Last week, a coalition of 100 humanitarian and human rights organizations called on John Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, to insist that protecting civilians be a top priority of the joint Congolese and Rwandan military operation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
In a public letter to Holmes, the Congo Advocacy Coalition expressed “alarm that the joint military operation has to date contributed to the flight of thousands of people from their homes in anticipation of violence, adding to the 1.2 million already displaced in earlier waves of fighting. The coalition further raised concerns about reprisal killings and the use of civilians as human shields by the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), as well as reports of rape and looting by all sides,” according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch.
Fate turns on a dime in eastern Congo, and at this writing, CNDP rebel General Laurent Nkunda is under house arrest in Rwanda, a country that until now had supported his movement.
On January 20, 2009, the Congolese and Rwandan governments began a joint military operation against the FDLR, an armed group based in eastern Congo. The FDLR includes members of the Interahamwe, responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. If more fighting breaks out, the consequences for humans and the endangered mountain gorilla will be dire. Local sources on the ground in Virunga Park confirm that Rwandan battalions have passed near Rutshuru and Rumangabo, in the heart of Virunga National Park, but so far no major fighting has broken out.
While in DR Congo at the beginning of January, Australian journalist Helen Thomas and I met with Emmanuel de Merode and discussed the human/wildlife conflict there. De Merode is the new head of the endangered and embattled Park.
Thomas and I had just left Goma, when an email came in from de Merode. He had read our interview with CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda in the Huffington Post and wondered if we could talk. Ordinarily this kind of request would not seem unusual, but I had been a relentless critic of de Merode and his association with gorilla conservationists as former head of Wildlife Direct. The same article had been cross-posted on OPEDNEWS.
De Merode crossed the border into the Rwandan town of Gisenyi and we sat on a hotel veranda for almost two hours. After a half hour of wary sparring, it seemed to me at least that we had much more in common than we shared in disagreement. Had we both changed? Perhaps we had both grown weary of the senseless and relentless assaults on both humans and wildlife in the Kivus.
At one time I had shared de Merode's passionate commitment to the preservation of the mountain gorilla, but my concerns shifted once I visited DRC and saw that 1.2 million humans were in as much danger as the gorillas. Western news reports have focused on the gorillas above all human concerns.
My impression was that multi-national and strategic interests, including those of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, fueled by white supremacy and cloaked in the mantle of 'conservation,’” killed the mountain gorillas. De Merode took issue with that conclusion.
What follows is a summary of our recorded conversation and subsequent emails. Some of it is paraphrased and in the interest of the fate of humans and wildlife and hope that two former adversaries can present the truth for the good of Congo, I ran this past de Merode and he stands behind it.
On Criticism that Humans Need Access to the Resources of Virunga
The Issue: Due to the ongoing fighting in eastern DRC, massive relocation camps are now located on the perimeter of Virunga Park. People need fuel to cook and keep warm and up until now, there has been an effort to keep the displaced from Virunga. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 60,000 people in camps at Kibati, just north of the flashpoint Nord-Kivu provincial capital of Goma.
De Merode: After being appointed as chief warden in August last year, we removed the charcoal barrier at Kibati. Prices in Goma dropped from 33 to 16 dollars a sack in the weeks that followed as a result of a massive increase in supply from the park. We are still trying to a solution to the considerable damage that is being inflicted on the park as a result of my decision to abandon the barrier, but please understand that I do not believe that the wildlife should take priority over people's needs.
You are right in claiming that, by focusing on charcoal, we are neglecting some of the more pressing humanitarian needs. But we have to look ahead. Virunga's forests cannot last more than 5 years with the amount of charcoal that is coming out of the park. When the forests are gone, Goma will suffer a massive energy crisis, and that will quickly become a humanitarian catastrophe: domestic energy is key to people's survival. They need domestic energy for food and for their health.
Charcoal is incredibly destructive and inefficient. When people cut the tree they only use the branches because they don't have the tools to cut the trunk and it is a huge amount of waste. We have to find an alternative. It's a human priority as much as it is a priority for the wildlife.
What we have been working on was to launch a biomass briquette program as an alternative to charcoal. I feel confident about it as a viable solution.
You know as well as anyone that these are the richest soils in all of Africa. What we are doing...and I would like to invite you to see this...we launched a briquette program and I feel confident about it. The Legacy Foundation in the United States developed the system whereby fuel is created from local products of grass, debris and sawdust.
One press creates employment for six people. If we can create 5000 presses, it would replace the charcoal demand of Goma, and create 30,000 sustainable jobs.
Everyone gets accused of being wrong here. Even you.
The Involvement of Elite Rangers in Human Rights Abuses
The Issue: There is a video that demonstrates human rights abuses by an elite group of Virunga Park Rangers who were trained by British mercenary Conrad Thorpe. The Frankfurt Zoological Society on behalf of Wildlife Direct funded the training. The video can be viewed on the internet.
