The Treasure of Virunga…De Merode’s ‘crazy’ plan…he lives and so does his plan!

Unauthorized translation from the article „Der Schatz von Virunga“ by Juliane von Mittelstaedt, published in Der Spiegel 17/19.4.2014. Translation by Angela Roemelt. Only the German original is valid for quotation.

They never met but they compete against each other. One of fighting for a treasure above the soil, the other one for those beneath it. One is in Rumangabo, the other one in London. And both make the same promise: to improve life for the people in East Congo. At the end of this story one of them will be fighting for his life.

Emmanuel de Merode sees his treasure lying at his feet. To be precise: it is clinging to his feet. A mountain gorilla named Ndakasi, seven years old, a child with the convincing power of 60 kilos. Whenever his time allows, the director of Virunga National Park visits the gorillas raised by his rangers in a resort here at Rumangabo, one hour by car from Goma. They were orphaned by the Civil war that has no mercy even for animals.

He tarries there for a couple of minutes, silently watching the gorillas. Then he shoves Ndakasis hands off his ankle – not without some strength – and steps outside. A new day is awaiting him there, a day in East Congo with poachers, militias and illegal timbering amid a civil war which has been turning this place into one of the most terrible locations on earth for two decades now. Surrounded by one of the most beautiful areas of the world inhabiting 200 of theses last living 880 mountain gorillas.

Roger Cagle, on the other hand, views Africa’s oldest national park as a biological error. A layer of earth covering his treasure. Cagle holds forth in a business building on Mayfair London. Marble, precious wood, flowers, a place to make money without leaving traces. For 17 years the 66-year-old American Cagle has been vice-president of SOCO international Oil business. On the table before him lies a picture of Virunga taken by satellite. He pushes his forefinger to the south beach of Lake Edward. Here is located the center of the park and also block V for which region his firm holds a drilling concession. If Cagle’s bet is right, several billion liters of oil are lying hidden here and he is determined to seek this treasure.

This is the business model of SOCO international, worth € 1,6 billion at stock, dealt at London stock index FTSE 250 and specially interested in difficult areas for exploration world-wide: Angola, Vietnam and now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Animal protection is usually specially moved by the mountain gorilla’s fate, but this is not a story about gorillas. Rather it is a story about the ruthlessness of a western enterprise operating in Africa and thereby destroying what hopeful development exists. For the problem does not start with the oil running, it starts with the search for it.

Slowly park director de Merode in Rumangabo is rinsing his instant coffee with lukearm water from a thermos. This was meant to be his residence, a colonial villa built by Belgians. But when he was appointed director six years ago, he turned it into the park’s headquarters and moved into a tent himself. Here he occupies three square meters, a wash-basin at the entrance and rice with beans for dinner with a piece of meat on special days. He likes a simple life, the uniform a wedding ring his only jewelry. He could talk about the gorillas, but he prefers fishing, water power and tourism, fighting poverty and Good Governance, loans for small firms and investment stocks. About the 60.000 jobs that could be developed here and an economy worth one billion dollars until 2025. Emmanuel de Merode calls it a Marshall plan for North Kivu. “that’s not as crazy as it sounds, ” he says, but of course it does sound that.

It’s an insane field experiment : a national park as the economical drive for an entire region in the world’s third poorest country where dozens of armed groups terrorize the people and the state itself is slowly dissolving. Virunga has mountains and rivers, they might provide electricity for villages and cities. For without electricity there will be no jobs and the men will join the armed groups instead and the country will go on dissolving. De Merode is determined to break this cycle, to boost up economy and multiply tax income so there will be money for schools hospitals and roads, for a humane life. It may not be a coincidence that this Animal Protector is originally an anthropologist. For when humans live under good conditions, they are willing to protect animals. They don’t fell trees, don’t hunt elephants nor kill gorillas. It’s a long way from water power to gorilla protection. Emmanuel de Merode thinks it’s the only way.

“We must show the people that nature conservation is in their own interest, that it makes for economical development. This is this only chance for Virunga to survive. “

Seen from above the park looks as if someone has tried to draw a question mark with a trembling hand. 300 kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide at the narrowest. Lake Kivu to the south and the Ruwenzori mountains to the north, savannas, rainforest and volcanoes between. At the question mark’s full stop Rumangabo is situated. Here the park’s director is living like a lone General. Virunga is losing many acres of land to farmers and villagers every day, invasion is the park’s normal condition. And Emmanuel de Merode, aged 43, is not a General but a public officer employed by the Congolese National parks Institution ICCC. 247 rangers report to him. He’s a Belgian royal who never lived in Belgium. Born in Tunisia, raised in Kenya, he went to England for studies and then came to Congo never to leave again.

„Soco is the biggest threat to Virunga, these days“, he says.

The park was founded in 1925 by Belgians. In 1979 it was appointed unesco natural worldheritage. Since 1994 hundred thousands of refugees have been traversing the park bringing it near to collaps in 2008. Then Emmanuel de Merode was appointed director. A case of mission impossible. How is anyone supposed to protect animals where it is imossible to protect humans?

First he sacked every ranger convicted of poaching or timber theft. Then he started fund-raising world-wide and raised wages, purchased uniforms, off -road vehicles, computers. He has built nine schools in the surrounding villages, two infirmaries, hundred kilometers of roads. He is turning the National Park into a role model for a better Congo.
The drilling concession for the search for oil in block V had been given to SOCO by Congolese government before the new park director’s assignment. It covers 7500 square kilometers more than half of them situated in Virunga. But the contract includes, the British firm has to follow Congo’s environmental laws and those prohibit searching for oil in national parks. According to that law SOCO could operate on those parts of the terrain located outside the park.

