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.