated in 1993 when the first large-scale armed conflict opposed ‘natives’ Hunde and Nyanga to ‘migrants’ Hutu and Tutsi.8 This turmoil related to the democratisation process inaugurated in April 1990 as well as the ‘géopolitique‘ administrative system introduced by Mobutu that advocated for positions of authority to be awarded only to those who were ‘indigenous’ to a given area. In North Kivu, this called for a ‘re-visitation’ of the debate of ethnicity and citizenship in the province. This came at a time when many Hutu farmers in Masisi had lost lands after these were sold to rural capitalists of Tutsi origin (eventually belonging to the 1959–1962 generation). As they attempted to settle on lands in Walikale,9 they were met with protests of people and chiefs in that territory who, subsequently, initiated militia groups to ‘protect and defend ancestral lands’.

However, other factors contributed to the misfortune of the Banyarwanda. Firstly, Hunde and Nande politicians were engaged in forming coalitions that would enable them to resist any registration of Banyarwanda as Congolese and, subsequently, as voters, for this would jeopardise their own chances in case of elections. Many among them went as far as recruiting and arming youths to operate as tribal militias. This led to the ‘Masisi first war’ in the first half of 1993 that ‘lasted for more than six months and killed between 6,000 and 10,000 people, while displacing more than 250,000 [others]’ (Vlassenroot and Huggins 2005:146).

Secondly, the situation in Rwanda was tense as the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) represented an imminent threat to the Hutu-dominated Habyarimana regime, despite the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. Development in neighbouring Rwanda thus played a role as a mobilising factor for the unification of Hutu in the DRC and their split with the Tutsi. A year later, the massive arrival in Kivu of millions of Hutu refugees fleeing Rwanda during and after the genocide brought additional dimensions to the crisis. The presence of soldiers from the defeated Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and especially the Interahamwe militia reproduced in the DRC the Rwandan ethnic bipolarisation, ‘compelling’ local Hutu to sympathise with the refugees. This situation provided the stage for the ‘Masisi second war’ (1995–1996) pitting all Hutu on the one hand against ‘native’ Congolese and Tutsi on the other hand.

The advent of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (AFDL) rebellion led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila in late 1996 redefined alliances in the region. With much of the fighting force within the rebellion supplied by the RPF-controlled Rwandan national army, Hutu populations in Kivu – whether refugees or not – stood helpless on the losing side as local populations negotiated new alliances with the Tutsi. When the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) emerged two years later to fight against Kabila, the remnants of the ex-FAR army and Interahamwe militia were already in the process of reorganising themselves into the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) which is currently operational in Kivu. In the meantime, the Mai-Mai militias have sought to build their capacity through setting up cooperation mechanisms among them while former RCD Tutsi renegade General Nkunda set up the Conseil National pour la Défense du Peuple in 2008, arguably to protect Tutsi against threats of extermination represented by the FDLR.

Land and demographic pressure: At the centre of conflict and environmental insecurity in North Kivu

Due to the general resentment over colonial policies on land applied by the Belgians, the land issue turned out to be a matter of assertion of national sovereignty in the very aftermath of independence in 1960. If the political instability that paralysed the country between 1960 and 1965 did not enable a quick move towards reforming land laws, Mobutu set himself up to this task as soon as he came into power in November 1965 through a military coup. On 7 June 1966, he promulgated what is referred to as ‘Bakajika Law’. The law aimed to regulate land ownership in the country. It emphasised that the state reserves right on any land in the country. A similar mention appears in article 9 of the current Congolese constitution (adopted by referendum in February 2006). But what was at stake in 1966?

The colonial land ownership model distinguished between portions of land left to indigenous populations, mostly as tribal groups in rural areas, and the large areas owned by the state. The former encompassed the spaces duly occupied by communities as well as such reasonable others they were believed to need for their subsistence farming activities. Beyond this, the state regulated the distribution of land. In a very large and sparsely populated country at the time, the colonial state and its allies ‘owned’ up to 80% of the best lands in the DRC. Bakajika Law, therefore, removed the colonial order by restituting to the state all lands rights issued by the colonial state.

However, the law clashed with the social approach on land which, in virtually the entire Congo, is managed by customary law. Under Congolese customary law, the notion of ‘terres vacantes‘ (‘un-owned’ lands) does not exist insofar as every piece of land, occupied or unoccupied, belongs to a specific tribal community, shared among its clans, lineages and families. Given the chronic weakness of the common legal regime in the country, aggravated by the weakening of the state capacity, customary law regulates the lives of the vast majority of the Congolese population.

