For many years, the GLR has been characterized by a high level of insecurity and political instability; this has impacted negatively on the livelihoods of rural communities and the environment. Three of the four countries have experienced civil unrest and sporadic episodes of violence since independence; this has had cross-border effects particularly the movement of refugees and has contributed to regional tensions.

Table 1: Affected populations in the Great Lakes Region
Country IDPs Refugees Total affected populations

Burundi 432 818 28 800 461 618
DRC 2 045 000 361 720 2 406 720
Tanzania not available 543 145 543 145
Uganda 535 107 175 819 710 926
Total 3 012 925 1 143 418 4 156 343

Source: UNS/SCN 2002

Figure 4: Protected areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and major political/military divisions 2001 The most dramatic events unfolded in the early 1990s, when communal violence erupted in parts of eastern DRC, and there was a resurgence of civil war in Burundi due to the assassination of the president, followed by genocide in Rwanda in 1994 during which more than 500 000 people are reported to have been killed. The resulting refugee flow into the DRC had a massive effect on the Virunga volcanoes region, as around 850 000 refugees (and genocidaires – those who had committed genocide) 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 (McNeely 2002). This blow to regional biodiversity was compounded by the resettlement of many refugees, who had been in exile for many years, in the Akagera National Park of Rwanda. In 1956, the Akagera was 331 000 ha; it has as a result of this settlement been reduced to 90 000 ha, less than a third of its original size.

The Virunga National Park is located in an area of high population density, and is used by some communities for firewood, charcoal, artisanal mining and limited cultivation. Given the high level of land scarcity in the vicinity, there are many requests from local people, supported by local chiefs, that the park boundaries be revised and its area reduced. The Virunga and other national parks in the DRC suffered overexploitation during the war with different military groups establishing control of the parks (see Box 8).

Box 8: Democratic Republic of the Congo: national parks overexploited

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the richest countries in Africa, possessing more species of birds and mammals than any other African country and other natural resources. It is also the poorest, arguably suffering the most due to overexploitation caused by armed conflict, particularly over the last 15 years. Both protected and unprotected areas have suffered looting and plunder as revenue has been ploughed back into war.

In the absence of a strong government and institutions to “protect its natural heritage, the known value of valuable resources – gold, diamonds, timber, and tantalite – becomes the only credible tender for profiteers of all political labels.”

While 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 fuelwood. An uncontrolled incremental increase in logging has become serious in unprotected forests, which have been severely looted and trampled, particularly along the eastern border with Uganda.

In the 4 900 km² Garamba National Park, in northern DRC along its border with Sudan, law enforcement capacity was severely crippled when the entire park’s logistical equipment (including fuel, radios and vehicles) was looted and national park guards disarmed. The Garamba was one of the first protected areas in the DRC affected by armed conflict, when 80 000 refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan were set up in camps starting in 1991 on the park’s borders.

Elephant poaching as well as illegal “coltan” (colombo-tantalite) and gold mining have since 2000, become major problems in the 13 400 km² Okapi Faunal Reserve.

Source: Hart and Mwinyihali 2001

Currently, one of the most serious problems for park management is the murderous activities of the remnants of former Interahamwe/Rwandan Armed Forces who carried out the Rwandan genocide and are intent on gaining control of neighbouring Rwanda through force. At least 80 of Virunga’s park staff have been killed by insurgents (McNeely 2002). These forces also remain a threat to local people, on whom they prey in order to survive. Their raids on local villages – which reportedly include villages of Hutus who refuse to send men to join them – are characterized by severe brutality and widespread sexual violence against women (ACTS 2005). They are reported to have bases in the Virunga National Park, and their presence has also been one of the reasons for international tensions and fighting between troops of various forces. Militia activities have also affected management of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DRC, where fighting and widespread human rights abuses in and around South Kivu in late 2004 affected the ability of NGOs to help develop the capacity of the park management (ACTS 2005).

In Rwanda, there were serious environmental impacts of the civil war (1990-1994). Hundreds of hectares of high-altitude forest were cut down for fuelwood and timber by IDP, many of whom were forced onto steep, ecologically fragile hillsides in the densely-populated northwest. About 15 000 ha of plantation forest were destroyed, and 35 000 ha damaged, during the conflict and the immediate aftermath (Kairaba 2002). The resulting degradation has forced rural people into a vicious cycle of poverty (Gasana 2002).

The lack of protection for the national parks meant that poaching and harvesting of natural resources greatly increased. Indeed, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) used the Parc National des Volcans (PNV) to launch their incursion, and the area suffered as a result of the military activities there. For example, in 1991 the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) cut a swathe 50-100 m wide bordering an important trail through the bamboo forest in the park, in order to reduce the threat of ambush (Shambaugh and others 2001). Many animals were also killed in the Akagera National Park by the military (FAR and RPF) between 1990 and 1993 (Plumptre and others 2001).

In the south of the country, the Nyungwe Forest Park which is contiguous with the Kibira Forest Park in neighbouring Burundi, was affected by poaching in the years after the genocide. The last elephant was killed in 1999, and the number of ungulates was also seriously affected. In the PNV, on the DRC border in the northwest, the aftermath of genocide and war has been widespread poverty, which combined with few other livelihood options, encourages poaching. Research suggests that many households living within 2.5 km of the park are involved, either in terms of hunting wildlife in the park, killing wildlife that stray into fields, or buying bushmeat (Plumptre 2002). The survey, which is likely to have produced conservative figures because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggests that 11 per cent of households near the PNV hunt in the park use snares. Almost a third admitted to killing animals that stray onto their fields, while a further third admitted to buying wild meat. Hunting was strongly associated with poverty, as well as close proximity to the park. In addition to local sale, animals are sometimes caught for sale further afield: in early 2004, a live baby gorilla (gorilla spp.) was found by police in a house in Ruhengeri, while poaching of chimpanzees was recorded in the same area in 2003. Birds are also reportedly poached for sale.

Uganda’s biodiversity has also been affected by violence, especially during the periods of extreme civil instability in the 1980s. During these periods, there was a breakdown in government capacity to manage protected areas, and there was massive exploitation of the unique Bwindi forest, in terms of gold extraction, timber harvesting, and hunting of wildlife (Hamilton and others 2000). This impacted negatively on the tourism industry (Kalpers 2001). In 2006, as a result of over 20 years of civil war in northern Uganda, up to 70 per cent of the population live in extreme poverty (IRIN 2006).