People are not dying because of a lack of resources - it's not food insecurity or drought that is the root cause of suffering in eastern DRC, but deep physical insecurity - a level of brutality inflicted on an innocent population that knows no limits. This is a tragedy that stems from the total breakdown of law and order. Congolese people are hard working and resourceful, but what can you do when you are repeatedly attacked by bandits, when your crops are destroyed and your livestock pillaged, when your livelihood is destroyed.
The Congolese Parks authority is a law enforcement agency, and has a responsibility towards the state, and towards the people to uphold the law. I feel they fill an important function, but to do so, its staff have to be trained and equipped as law enforcement officers.
Shortly after being appointed I also made the decision to disband the "advance force". They were formally disbanded in November and have returned to their original positions as regular rangers. These were the 50 rangers trained by Conrad Thorpe and his team and who was, I believe, the subject of your concern. This draws a line through that training programme in 2005, but I would appreciate the links to the images that you refer to as abusive acts by the rangers so that I can look into it.
The issues you raised are valid and difficult.
The training you wrote about took place, but for the record, we (Wildlife Direct) did not actually fund the training. The Frankfurt Zoological Society funded it, but I was fully aware training was going on. That said, and while it has proven controversial, I would stand by my position that it is essential that rangers are properly trained. Given the state of insecurity in the areas in which they operate, they have to be adequately trained and supported. I would much prefer it if there was no need to carry rifles, but there is another side to this story which is that poachers in this part of the world can be very well armed and affluent and willing to kill. If rangers have to carry rifles, then we have a fundamental obligation to ensure that they are able to handle those weapons responsibly. That means having discipline, leadership, and a sense of responsibility. Those are qualities that can only be obtained through training.
As to your question about torture being acceptable: it is absolutely not acceptable under any circumstances.
I believe there have been proven cases of unacceptable excesses by park rangers in the past. I will not conceal the truth on that, nor will I try to justify it in any way, but bear in mind that for many years the rangers have been abandoned and left to their own devices, which is a recipe for disaster. We still have a long way to go, but more recently, where there have been proven cases of unacceptable behaviour, there have been convictions against rangers, and there are rangers in prison because of what you are talking about. Impunity is not something we will allow, and the rangers understand that.
What can I say? I can only agree with you about that.
If Conrad was present and there is torture on the tape he will never work in Virunga as long as I am here.
However, there is another side that poachers can be very well armed and affluent and willing to kill. Richard Leakey (De Merode's father-in law) did not at anytime request that we work in Virunga National Park. He has never set foot here. I wanted to and did so against all advice to the contrary.
I have been criticized for being a Belgian prince, but I have never lived in Belgium. I grew up in Kenya and was born 50 years after that horrific episode of Belgium's history, but I am Belgian and I will not apologize for it...it was the way I was born.
There are moral and pragmatic issues. The Congolese will decide for themselves, and unless we are much more effective in bringing them into environmental programs, we are shooting ourselves in the foot
From a moral standpoint all I can say is I have lived here for 15 years. I was trained as an anthropologist not a biologist. My first job was in Gambra. I lived in the villages north of Dungu, which have since been destroyed by the LRA (Lord's Resistenc Army) My work there in the seven years. I worked entirely in the communities.
We were trying to work with the local communities on the issue of bushmeat. My initial feeling, and I still believe that, was that the people should be able to eat bushmeat. These positions, which I published, did not always sit well with the conservation community. But it is not acceptable that local people living adjacent to national parks in countries like Congo should forfeit their resources for the sake of a global, largely western, community that cares dearly about African wildlife, but not quite enough to compensate the local people who have to bare the cost of conservation. It's very simple, if wildlife is that valuable to us, we have to compensate those who own those resources.
The Issue: There was no investigative scrutiny of the trustees of the Africa Wildlife Foundation, whose most prominent member was Walter Kansteiner III. Kansteiner is not a conservationist. He has over 20 years of experience in African and emerging market issues, advising corporations on mergers ranging from forestry, to mining to aviation. Kansteiner has publicly attacked South Africa's Nelson Mandela as a "Marxist." Kansteiner has also worked in the arena of strategic mineral procurement for the United States Defense Department. As of 2007, Kansteiner was listed on Source Watch (Center for Media and Democracy) as a director of Wildlife Direct, and Emmanuel de Merode identified Kansteiner as a board member in an email in 2007. Kansteiner has since vanished from the web links to Wildlife Direct. The Source Watch page was modified to remove Kansteiner in November 2007 after independent media reports linked him with Wildlife Direct.
De Merode: Regarding Kansteiner's association with mining interests in Congo... I wasn't aware of it. You are right, and that was a mistake on my part and a failure of due diligence.
If I had known, I think things would have been different from the start. But, I must stress that I do not believe that he that he has done anything illegal in Congo. If you tell me that he has then that is a very serious problem. Mineral exploitation is not by definition illegal. It's a pillar for development in Africa, and key to poverty alleviation. Nevertheless, I do feel that there should have been full disclosure of his involvement in mining in Ituri, given the realities of what went on in the Ituri at the time. So your sharp criticism in that regard was justified.
If he (Kansteiner) had interests in Moto Gold in the Ituri it should have been disclosed. It does not sit well with what we were trying to do in eastern Congo, and I regret having not picked up on that.