But besides the legal system, the problem of land crisis is further complicated by demographic pressure due to the population growth rate (3,5% per year) as well as migration.

Approached holistically, the land hunger issue may be contained if the weight of customary law and ownership of land could be eased. For example, Walikale, which is indeed the largest entity (territory) in the province, has a lower population compared with the much smaller Masisi. But the sensitivity of human settlement in the region combined with the persistence of customary law and the de facto precedence of the latter on common law with respect to the management of land continues to impede any policy of an even redistribution of population around the province.

Demographic pressure and its impact on conflict in North Kivu also ought to be put into context. In this regard, Varga and others (2002:26) argue that ‘[n]ot only is population density and growth an important element [in the likelihood of conflict], also the age composition of a population is a powerful element in explaining societies’ tendencies to violence. The younger the population, the greater the potential for violence. Also the level of education and the rates of unemployment are vital elements’. This argument perfectly fits into the current situation in North Kivu. In a national economic predicament characterised by persistent decline, the majority of the estimated 4 780 170 total population of the North Kivu province is unemployed and relies on subsistence farming to make a living. Although the exact percentage of youth within the population may not be directly accessible, it is easy to grasp the importance of such a group by referring to the average life expectancy in the province which stands at 43,7 years. The same applies to the general level of education which can be perceived through the low rate of enrolment in primary school, standing at an average of 34,1% (far below the national average of 51,7%) as well as the 5,2% adult literacy, lagging behind the national rate of 68,1%.10

As stated earlier, the land crisis in North Kivu is equally exacerbated by migration, both past and present. Over the years, migration in North Kivu has mainly involved people from Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, from Burundi. If anything, the issue of migration in North Kivu contributes to linking the land question to the problematic issue of identity, understood as both ethnicity and citizenship.

Pabanel (1991:32–35) identifies five factors as contributors to the Rwandan settlement in Kivu. These include:

  • The 1910 convention on the delineation of boundaries between Belgian and German possessions that led to the inclusion of Kinyarwanda-speaking areas such as Bwisha, Kanurunsi, Idjwi Island and Gishari into the Congo;
  • The Mission d’Immigration des Banyarwanda11 with its two objectives, namely easing human pressure on Rwanda and providing for labour in the Congo;
  • Continuous recruitment of Rwandan workers who, eventually, did not return to Rwanda thereafter but instead settled in their new locations, generally in the mining areas of Kivu, Maniema and Katanga;
  • Political refugees made up of those who entered the DRC during and in the aftermath of the 1959–1961 Hutu revolution in Rwanda; and
  • Clandestine immigrants fleeing overpopulation and the subsequent scarcity of resources.

Table 1 provides an indication of the linkage between migration, land and conflict in North Kivu, although the figures it contains date back to the 1990s (anyway, no proper population census has been conducted in the DRC since 1984!).

Table 1: Importance of immigrants in the total population of North Kivu (1990 and 1994)

Territory Size in km2 Population
Nationals Immigrants Total population % of immigrants
1990 1994 1990 1994 1990 1994 1990 1994
Masisi 7 484 172 166 149 981 320 811 366 175 492 977 516 156 65,08 70,94
Rutshuru 18 096 381 077 410 520 100 849 105 153 481 926 515 673 20,92 20,39
Lubero 5 289 767 835 788 347 3 325 3 048 771 160 791 395 0,43 0,38
Beni 4 734 651 990 681 155 1 013 572 653 003 681 727 0,16 0,08
Walikale 23 475 166 411 417 640 23 094 38 377 189 505 456 017 12,19 8,42
Nyirangongo 163 24 939 24 277 4 511 24 939 28 788 15,67
City of Goma 76 102 796 155 200 15 090 32 340 117 886 187 540 12,80 17,24
Provincial Total 59 31712 2 267 214 2 627 120 464 182 550 176 2 731 396 3 177 296 16,99 17,32
Source: author’s own compilation working with data obtained from Pabanel (1991:36)13 and Ministère du Plan (2005:34–35).14

As a legacy of colonialism and the introduction of the modern state, there has emerged the contentious issue of a dual system with regard to land acquisition and ownership in virtually all parts of the DRC, and even more critically in North Kivu, mainly because of the relative land hunger in the province.

