“Underlying the Virunga park is a history of war and conflict. In eastern Congo there has been armed conflict for 20 years. It has happened because of the incredible wealth of natural resources and their illegal exploitation.”
Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park Director
On your screen are poignant scenes of people gathered in silence, tears of heartbreak escaping, and a coffin covered in the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That coffin belongs to a Virunga park ranger who “died trying to rebuild this country”. He is one of 130 park rangers who have done so since 1996.
After it shocks you into this reality, the Virunga documentary expands the story of the conservation work of rangers to protect this UNESCO world heritage site from armed militia, poachers and the dark forces struggling to control Congo’s rich natural resources. It draws specific focus to the activities of British company SOCO International which began exploring for oil in the park in April 2014.
So why is Virunga (both the movie and the national park) so important? For two reasons:
You should see this park!
The vistas in this film are what I love most about my continent — they are too large to fit all their open, unimpeded beauty on the screen, and they make the heart soar. Nature like this should be protected for the sake of the planet’s biodiversity and resilience (the Congo Basin is the world’s second largest rainforest and one of the lungs of the planet), for the sake of its inimitable beauty, and for the sake of characters like this one:
Extractivism needs to end
There’s a complex web of declarations behind SOCO International’s presence in Virunga National Park (this summary will give you an idea of it) and an even more complex setup of rebel fighters who were shown to have links to SOCO and fund their fighting through selling off natural resources, but the fact is that according to Congolese and international law, it should be illegal for SOCO to drill for oil in the park.
Last year the company announced that it was pulling out of Virunga. The move came after public pressure from many high-profile angles and was presented as a coup for the environmental lobby, but SOCO made the announcement only after it had finished its survey.
There are still fears that it may yet resume operations in the park, but the documentary has helped piled on the pressure to make sure SOCO, all their contractors and rebel militia links leave the park for good. In an alarming new development, the DRC government recently said they’d like to work with UNESCO to find a way to drill for oil legally, which could include major modifications to the size of the park.
There are two scenes in the movie that really stuck with me. One is a journalist’s undercover filming of a SOCO contractor who says that the people who work in the park could not possibly be doing what they do for the sake of the animals, and says the mountain gorillas must obviously be “pissing diamonds” to keep the rangers interested. Some scenes later, when M23 rebel fighting gets close to the gorilla orphanage, we see André Bauma, a ranger who takes care of the orphan gorillas like they are his own children say “So if it is about dying, I will die for these gorillas” as he puts on his uniform and straps on his gun to protect the area.
SOCO has called the film’s allegations “unfounded and inaccurate”, but perhaps their contractors should learn that wealth can look different to different people.
Extractivism has a habit of barreling in and flattening anything and everything in its path to get at possible fossil fuels. But there are people like these park rangers who are working tirelessly and selflessly because, as Rodrigue Katembo, head park ranger says, he doesn’t want his son’s generation “to inherit a world or a country as broken as this”.
He’s putting his life on the line for the park every day because he says “I am not special” — this at a moment when he is so clearly the exact opposite.
People like André, Rodrigue, and all the past and present rangers of Virunga make me so proud of Africa, and fill me with hope for and extractivism-free future where we’ll be living in harmony with the planet and each other. Long live Virunga!
Find out how you can take action to keep SOCO out of the park for good.