Field Journal

How Rights-Based Approach Redefines Conservation in DRC

For close to two decades, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) has been at the helm of conservation initiatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Collaborating closely with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), AWF has been instrumental in safeguarding the country’s rich biodiversity. Over time, AWF has recognized that effective conservation is not merely about protecting wildlife. Traditional methods, which typically adopt a top-down approach, often neglect the needs and rights of communities living in proximity to protected areas, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.

In response to these challenges, AWF is pioneering a rights-based approach to conservation. This innovative strategy integrates principles of human rights into every aspect of conservation, fostering cooperation, and safeguarding the welfare of both humans and wildlife. Dodo Moke, AWF’s Senior Social Safeguard Officer, offers valuable insights into this groundbreaking approach, particularly in the Bili-Uere and Maringa-Lopori Wamba landscapes. This novel approach underscores AWF’s commitment to harmonizing conservation efforts with community needs, setting a new standard for sustainable conservation practices.

Dodo Moke in his element

Dodo Moke in his element 

Q: Can you explain AWF's rights-based approach to conservation in the DRC?
Dodo: Our approach seamlessly integrates human rights norms throughout our projects, from planning and implementation to monitoring and evaluation. Our core objective is to ensure all conservation actions respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. This empowers local communities and indigenous peoples (IPLCs) to recognize and assert their rights, which were often disregarded in the past. Key rights we focus on include Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), gender equality, education, and participation in decision-making processes that directly impact their future.

Q: How does this approach differ from traditional conservation methods?
Dodo: Traditional methods often resembled a "police state" model, prioritizing law enforcement and wildlife protection at the expense of the human element. This approach frequently resulted in conflict with local communities who felt excluded or even violated.
AWF's rights-based approach flips the script. We emphasize participatory conservation, where community involvement and activities that benefit IPLCs are central. We recognize the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders, ensuring conservation efforts are truly collaborative and serve the needs of both people and wildlife.
This approach is built on four main pillars:
•    Training and Awareness-Raising: Equipping communities and park authorities with knowledge of their rights and responsibilities is crucial for fostering collaboration.
•    Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC): Guaranteeing communities have a say in conservation decisions that affect them directly.
•    Complaints Management Mechanism (CMM): Providing a platform for addressing grievances and concerns.
•    Gender Equality: Ensuring women's voices are heard and their needs are addressed in conservation efforts.


Q: How has this approach impacted conservation efforts in the DRC?
Dodo: The results have been positive. We've witnessed a significant increase in community commitment to conservation initiatives. When people have a say in how their environment is managed, they feel more invested in protecting it. This has led to improved social cohesion between park managers, IPLCs, and a sense of shared responsibility. Open communication and collaboration foster trust and understanding, replacing past tensions.
The CMM has proven to be a powerful tool for conflict resolution. It provides a safe space for addressing grievances, like a recent case where a farmer bravely confronted an eco-guard about misconduct after attending a human rights training. This exemplifies the approach's effectiveness in fostering trust and positive relationships.

Dodo Moke presenting to community members in DRC

Dodo Moke presenting to community members in DRC

Q: Can you provide a specific example of how local communities have benefited?
Dodo: The CMM has empowered communities to address grievances peacefully. In the past, a debt dispute between a local farmer and an eco-guard could have escalated into a major conflict. However, under the new approach, the farmer felt empowered to file a complaint through the CMM. The eco-guard, facing a formal complaint, was held accountable and promptly resolved the issue. This situation highlights the CMM's transformative power in fostering trust and peaceful conflict resolution.
While the CMM focuses on resolving community concerns, it complements existing legal structures. From 2022 to date, we've received 23 complaints. The local committees have addressed 13, while 10 – primarily criminal matters – were escalated to the relevant authorities.

Q: What challenges does AWF face in implementing this approach?
Dodo: The vast and remote landscapes of the DRC pose logistical challenges for complaint collection and monitoring activities. Despite their dedication, volunteer CMM committee presidents face significant travel distances, hindering their efforts. AWF is addressing this by working with ICCN to provide motorcycles for travel whenever possible.

Q: How does AWF plan to expand the implementation of the rights-based approach across the DRC?
Dodo: We plan to refine and expand the implementation of the rights-based approach. This includes securing funding, enhancing training programs, and promoting the approach through various networks. We hope to inspire other organizations to adopt similar practices, leading to more sustainable and harmonious conservation efforts across Africa.