Whereas the colonial state as well as the successive regimes that have ruled over the DRC since independence have sought to enforce common law with regard to the acquisition and tenure of land in the country (including North Kivu), traditional leadership has consistently upheld customary law, emphasising the principle of collective ownership of every existing land by the respective tribes.

The irony of linking land acquisition and tenure to tribe or ethnicity, insofar as the DRC is concerned, lies in the fact that, since colonisation, citizenship has always been linked to tribe or ethnicity. In this context, it is not surprising that the issue of land in North Kivu becomes directly connected to the problem of citizenship. In both 1971 and 1972, Mobutu had hoped to resolve the crisis of citizenship in the region by enacting Ordinance-Law n° 71-002 of 28 March 1971 and Law n° 72-002 of 5 January 1972. The first granted Zairian (Congolese) citizenship to people of Rwandan and Burundian origins established on the territory of the Congo before 30 June 1960 (Ndaywel è Nziem 1998:703). In its article 15, the second (Law n° 72-002) stated that people of Rwandan and Burundian origins who had been established in the Kivu15 province before 1 January 1950 and had subsequently continuously lived in the country were granted Congolese citizenship as from 30 June 1960.

These two pieces of legislation did not solve the problem of citizenship in North Kivu for a number of reasons, cardinal among which were the lack of clearly defined implementation and enforcement measures and the resistance on the part of traditional leaders to abide fully by the provisions of the new laws. Instead, the crisis of citizenship in the region was further exacerbated following the enactment (by Mobutu) of Law n° 81-002 on 29 June 1981. This new law abrogated Ordinance-Law n° 71-002 and Law n° 72-002 as well as rejected the ‘collective’ approach of granting Congolese citizenship (to people of Rwandan and Burundian origins). Emphasising acquisition on an individual case as the mode of accessing Congolese citizenship, Law n° 81-002 provided that immigrants (including Rwandans and Burundians) thus acquiring Congolese citizenship could not qualify to hold political office. According to Lemarchand (2001:26), ‘[b]y 1981 the land problem and the nationality question had become both sides of the same coin’.

Law-Decree n° 197 of 29 January 1999, enacted by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, did not alter the status quo with regard to the citizenship of populations of Rwandan and Burundian origins for it did not abrogate Law n° 81-002, but simply sought to complement it. Lastly, Law n° 04/024 of 12 November 2004 has attempted to clarify past contentious issues by choosing independence day (30 June 1960) as point of departure for the acquisition of Congolese citizenship as well as by granting Congolese citizenship not only to tribal or ethnic groups that had formed part of colonial Congo, but also to nationalities that were located on Congolese territory during the same period (article 4). Though the law does not explicitly indicate the nationalities being alluded to, it is logical to assume that they include populations of Rwandan and Burundian origins.

Environmental insecurity in North Kivu

It has been argued earlier that, from a density point of view, North Kivu is the most populated province of the DRC (of course besides Kinshasa). Its regions surrounding the Virunga National Park are even more so due to the abundance of natural resources and highly fertile soil.

However, as a geographical entity, North Kivu is naturally a region prone to environmental insecurity. Lake Kivu contains methane gas that not only impedes the development of many maritime species but also may endanger human life in case of submarine volcanic eruption or a major earthquake. The sulphur-heavy smoke permanently emitted by Nyiragongo volcano may also cause intoxication. And the activities of both Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira volcanoes have always been issues of major concern for the region and its population. Since 2000, Nyiragongo has erupted once, in January 2002, sweeping 17% of Goma city and 80% of its business, destroying 14 villages and killing more than 100 people. For the same period, Nyamulagira has reportedly erupted six times (in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006), without major destruction and sometimes unnoticed. And, lastly, Goma itself is built on a thick mixture of volcanic products. In this situation, for many inhabitants of Goma and its surroundings, rebuilding homes and lives due to volcanic eruptions or major earthquakes has become an integral part of a natural process in the evolution of life.

Environmental destruction in North Kivu is also caused by deforestation, wildlife exploitation, soil erosion as well as the movements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. Deforestation is an old activity in the area. Trees are cut for commercial use as well as for firewood and construction. These activities intensified in 1994 after the settlement of Rwandan refugees as their camps (Mugunga, Kahindo and Kibumba) were erected around the park area. McNeely (2002, cited by Huggins et al. [2006]:401) writes in this regard:

The … refugee flow into the DRC had a massive effect on the Virunga volcanoes region, as around 850 000 refugees … were living in close proximity to the Virunga National Park, relying upon it for firewood, timber and food to supplement that supplied by relief agencies. This resulted, among other impacts, in the loss of some 300 km2 of forest. As many as 40 000 people entered the park each day to harvest forest products and hunt wild animals, including elephant, hippopotamus, and buffalo.