Relations With Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda
The Issue: Wildlife Direct went on the record, blaming Nkunda's men for the deaths of mountain gorillas beginning in January 2007. A communiqué issued by the Laurent Nkunda's CNDP denied any involvement, but the communiqué was squashed by conservation interests at the time. Since then, investigations indicated that the gorilla killings were an inside job by some Congolese conservation authorities.
Nkunda has remained a passionate defender of the gorillas and a visit to his compound indicated that all was well with the gorilla population there in CNDP controlled territory. In an interview, Nkunda told Thomas and I that the gorillas were "an important resource" for the Congolese people, and invited us to visit the gorillas if we wished. Time constraints, regrettably, did not allow for the visit.
De Merode: I had a brief meeting with Nkunda in January 2007 after the killings of the 2 solitary silverbacks. Between then and November 2008, we had no contact at all. I was working for Wildlife Direct at the time.
In September 2007 we evacuated the camp from Bukima in the gorilla sector because of the fighting, and the area was subsequently occupied by CNDP forces. Because we (Wildlife Direct) were in a formal partnership with ICCN, which is a government authority, we stayed out of CNDP territory. This was the case for most of ICCN's staff, who where based at Rumangabo, in government held territory. A small handful of 12 ICCN rangers stayed behind in CNDP territory and effectively broke contact with ICCN. They were under the command of an assistant warden called Kanamahalagi.
In May 2008 I resigned as CEO of wildlifedirect, when ICCN advertised the position of provincial director of ICCN for North Kivu, which includes the function of chief warden of Virunga. I applied, and on 8th August I was nominated to the position and sworn in as a government official a week later. At the time, I did have some very tentative contact with CNDP to explore the possibility of doing a gorilla census, but this was done through an intermediary, and I had no direct exchanges with Nkunda or with anyone from CNDP.
In October 2008 the major confrontations between CNDP and FARDC began, after which all of the southern of the park came under the control of CNDP. The fighting started at Rumangabo, where the combat was extremely violent, and we were all forced to evacuate to Goma. We had about 2000 staff and their families in Kitutu, then Bolengo IDP camps. We were faced with a very difficult situation, because we didn't have the funds to maintain so many people. The humanitarian community would not support ICCN staff or their families because they are a government law enforcement agency, and we started having serious health problems in the camp (3 cholera outbreaks, 2 deaths etc). Given the difficult situation, with all our people in the IDP camps in Goma and no prospects of getting humanitarian assistance to support them, we needed to find a way to get them back to their homes.
So in mid November, I made the decision to ask the Congolese Government to allow me to formally establish contact with Nkunda. I went to Kinshasa and met with the Minister of the Environment, Jose Endundu. He gave me his full (verbal) support (A few weeks later he later reiterated his support in front of several ambassadors during a press conference). The director of National Parks also gave me his support.
I returned to Goma and drove up to Rumangabo, after meeting with Kanamahalagi at Kibumba. We met with some senior officials of CNDP (Benjamin Mbonimpa and Dr Alex), and they arranged for me to meet with Nkunda the following day. I informed them that I would do so in uniform so that it was absolutely clear that I was working for the government. We met for about one and a half hours. I explained that we wanted to continue our work, within the constraints of a mandate that was strictly limited to conservation. I also explained that I was a government law enforcement officer and that I had been sworn an oath to the Congolese flag. He was very supportive, said that he understood that my hands were tied. He also said that he thought I would probably fail, but that he would support our efforts to protect the park. He added that he was from the area and that the benefits from the park to the local community were long overdue.
Since then, we have met several times. He also came once to Rumangabo, and we held quite extensive discussions on the development options and the situation of the national park. He is very supportive of the biomass briquette programme, of the schools that we have started to build in the area.
Our situation remains very fragile. We are the only government authority to be operating in rebel territory, and we could get thrown out at any moment by either side. I hope that our presence might have a stabilizing effect and may provide a catalyst for some community development, in spite of the ongoing conflict. It is a small example of the fact that there can be solutions to the differences that exist between government and rebels if a dialogue is established, and if, as you say, one reaches out. But perhaps I am being naive.
Are We Being Naïve?
The Issue: Can a solution be found to address the needs of humans and wildlife? Must there always be a conflict, or can common ground be found?
In an email, DeMerode offered the following quote, taken from an interview with him on NPR.
De Merode: The terrible tragedy that has affected the people of eastern Congo ... is the greatest tragedy that exists at the moment. And I think it should be at the top of everybody's agenda, whoever they are, to do whatever they can to resolve that issue above everything else, including the protection of the mountain gorillas. That's how I feel personally and I think that's what's shared by most people here.
Last week, we established Virunga's priorities for the year, which were published on the park's website.
I am glad we were able to meet, and I truly appreciate your willingness to keep an open mind. In a painful sort of way, you have affected our thinking, and I hope that you may one day see something good come out of our efforts, not just for gorillas.
(But, these are) Just words. The Congolese people will be the judges of whether the park is worth keeping.