Thursday 17 April 2014

Dubious dealings in Virunga

Congo Masquerade touched on the problems between SOCO, the Virunga park, UNESCO and the DRC government. Here is an extract (pages 119&120) that gives some background to the attack on Chief Warden Emmanuel de Mérode.

The threefold political sin of corruption, predation and patrimonialism is laid bare by a disturbing deal recently brokered between Congo and two British companies. In flagrant contradiction to Congolese legislation which prohibits mineral and petroleum production in national parks, Joseph Kabila signed a presidential decree in 2010 allowing SOCO International and Dominion Petroleum to explore and drill for oil in the Virunga National Park. Virunga is a World Heritage site in eastern Congo and home to endangered mountain gorillas. If the deal goes through, wildlife will be threatened and decades of costly and committed conservation work will be annihilated. SOCO's environmental impact assessment, required by law, made no reference to the park's status as a protected area. The decision is inconsistent with Congolese commitments for nature conservation and was severely criticized by UNESCO chief Irina Bokova. Environment Minister José Endundo cynically downplayed the inconsistency stating ‘we'll do everything possible to preserve the park but the Congolese people also have to benefit from the riches under the soil’. Endundo added that if oil activities were excluded from the park, he might seek compensation from rich nations in return for not drilling... Given the high economic stakes on the one hand and the social and environmental impacts and the blow – once again – to Congo’s international credibility on the other, it would not be naive to presume that high-ranking officials received corruption money.

Emmanuel de Mérode shot: an emerging saga at Virunga

Emmanuel de Mérode, head warden of the Virunga National Park  in North Kivu, DRC was shot and wounded this week while driving alone from Goma to park headquarters at Rumangabo.
de Mérode's jeep with bullet holes in windscreen

This is one of the most dangerous areas in DRC. Congolese armed forces with international support are gradually regaining control of the area but armed rebel groups and militias are still present. Some carry out illegal exploitation of natural resources.

The attack is not surprising. More than 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

Loved by his staff and well-respected by conservationists, the Belgian warden also made powerful enemies. Poachers are shot and charcoal makers who are illegally active in the park are systematically routed out.

MONUCSO boss Martin Kobler and Belgian ambassador to DRC Michel Lastschenko travelled to Goma to be with de Mérode, proving the high-profile nature of the attack.

The attack on de Mérode, qualified as a seemingly ‘targeted ambush’ by the Belgian ambassador in a confidential cable, may have something to do with his longstanding battle against British oil company SOCO.  SOCO has been given oil exploration rights in the park. This contravenes DRC’s commitments to conservation and is in flagrant violation with UNESCO which has listed the Virunga park as a National Heritage Site. It also reveals the fragmented nature of Congolese power systems. The Ministry of the Environment is a featherweight compared to the far more powerful Ministry of Oil.

Head warden de Mérode deposited a legal complaint against SOCO at the Goma public prosecutor’s office the morning of the ambush. One of the items in the complaint relates to bullying of local populations by SOCO sub-contractors. A similar complaint is about to be lodged in London with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

SOCO is suspected of being behind the attack – a suspicion that they reject. Belgian MP François-Xavier de Donnea qualified the coincidence as ‘extremely worrisome’ as reported in La Libre Belgique.

SOCO is an international oil and gas exploration and production company, headquartered in London, traded on the London Stock Exchange and a constituent of the FTSE 250 Index. The Company also has interests in Vietnam, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Angola.

 Billionaire son of Warren Buffet, Howard G. Buffett is the Executive Producer of a film about park rangers in Virunga to be previewed at the Tribeca Film Festival today. Buffet has been involved in infrastructure development and peace-building initiatives in and around the park in recent years.

Nature conservation is dangerous business in DRC. This is just one of many violent incidents. The presence of armed groups is an ongoing conservation and human tragedy. The deadly Lord’s Resistance Army has been active in Garamba (where de Mérode did his PhD fieldwork in the mid-1990s), as was the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Virunga has been threatened by multiple armed forces such as the M23 rebel group, the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and other Mayi Mayi militia. At the Epulu Reserve, militia chief Morgan and his men stormed the main station with AK47 assault rifles killing seven people and all but one of the 16 okapis in June 2012.

These events testify to the legacy of armed conflict in the Congo that continues to haunt people and wildlife. Even when armed conflict ends, negative impacts persist.

Emmanuel, get well soon. The Virunga staff needs you, the gorillas need you, conservation needs you. All the best and bon courage.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Motorcycles and agricultural innovation

Mobile phone use took off in Congo in the late 1990s. It transformed society in general while also providing a much needed boost to food production and marketing. It helped communities organize collective transportation which reduced costs and increased security. Farmers became better informed of price fluctuations and market opportunities so were less likely to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous traders and intermediaries. The mobile continues to revolutionize access to banking services such as credit and payments, which still constitute bottlenecks in commodity chains.