In the same vein, Hart and Mwinyihali (2001, cited by Huggins et al. [2006]:402) argue that:

[w]hile details of the environmental impacts of the war in the DRC are sketchy, and sometimes completely absent, there is evidence of overexploitation; this was particularly evident near refugee camps between 1994 and 1996. During the refugee crisis, which saw close to one million people settled in refugee camps in and around Africa’s oldest national park and a natural World Heritage Site – the Virunga National Park – large-scale destruction occurred. Large numbers of animals such as hippos, buffalo and antelope were targeted by both militias and the military. Poaching for bushmeat escalated alarmingly everywhere. Deforestation in the park was also a major problem as refugees cut down trees for fuel wood. An uncontrolled incremental increase in logging has become serious in unprotected forests, which have been severely looted and tramped, particularly along the eastern border with Uganda.

Deforestation is also a consequence of agricultural activities generally practised by the population, the majority of whom, especially in rural areas, live on farming. Wildlife exploitation is also much related to deforestation and, like agriculture, it has been a long-standing practice in the region. In an area where bush meat is part of the common meal and its business quite lucrative, poaching and hunting become a major challenge for authorities in the region. It endangers the life of not only the animals but also of people working to protect the reserves. As McNeely (2002, cited by Huggins et al. [2006]:401) clearly puts it, ‘Currently, one of the most serious problems for park management is the murderous activities of the remnants of former Interahamwe/Rwandan Armed Forces… At least 80 of Virunga’s park staff have been killed by insurgents’.

Like deforestation, poaching and hunting intensified in the aftermath of the arrival of Rwandan refugees in 1994. The activity is also believed to involve members of the military, militias and rebel groups who make use of their firearms to engage in such practices.

Soil erosion equally represents a major challenge to environmental security in North Kivu. Soil erosion in the region is mostly caused by the intense use of land for farming and also by deforestation. As of 15 April 2004, the Kinshasa office of the Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) had estimated 713 000 IDPs in North Kivu. This figure has since decreased due to relative improvements in the security situation in the province. Nevertheless, the presence of IDPs and refugees in the region has always caused serious damage on the environment.

5. Environmental peacebuilding16 in North Kivu: The human security face of peace

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (1997, cited by Huggins et al. [2006]:375) once declared that ‘[s]afeguarding the environment is a crosscutting United Nations’ activity. It is a guiding principle of all our work in support of sustainable development. It is an essential component of poverty eradication and one of the foundations of peace and security’.

The way forward in North Kivu, insofar as the impact of the conflict on environmental security is concerned, would be to focus on environmental peacebuilding. This will take the form of preventing conflicts that are generated by unequal distribution of resources as well as reviving and/or setting up mechanisms for trans-boundary cooperation between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC on environmental issues.

Given the complexity of the conflict in North Kivu, no proposal of a solution may be seen as a panacea. Preventing conflict in the region implies addressing its root causes, namely the land and identity questions. This cannot be imagined without the Congolese state re-asserting its full authority not only in the region, but also throughout the whole country. The general elections held in 2006 have provided an opportunity to undertake such an endeavour. However, success or failure will mainly depend on the boldness of current political office bearers at both national and provincial levels to confront these very sensitive issues of nationality and land in North Kivu. But more importantly, in order to address the land question at the centre of the conflict, there is need to focus on the social conditions that prevail in the area. These include extreme poverty, lack of development opportunities and high level of unemployment that maintain large numbers of people on subsistence farming activities.

Accelerated economic development, provision of jobs and of meaningful poverty alleviation programmes coupled with sustained urbanisation and improvement of the infrastructure (including that of the education sector) bear the potential of reducing pressure on land. But all these transformations should not be limited to North Kivu. They ought to encompass the whole Kivu region and the entire country. In the meantime, all contentious cases of significant land ownership ought to be revisited, while the customary law needs to be constrained to its applications that do not contradict the Congolese common law.

Projects aimed at accelerating economic and social development in the region cannot take off before the issue of armed groups in the region is fully addressed. Political solutions need to be found for the armed groups still operating in the region and for the Mai-Mai militias. Concerted efforts to negotiate the return of the FDLR to Rwanda need to be undertaken by the government of the DRC, Rwanda, the international community and the FDLR.

