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Friday, February 3, 2012

#8 - Virunga National Park

Tuesday morning.  Our trip with HRW will come to a close today, and on this final day we will go visit the headquarters of Virunga National Park (www.gorilla.cd).  The oldest park on the African continent, founded in 1925, and the one of the oldest in the world, Virunga spans 300km from north to south, crossing the equator.   It lies along the Albertine Rift, the East African Rift.  Virunga plays host to over half of the bio-diversity of the sub-Saharan Africa, including hundreds of mountain gorillas.  To the north, snow-capped mountains, and to the south, active volcanos.  The park is laden with natural resources.  The curse of the Congo.  For more than 80 years, the Congolese have worked to protect this park.  Often, the staff is made up of family members – grandfathers retire, their sons take over as park rangers, and their sons after that.  It is work that only those who have dedicated their life to preserving this forest will be able to bear.  In the past fifteen years, 120 rangers have lost their lives protecting this park.  We will hear from the staff about the ongoing work to preserve the park, which will include an alternative energy project designed both to protect the forest and to help women.  We will hear about the cost of human life to save this park.

First, the human aspect.  Four million people live within a day’s walk of the park.  Why does that matter?  The city we are in today, Goma, where the headquarters lies, is a city supporting nearly one million people, and like Bukavu, it was built to support a population of roughly 50,000.  There simply isn't enough energy to support the population.  So what happens?  What energy will be used to cook?  Charcoal.  Illegal charcoal harvested by cutting down trees in the forest.  Who does this work?  80% of the work is done by women.  Women walking into the park and coming out with bags of charcoal that they will sell.  The vast majority of these women will experience violence, often being raped while going into or coming out of the park.

In 2007 there was a family of seven mountain gorillas in Virunga Park that were shot at point blank range.  Why would someone kill a family of gorillas who are so docile and harmless?  Why kill them execution style?  Nothing was removed; clearly they were not shot for food or for their hands or feet.  Not the work of poachers.  The Congolese community mourned and many around the world joined in their grief.  An investigation was launched to find out who and what was behind the killing.  At the root of this massacre was the charcoal trade.  The illegal industry of harvesting charcoal from the park.  In Goma, 92% of the energy fueling nearly a million people is charcoal from the park.  The park rangers had been cracking down on this illegal trade, and the massacre was a vindictive killing in response to the crack-down.  The investigation exposed that the FDLR, in conjunction with members of the Congolese army and a senior park ranger and his cronies, had been involved in the trade.  The size of the charcoal trade coming from the park is $35 million annually.  That money was being used to fund the FDLR (former Hutu rebels that fled to the Congo after the Rwandan genocide).  Protection of the forest was about protecting the gorillas, so killing the gorillas was meant to scare the rangers so that the protection would stop and the charcoal trade could continue.  The massacre got huge press.  The story and photographs appeared on both the cover of Newsweek and National Geographic.  The images of Silverbacks, being carried out of the park tied to stretchers by a crowd of park rangers, tears coming down their faces, was heartbreaking.



The Congolese government was forced to take action.  The investigation resulted in a new head of the park and the firings and prosecutions of those involved in the illegal trade.  Once the park came under a new leader, everything changed.  Pay for the rangers changed from $25/mo. to $150/mo.  Believe it or not, a living, albeit modest, in the Congo.  The training to qualify as a park ranger became much more rigorous, the number of rangers was reduced, which cut down on corruption and made the “battalion” easier to manage.

In 2011, a total of 19 soldiers and ICCN (park rangers) were killed in a dispute when the park rangers asked the Congolese army to leave the park.  The Congolese army wanted to continue in the park; they were taking bribes and the dispute was about corruption and money.  The ICCN park rangers knew that the corruption, and the illegal trade of both charcoal and fishing from the lakes, would diminish if the Congolese army left the park.  After a great deal of bad press that the killings brought to the Congolese government, the head of the park and his counterpart in the army were forced to resolve the dispute.  To quote the man we met at the park, nothing good will ever happen in the Eastern Congo until the rule of law is established.

Anneke chimed in at this point and noted that after 13 years covering the DRC, she is constantly astounded by the courage of the Congolese.  There are a lot of good people in this country, who want to see the country move forward and its people and resources protected under the rule of law.

