Today, the world faces more active armed conflicts than at any point since the end of World War II. Yet, the U.S. government spends only one dollar on peacebuilding for every 200 dollars we spend on war. Lawmakers can save lives, prevent suffering, and save U.S. taxpayer dollars by investing in key peacebuilding accounts.
Recently, the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) Peacebuilding team spoke with Hervé Mbouri, a Cameroonian protection and peacebuilding specialist working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Hervé works with Search for Common Ground, one of the largest peacebuilding organizations focused on ending violent conflict around the world.
The investments we make as a nation have critical impacts all around the world. Recently, FCNL spoke with Hervé Mbouri, a Cameroonian protection and peacebuilding specialist working in the DRC with Search for Common Ground.
A portion of Hervé’s work is funded through the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Reconciliation Programs, which FCNL constituent advocates have been lobbying to protect and strengthen in the federal budget process. Those investments help sustain efforts to improve security and prevent violent conflict in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a UN World Heritage Site. The area is rich in natural resources and endangered animals. Armed groups have contributed to natural resource exploitation and conflict between reserve guards and the surrounding communities.
Hervé expressed just how vital this work is. “Peacebuilding is a way of life,” he said.
Conflict on The Reserve
The Reserve is home to different groups of people with different—sometimes competing—priorities. Indigenous communities have lived off the land for generations. Armed groups sometimes attempt to exploit the Reserve’s natural resources through illegal gold mining and poaching. The Reserve management team includes enforcement officers called Eco-Guards, who are tasked with protecting the Reserve and enforcing regulations.
The tensions between these groups’ competing interests and violent incidents have damaged relationships and trust between the Eco-Guards and Indigenous communities. This lack of trust leaves little room for productive communication and has the potential to spark more retaliatory violence, which could grow into a larger conflict.
Strengthening Mutual Trust
This has created an extremely tense environment, with no space for positive communication or interaction. That’s where Hervé and his team came in.
Based in Mambasa, DRC, Hervé leads a consortium project called “Msitu wetu, Umilele wetu / Our Forrest, Our Future.” The effort is funded by USAID’s Reconciliation Programs and aims to reduce tensions, strengthen relationships and prevent violence.
Hervé works to build trust between stakeholders to sustain a peaceful coexistence. The project focuses on resolving miscommunication and misunderstanding between the approach of the Eco-Guards and the lived experiences and needs of the Indigenous communities, which has generated some mistrust and violence.
Hervé’s team uses holistic approaches to meet the needs of each stakeholder, such as addressing the trauma and past harms experienced by Indigenous community members. They have created forums where Indigenous community members felt safe expressing their needs and could trust that their concerns would be addressed by the Eco-Guards tasked with protecting the Reserve. Additionally, they implemented initiatives to clearly define the rights of the Indigenous communities.
Building Peace and Protecting Nature
Efforts to resolve the tension between the stakeholders are ongoing and evolving. Today, Hervé and his team are trying to deploy new techniques, including working with local radio stations to counter harmful narratives and misinformation, share peace messages, and train local media actors and leaders in conflict sensitivity.
Hervé shared that while there is still more to be done, the situation is improving. At the beginning of the project, there were no opportunities for the Eco-Guards and Indigenous communities to have a positive dialogue with each other. Today, things are changing.
Now, the Indigenous communities and the Eco-Guards organize and participate in constructive dialogue when issues arise on the Reserve. Search for Common Ground has even successfully organized social activities, like soccer matches, between the local youth and the Eco-Guards. The program has received feedback that the management of the Reserve has become more open and responsive to the needs of the Indigenous communities.
Violence is no longer the first action taken by either party.
At the end of our conversation, Hervé shared that he believes that this project has benefitted the Okapi Reserve and exemplifies for the entire world that reconciliation, dialogue, and relationship building can help alleviate violent conflict. Hervé also hopes that this program serves as a testament to the importance of the preservation and protection of natural resources and the rights of Indigenous communities. “The work we are doing is not only for the Reserve or only for Congolese. I think it’s for all the world because the Reserve is our heritage.”