The relatively inexpensive motorcycle made in India or China is the social innovation today that is contributing to change in the lives of rural farmers, especially those that live in isolated communities far from feeder roads. Eastern Congolese cities first introduced motorcycles for individual transport and as taxis. Usage has spread rapidly throughout the country. Reluctant at first, Kinshasa’s population has now embraced them for their efficiency in navigating through the capital’s infamous traffic jams. These easily maintained motorcycles are cost efficient and well adapted to the laterite tracks that criss-cross Congo’s rural landscape, even during the rainy season.

As poor road infrastructure is one of the major handicaps for getting crops to market, the motorcycle is a welcome novelty. The heavily laden bicycle is still the more common means of carrying produce, although a slow and exhausting form of labour. It is nonetheless increasingly frequent to see a young man on a motorcycle with a bag of cassava, a plastic jug of palm oil or even a pig or a goat en route to an intermediary drop-off point accessible to pick-up trucks or large lorries. As the purchasing power of the young villager is weak, coming up with the approximately one thousand dollars to buy a 125cc motorcycle is beyond the reach of most. But young men hanker after them, seeing them as the undeniable symbol of modernity, prestige and liberty.

Many of the motorcycles plying Congo’s rural tracks are purchased by traders who advance payment for them in exchange for promises of agricultural goods. Young men consequently enter into a kind of indentured servitude to pay off their debts. Although the motorcycle’s impact is slight in terms of agricultural marketing, it is an emerging positive trend whose ramifications are difficult to predict.While the motorcycle will unlikely contribute significantly to feeding Congo’s towns and cities, it is nevertheless already augmenting rural revenues.

Friday 7 February 2014

Financing Congo's Agricultural Development

Ed Rackely’s post on Congo’s recently launched National Investment Plan for Agriculture offers a realistic analysis of some of the country’s challenges in modernizing the agriculture sector. He mentions correctly that there is not enough funding to reach targets. I would add that the little money that is available is largely spent on salaries in Kinshasa with minimal trickle down into the field.

But it is not only a money problem. 

On the institutional landscape, there is an overall lack of professionalism and capacity in terms of human resources and material. Government offices responsible for agricultural priorities are under-funded, under-staffed and in need of competent experts with up-to-date professional skills and vision. They also lack data management systems and basic equipment such as phones, copiers and computers.

An additional hurdle is the number of Ministries involved in managing the sector. The Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Environment Conservation, Water and Forests, the Ministry of Scientific and Technological Research and the Ministry of Women and the Family all share rural development and agricultural objectives. In theory, the Ministry of Planning coordinates the financing of these five ministries but is, in reality, overwhelmed with other urgencies.

The problem here is that when priorities are supposed to be dealt with by multiple partners, no one really does anything. There is an absence of coordination, tasks get passed on to someone else, disagreements over costs surface and there tends to be a generalized absence of accountability or ownership.

Friday 31 January 2014

Reactivating the Masquerade blog

After a long period of inactivity, I am going to give a new life to this blog. The first reason is to announce the publication in French of Congo Masquerade, now available as Congo, la mascarade de l’aide au development at

I also want to let you know of a new book I am writing. The working title is Congo’s Environmental Paradox: Potential and Predation in a Land of Plenty. 

Future posts will be less about politics and more about the political economy of natural resource management.

Below is a summary.

Congo’s Environmental Paradox is about the political economy of natural resources - forests, minerals, land, water and oil. A land of plenty with the resources the world needs, DRC is a resource paradise for some, but an environmental nightmare for others. 

No other country in Africa, and few countries worldwide, has such an impressive concentration and diversity of natural wealth. Congo has over 1,100 mineral substances and is home to the world’s second largest tropical rainforest. Endowed with abundant arable land, rain and sunshine, Congo’s farmers could feed a billion people while also providing new sources of sustainable biofuels. More than half of Africa’s fish and water are located in this troubled nation, whose hydroelectric capacity could light up the entire continent. Congo has oil too, so as some major importers like the United States shift their dependency away from the Middle East, its geo-strategic significance as a petroleum producer could increase.

The book is original because it is will present Congo’s five strategic environment sectors in a holistic way and through an historic lens that tracks the major changes since Joseph Kabila has asserted himself as president. It will revise conventional political economy understanding of how power is structured in the DRC, analyzing how recent trends in globalization and elite politics have stimulated new power relations.

Congo's Environmental Paradox adopts a political economy approach to analyze the complicated interactions between power and natural resources and between the sectors themselves. There is little published information about the governance of Congo’s agricultural sector, water resources and oil. Whatever information does exist tends to be sector specific and lacks historic depth. But it is impossible to implement a viable forestry policy without making linkages to the energy and agriculture sectors. Artisanal mining has consequences on food production and industrial mining is thirsty for power – meaning it needs electricity. Oil production undermines protected area management. These are some of the interconnections to be examined through a holistic conceptual framework.