From ecology to economy, the conflict remains around Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park has been a scene of obscure operations for several years. The last visible case was an ambush on 24th April at Rumangabo, headquarters for the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). The attack claimed the lives of seventeen people including twelve guards, a driver of the park and four civilians of a funeral convoy on its way to Rusthuru center. Authorities, including ICCN, attributed the attack to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca), a rebel group. The latter, in turn, rejected accusations and pointed the finger at the Rwandan forces. The conflict in and around Virunga National Park is not just a simple ecological or environmental problem.

Eco guards on patrol in Virunga National Park (ph. Victor Anasa)

–  By Innocent Buchu and Akilimali Saleh

‘’History, I fear, hardly allows us to predict; but for the independence of the mind, it helps us to see clearly” Paul Valery.

Whenever there is an attack in Virunga National Park, the debate invariably turns superficially to whom is responsible for claiming the attack, a sterile debate around the fact. That was the case again recently when “[p]recise indications obtained point to the FDLR-Foca armed group as the perpetrator of this massacre” were pointed out by Virunga a few hours after the April 24 attack in Rumangabo.
Information was contradicted by the FDLR-Foca three days later while referring to the Kagame regime thus confirming the alert raised by certain views of the local civil society about the direct presence of the Rwandan army on Congolese soil, a presence denied by Kinshasa and Kigali. A certain opinion traces the advantages and disadvantages of these attacks for the neighboring country, notably Rwanda concerning this part of the Virunga Park, but also for the FDLR. According to one view, attacking the eco-guards by the rebel groups disapproves of the FDLR and legitimizes the presence of the Rwandan Forces since the FDLR are a threat not only for Congo but also for Rwanda, and economically discourage tourism in Congo to attract publicity to Rwanda. For the FDLR to quote Rwanda in attacks is to pretend to be a victim and to prove the presence of the Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil. The analysis remains ambiguous. “That is to say since around 2014, the Rwandan army has been there in collaboration or with the tacit agreement of the Congolese army and the Rwandan government … What must be noted is that since the President Tshisekedi assumed the office, we have seen one of the periods of intensification with several operations of the Rwandan army on Congolese soil since last year ” confirms Jason Stearns, director of the Research Group on the Congo (GEC), in an interview of April 15, 2020 by the Rfi. If the security measures of the populations prove to be weak inside the country, the limits of the national territory especially of the eastern part of the DRC are regularly threatened; confronted by well organized intrusions under the eye of the international community and with the blessing of certain sons of the community, who become facilitators.
This attractive milieu of Congo has been hosting foreign rebel groups and local self-defense movements for several years. In his book “The Massacres of Beni” Boniface Musavuli, defense analyst, identifies more than a hundred rebel groups in the Kivu.
Since his election, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi has strived to carry out military action against these armed groups together with the eastern neighboring countries, to bring the long-awaited peace. Intentions and actions that are slow to produce tangible results.
The big question concerning the numerous attacks around and inside the Virunga park is the responsibility for securing this heritage.

Passenger convoy on Goma – Rutshuru road (Ph. Christian Bitwaiki)

With less than 800 park guards, including those that are active as well as those missing, for a park more than twice the size of Burundi, ICCN is understaffed to secure Virunga National Park. The park crosses the entire province of North Kivu. It starts from the Lake Kivu, passes through several territories, covers the entire Congolese part of the Lake Edward (the most fish-rich in Africa), reaching as far as Eringeti, on the border with the province of Ituri. “We have the power to fight back against those who threaten the flora and fauna. But the poachers organized themselves into an armed group. This is where we cannot intervene because it is the task of the government, through the FARDC, to put an end to all national and foreign armed groups on the national territory including the park. We only intervene in self-defense, “said a senior ICCN source in Goma. These eco-guards do not have access to a large part of the park. Several regions are under the control of the Mai-Mai factions, the FDRL and the ADF in parts of the territory of Beni. The same source indicates that the Rumangabo attack took place a few hundred meters from the FARDC positions.
A vision that is not shared by the spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Major Ndjike Kaiko said that “you should contact the Park authorities, the attack took place in their jurisdiction, they are armed and they are the ones who were attacked. ”
In 2015, given the multiple threats in the parks, former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapong had signed the decree No. 012 of June 15, 2015 establishing a body responsible for securing national parks and related nature reserves. In its Art 2 the decree specifies the mission of this structure called ‘’CorPPN’’, Corps for the protection of national parks and related nature reserves. “CorPPN is a paramilitary structure with the mission of ensuring the protection of fauna, flora and ecosystems in national parks and related nature reserves, in particular by combating poaching and any other crime on the wild species” informs this decree. This structure, composed of elements of the FARDC and the PNC (National Police), is under the coordination of ICCN. Patrols in Virunga National Park take place in cooperation between the FARDC and the eco-guards. Therefore, two different types of trainings. A situation that puts eco-guards, considered to be civilian elements, in danger, considers civil society. “This collaboration between FARDC and ICCN endangers the eco-guards, as in the eyes of rebel movements, the friend of my enemy is my enemy,” says Placide Nzilamba of the provincial coordination of civil society in North Kivu. An idea shared by some provincial elected representatives from North Kivu. “Not only does this association in (tourist) patrols expose the eco-guards, but also certain elements of the FARDC are found under the order of the eco-guards and it does not seem good” regrets the provincial MP Hope Sabini elected from the territory of Rutshuru. This situation can create frustration and jealousy on the side of certain FARDC elements who are managed on the ground by civilians.