We inquired about the greatest needs at this moment to preserve the park.  The park needs to build a great relationship with the Congolese army.  In the US after WWII, the President created the Army Corp of Engineers.  We had tens of thousands of military men that needed to be put to work, and the government formed the Corp and put former soldiers to work building some of the largest infrastructure projects in the country.  They built roads, dams, and bridges, and they helped America progress.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could move the Congolese army from a combatant role to an army of engineers?  Get the army to do something useful for the population.  An idea was presented to fund a small battalion of the Congolese army that would build a road in the park.  (Today like the rest of the DRC, there are very, very few paved roads, let alone decent dirt roads.)  If it works, it could serve as a model of what is possible.  It could begin to turn the page of history.

We hear a second need from speaking to individuals and some NGOs.  The park needs help in a fight between tourism and oil interests.  SOCO International is an oil company based in Great Britain and listed on the London Stock Exchange, which is illegally doing surveying in the park looking for oil.  Surveying in the park means drilling in the search for oil, something that all too soon could pollute the rivers that run through the park.  The source of the Nile, Lake Edward, is located in Virunga, as are the rivers feeding this lake.  SOCO has a license to mine oil reserves in the area, but Virunga is a World Heritage Site so under international law is protected from all extraction of any resources in the park.  Nothing can change that, not even the Congolese congress.  (The DRC is a signatory to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.  Virunga was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979.)  The park desperately needs help to bring this corruption to the front of the world stage and to force SOCO to pull out of the park.  The Congolese government looks the other way.  You figure that one out – oil companies.  A PR campaign gives birth.

There was a touching story about one of the three sector wardens, who had been a child soldier from Rwanda in the early 1990s.  He had walked from Rwanda to Kinshasa (DRC) and back and finds his mother.  She tells him he must immediately leave the army and he does.  He goes to school and completes his primary and secondary and then university degrees.  He recently earned a master’s degree.  While patrolling he was approached by two English men in the park, who offer him a bribe so that they can survey for oil.  He phones HQ and says you won't believe this – another example of a ranger, incredibly honorable and so committed to preserving the park.  We are told even after 2010, when so many rangers were shot in the park, not a single ranger refused to go back into the same areas and patrol.  The courage of the Congolese.

Our final stop at the park HQ will be to see the Munigi alternative energy project (http://greatervirunga.org/?p=330), which is aimed at creating cleaner energy for the Congolese and ending the charcoal trade from the forest.  The project is a based on a small $15 cooking stove that is fueled by round compressed pellets or fuel briquettes, which are made of recycled materials held tightly together by water and a press.  The wooden press that makes the briquettes costs about $300, and a team of four to six people can manage the press, making several hundred briquettes per hour.  The briquettes burn cleaner than the charcoal, use recycled materials, and provide much more efficient cooking heat while ending the need to cut trees from the park.  Making the briquettes can easily and safely be done by women, thus ending their vulnerability that comes from having to go into the park.  The briquettes are easily marketable; this is a brilliant funding source for those engaged in the work.

The other project under way at the Munigi center is the making of charcoal briquettes from the charcoal dust left behind from where charcoal is sold.  The dust is collected from the markets, and several tons are deposited every day, mostly by women, at the center.  The dust is sorted through so that rocks are removed.  Then what is left is mixed with cassava powder.  The cassava powder serves as the glue; boiling water is slowly poured into a large open mixing bowl, just as you would do to mix concrete.  As the mixing bowl rotates, the mixture forms small clumps of charcoal, which will burn cleaner and more efficiently than charcoal strictly from wood. Both projects create jobs that create cleaner energy sources that help protect women.

The wonderful man that runs the alternative energy center, Eric Balemba, is a gem.  He played soccer professionally for the DRC (and he looks like it), and now because of his love for this park he is running this center to help preserve it.  He also runs a soccer program for the children that live around the park.  Look for my email that will be going out to collect gently used soccer shoes of all sizes.  I'm planning a shipment of soccer balls, shoes and shirts to ship to him via Kenya.  I'll include the short video I made of Mr. Balemba showing us the alternative energy project.  What a way to end this portion of the trip.  A center of joy.  Extremes.

Later today I will say goodbye to most of my traveling party and drive off with Gina, Marsha and Emily to spend two days in the Rwandan highlands seeing the mountain gorillas – an adventure I have wanted to do for years, but I always felt the need to come straight home at the end of a trip.  Now with most of our household in college, Harry and Matt will survive without me for two more days.

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