The issue of citizenship in the region needs very careful and particular attention. This is a very important matter given the new political dispensation in the country as it provides for periodical popular elections at all levels. As the delineation of constituencies will, to a very significant extent, impact on the orientation of the votes – and of the elected leaders thereof – a very transparent, inclusive and meticulous task of identification needs to be undertaken in earnest. This should be followed by a very effective national policy on the management of migration and migrants in the DRC in general, in North Kivu in particular.

Lastly, the question of conflict and environmental insecurity in North Kivu cannot be addressed without taking into account its regional dimension. There are two aspects to this, namely improving political and security cooperation between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC as well as setting up intergovernmental mechanisms for improved cooperation on the management of what is referred to as the Virunga-Bwindi Region (that includes the Virunga National Park in the DRC, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda as well as the Mbahinga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda). A consultative management of this zone is crucial for the security of the three countries as it has been for years a sanctuary for militias and other armed groups operating in the region. It currently hosts such groups as the FDLR, remnants of Nkunda’s CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People), Mai-Mai militias and elements of Joseph Koni’s Lord’s Resistance Army. With regard to political and security cooperation, the time has come for the three countries to improve diplomatic cooperation, refrain from supporting rebel movements in neighbouring countries and set up mechanisms for regular consultations on security matters.


  1. Hecker, Jeanna Hyde 2005. Promoting environmental security and poverty alleviation in Virunga-Bwindi, Great Lakes Africa. The Hague, Institute for Environmental Security.
  2. Huggins, Chris, Munyaradzi Chenje and Jennifer Mohamed-Katerere 2006. Environment for peace and regional cooperation. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 August 2010].
  3. Jourdan, Luca 2005. New forms of political order in North Kivu. The case of the governor Eugene Serufuli. Paper presented at a conference on the theme ‘Beside the state. New forms of political power in post-1990’s Africa’. Milan, December 2005.
  4. Lemarchand, René 2000. Exclusion, marginalization and political mobilization: The road to hell in the Great Lakes. Occasional Paper, Centre for African Studies, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen.
  5. Lemarchand, René 2001. The Democratic Republic of Congo: From collapse to potential reconstruction. Occasional Paper, Centre for African Studies, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen.
  6. Lemarchand, René 2009. The dynamics of violence in central Africa. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Mamdani, Mahmood 2001. When victims become killers. Colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
  8. Miall, Hugh, Oliver Ramsbotham and Tom Woodhouse 1999. Contemporary conflict resolution: The prevention, management and transformation of violent conflicts. Cambridge, Polity Press.
  9. Ministère du Plan 2005. Monographie de la province du Nord-Kivu. Kinshasa, Unité de pilotage du processus DSRP.
  10. Ndaywel è Nziem, Isidore 1998. Histoire générale du Congo. De l’héritage ancien í  la République Démocratique. Paris/Brussels, Duculot.
  11. Pabanel, Jean-Pierre 1991. La question de la nationalité au Kivu. Politique Africaine, 41, pp. 32–40.
  12. Province du Nord-Kivu 2007. Programme du Gouvernement du Nord-Kivu, Mai 2007. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 February 2010].
  13. Stark, Jeffrey 2005. Environmental security: From theory and cases to policy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Hilton Hawaiian Village,
  14. Honolulu, Hawaii, March 2005. Available from: <> [Accessed 6 January 2011].
  15. Trefon, Theodore 2005. The social cost of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In: Chabal, P., U. Engel and A.-M. Gentili, eds. Is violence inevitable in Africa? Theories of conflict and approaches to conflict prevention. Leiden/Boston, Brill.
  16. Vansina, Jan 1966. Introduction í  l’ethnographie du Congo. Kinshasa/Kisangani/Lubumbashi/Brussels, CRISP.
  17. Varga, Sonja, Abdul-Rasheed Draman and Koren Marriot 2002. Conflict risk assessment report.
  18. African Great Lakes: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda. Country Indicators for Foreign Policy Project. The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, Ottawa.
  19. Vlassenroot, Koen 2006. A societal view on violence and war. Conflict and militia formation in eastern Congo. In: Kaarsholm, Preben ed. Violence, political culture and development in Africa. Oxford/Athens/Pietermaritzburg, James Currey/Ohio University Press/University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. pp. 49–65.
  20. Vlassenroot, Koen and Chris Huggins 2005. Land, immigration and conflict in eastern DRC. In: Huggins, Chris and Jenny Clover eds. From the ground up. Land rights, conflict and peace in sub-Saharan Africa. Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies. pp. 115–194.