Virunga National Park ( Ph. Christian Bitwaiki )

The intrigue around Virunga National Park, politics and Business!

The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) manages Virunga National Park just like all the other national parks in the DRC. However, the situation of Virunga National Park is special. In recent years, the Virunga Alliance was set up in 2013 with the mission of strengthening the partnership between different stakeholders to promote the conservation of the park. The introduction of this foundation has encrusted within it the ICCN. All the management of this park turns around the Belgian anthropologist, Emmanuel De Merode, who is first the provincial director of ICCN since 2008 and the director general of the Virunga Alliance, a foundation which is financially supported by several international actors, including the European Union. This gives the Virunga Park more visibility and commitments than other parks like the nationally-run Kahuzi Biega. Under the leadership of De Merode, Alliance Virunga has developed several profitable projects. Projects that clearly do not benefit the residents of Virunga National Park, playing therefore a major role in securing the park itself. These inhabitants who have ceded their land for the conservation of nature do not see themselves profiting from this area which according to certain opinions is taken as hostage by Belgium and England. “De Merode created private companies in the park to make money … how many residents have shares in Virunga companies?” Asks Hope Sabini, elected from Rutshuru.
Civil society has denounced the shady management of Virunga National Park several times. “By 2025 the park will total 100 years, what was the money for tourism used for? How many universities, schools or roads are built by the park? Which of the park’s project is benefiting the residents? wonders Placide Nzilamba and many other civil society actors like him who are not trying to raise their voices.
The only project that seems to be successful is the Virunga electricity project, which is a private enterprise. “Once again, the residents are not the beneficiaries, but rather the people who have the means and these people are in Goma. Local residents cannot afford Virunga power, “said a Rutshuru MP, who did not want to be shown and who believes the Virunga issue is complex and dangerous. For him: “The Park is managed as a state within a state, not to say a colony. ”
“Virunga has become the second largest supplier of electricity in eastern DRC, which is stimulating the economy in North Kivu, with nearly sixteen thousand jobs from this new program. “Declared PNVi site manager Emmanuel De Merode on Okapi radio a few months ago.
Apart from the beauty of the park, what is often mentioned is the militias, poaching of elephants and hippos, charcoal production, the use of narrow mesh nets, forgetting the nearby populations.
For some observers, the reality is more subtle. And the solution to all these conflicts would be dialogue with the local population! This docile population, which has observed police custody for a long time, which is problematic, can rejoice of community conservation. This collaboration will create a climate of confidence and the population will perhaps be able to play role of enquirer to thwart cases of insecurity. Local civil society had already proposed a dialogue, but with the idea of a participatory demarcation of the park. According to it the law N ° 14/003 of February 11, 2014 relating to the conservation of nature, Article 3 paragraph 3, “A decree deliberated in the Council of Ministers updates the limits of existing protected areas and determines the buffer zones” seen that th civil society believes that the number of populations has increased.
With these ideas, the response to negative forces must be completely redesigned, but there are many questions to be asked…

What if Unesco downgrades Virunga National Park to World Heritage?

Due to the insecurity? A crazy idea that could be advantageous for the multinational which will have free rein to do its business without worry. Even if some people think of such a possibility, it is very difficult if not impossible. The fauna of Virunga Park is exceptional with some endangered species including gorillas. The flora of the oldest park in Africa is also attractive with rare flowers and other plants that only grow in this region. The park is also full of herbs that scientists have yet to discover.
Those who manage the Virunga National Park must find a good way for the Congolese and especially for the neighbors of the park to make them feel concerned by their jewel, Virunga.
The conflict in and around Virunga National Park, which has taken other turns, is not just an ecological problem but an economic and political one.
What idea do you have of Virunga national park? What question do you have related to this tourist site and its management?

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