  1. The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kenyan Professor and environmentalist Wangari Maathai while the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was shared by former United States vice-President-turned-environment-campaigner Al Gore and the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).
  2. In this regard, one needs to recall that in the years 1972 and 1973, Burundi and Rwanda witnessed cases of appalling genocides. In Burundi, in reaction to a Hutu insurrection near Bujumbura that killed between 2 000 and 3 000 civilian Tutsi, Captain Michel Micombero (the Tutsi President who took power in November 1966 and proclaimed Burundi a republic) unleashed genocide reprisals aimed at eliminating the entire Hutu educated population. Between 100 000 and 200 000 civilian Hutu were killed while 150 000 fled the country. In the meantime, in 1973, Rwanda’s Hutu President (Grégoire Kayibanda) was deposed by his Hutu army chief of staff (General Juvénal Habyarimana). This resulted in government-orchestrated attacks on Kayibanda’s supporters and the Tutsi population, resulting in thousands of deaths and vast waves of migration. See Lemarchand 2009:69–78.
  3. Bisengimana was a political Tutsi refugee of the ‘1959 generation’ who had graduated as an electrical engineer from the University of Lovanium (Kinshasa). During his study days, he had served as the chairperson of Rwandan students at Lovanium. See Lemarchand 2000:11; Ndaywel è Nziem 1998:703.
  4. Burundi has an area of 27 830 km2 while the total land area of Rwanda extends to 26 798 km2.
  5. See Province du Nord-Kivu 2007.
  6. On the issue of the impact of political dynamics in Rwanda and its impact on North Kivu, Mamdani (2001:234) reported an interview he conducted with one local in the region who stated, ‘Ethnic conflicts are cyclic, with each ethnic group (Tutsi versus Hutu) taking in turn power and misfortune. The fate of one today is the fate of the other tomorrow. The consequence of cyclical fortunes is that when they return, not everyone returns, some remain. Those who remain become Congolese’.
  7. ‘Fifty-niner’ is a neologism coined by Lemarchand to refer to a Rwandan (Tutsi) individual that had fled Rwanda amid the 1959 Hutu revolution and sought asylum in a foreign country, including the DRC.
  8. A remarkable and instructive account of this episode and the period that followed may be found in Vlassenroot and Huggins 2005:115–194. Read especially pp. 145–148.
  9. With its 23 475 km2, Walikale is almost as big as the entire state of Rwanda (26 798 km2). Yet, Walikale’s population hardly reaches 1 million (its projected population for 2004 was estimated at 612 847), in contrast to Rwanda’s 9,5 million. See Ministère du Plan 2005:29.
  10. 2005 estimates. For indices relating to the size of population, life expectancy and school enrolment, See Province du Nord-Kivu 2007.
  11. According to Pabanel (1991:33–34), ‘[t]hese new immigrants supplied the necessary labour for the large colonial coffee, tea or cotton estates and cattle ranches in the Kivu highlands, where they were settled on land controlled by ‘autochthonous’ ethnic groups such as the Bahunde [Masisi] and Banyanga [Walikale]’. By 1955, Pabanel asserts, the ‘newcomers’ had occupied a space by far exceeding the initially agreed upon territory (350 km2), especially in Masisi. Guichaoua (1989) speaks of more than 150 000 hectares or 1 500 km2.
  12. This figure was arrived at by summing up the areas of different territories making up the North Kivu province. However, the official monograph by the province itself indicates 59 631 km2 as the official land mass area covered by the province.
  13. Pabanel indicates that 90% of foreigners are Rwandans. Ugandan migration toward the region remains very low. Pabanel also admits that data compiled in his table were obtained from unofficial sources at the provincial migration division.
  14. Data used in the provincial monograph were obtained from the provincial Division of Interior and Traditional Affairs as well as the provincial Division of Planning.
  15. The emphasis on Kivu was, in itself, problematic since Kinyarwanda-speaking populations brought to Congo by Belgian authorities through labour transplantation did not all settle in Kivu, some having been taken as far as the mining areas and railway construction sites in Katanga.
  16. For further reading on environmental peacebuilding, see Miall et al. 1999:22.