Nothing much happened until June 18 2010 .On that day president Joseph Kabila confirmed the contract with SOCO. From the beginning on the firm focuses on Lake Edward because there the probability to find oil is best. The British take the governmental concession as a licence to operate on conservation area, while the park-director insists on them abiding by the law. That’s where their struggle begins. De Merode has to prove that environmental conversation is more productive than oil and that long-term projects are more effective than short-term booms on resources. He is positive he can win the contest. But it is an unequal one from the start.

In the past year alone, SOCO has made a profit of $ 100 millions. De Merodes annual budget is 4 millions. While he has to struggle for every dollar, SOCO has every means at their hands to search for oil in one of the most fragile conversation areas of the world. The oil firm woos for the people’s consent, promises schools, hospitals roads jobs and even launches a song in the radio : “welcome, SOCO, we so love you, because you will bring us development. ”
But the business not only relies on wooing. Men employed by the security firm SSC hired by SOCO start paying park employees, local politicians and soldiers mostly by intermediaries, to guarantee safe entrance to the park and protection therein as indicated by the research of French journalist Melanie Gouby and British movie director Orlando von Einsiedel who have been collecting testimonies and proof undercover for two years. Dozens of conversations between SOCO employees and assistants secretly have been recorded that way. Some of them will be shown in the Virunga -movie at Tribeca film festival in New York April 17. Some things mentioned in this here article come from this research. The oil form has denied any payment either directly or by proxy.

SOCO has three opponents in Virunga: the director, the militia and the Fisher men. De Merode’s rangers have orders not to grant the British access to the park. Some of the rangers have been offered money, many rejected it. This is de Merode’s biggest success: that his rangers won’t take a bribe! It’s a small glimpse into a better future when justice will defy injustice. Not everybody approves of that prospect.

Julien Lechenault, SOCO consultant,said in a secretly recorded talk in June 2012 “We want de Merode fired. If he goes , everything will be fine. ” He left SOCO in August 2013 and the business states everything he said unofficial and just his personal view.
The park office in Kinshasa has signed an agreement with SOCO that enables the business to view itself as any normal visitor having payed an entrance fee to enter the park. Thus the official bureau takes care that the oil firm can operate in the park. There’s a loop hole in the law: it allows environmental studies in conservation areas. Vice -principal of the park office, Guy Mbayma, officially de Merode’s superior, has called a meeting for Virunga rangers threatening to sack everyone who opposes SOCO. witnesses report he forces some of the rangers to escort the oil firm in the park.

When Mbayma comes to North Kivu he resides in the most expensive hotel in Goma. It is easy to meet him, he hasn’t got much to do. For an environmentalist he offers an unusual opinion: „Oil is not a threat to the park, it will help the people here. I have really positive feelings about this,“ Is he not afraid at all of damage to the environment from emerging oil or militia attacking the pipeline?
„ As far as I am informed pipelines can be layed subterranean, where the oil is. How is that supposed to have a negative effect?“ Furthermore SOCO is a British enterprise and „the British are very keen on environment conservation.“

Soco’s second problem are the militia using Virunga as a retreat area, like the Maji Maji, criminal gangs living on blackmail and raids, the FDLR and M23, one of them hutu, the other Tutsi, who have been fighting each other under varying names and leaders since the genocide in Rwanda. All of them are responsible for murder and rape in massive numbers. Whoever wants to travel the park normally has to pay protection money to the rebels, but SOCO’s people go to regions too dangerous even for the rangers.
Since 2011 intentional attacks by FLDR on park rangers have increased. Eleven rangers are killed in that year, all of them within the block V region. The head of a security firm working for SOCO is kidnapped by the FLDR.
Then, in April 2012, the M23 rebellion begins. Very soon the militia occupy a big part of North Kivu. SOCO’s work in the park is in danger. Two high-ranking members of M23 claim that in those days SOCO approached them by intermediaries. „SOCO is big business. There is money here!“ says a colonel. And a member of M23, appointed as „minister for environment“ by the rebels, says he had asked the SOCO emmissaries for 10 Mil. Dollars. „They said: no problem.“ SOCO denies every contact with M23. Neither the enterprise itself or the security firm SSC ever had payed any money. Still, the statements of the M23 shows that the presence of an international business firm in the region raises desires and oil could fuel the conflict even further.

For days a thunderstorm is raging on the horizon. Thunder rolls and lightnings crack, starting in the morning and ending with the break of night. Really a thunderstorm? De Merode laughs. It’s not a thunderstorm, this time. Across the mountain-ridge the Congolese army is shelling the last remnants of M23. At dusk the General comes to Rumangabo and silently gulps down what dinner de Merode’s people provide for him. Then he sits down at the fireplace and falls asleep.
The thunderstorm abates and the park director’s mood is better these days in early November 2ß13 than it has been for a long time. „War is over“, he says, almost wondering. The next morning he starts building a water power plant. He has been in Congo for 10 years and seen one war emerge into the next one, he knows, peace will be short and has to be used now.

While driving he points to a green valley. „In 1994 one million refugees from Rwanda were living here.“ A moment later he reaches the property of Rutshuru he has bought with money donated by US-philanthropist Howard Buffet. He has spent the past months devising plans and obtaining permissions. Now, a bulldozer is flattening the land. The plant is expected to achieve 12,6 megawatt, more than the whole of North Kivu is supplied with now. He already built a smaller plant in the North. Soon it is expected to supply hospitals, schools and a palm oil factory with electricity. De Merode is looking at the larger picture connecting things. He wants to produce soap, 40 tons per day. „First, we just wanted to build a dam for the station,“ he says, „but then we thought: why not do it for the whole city.“ And then: We could get a factory and create jobs. Only, there was no factory, so he founded a joint venture with a soap business owner.

From Rutshuru he’s going on north. He hasn’t been here for over a year. He wants to know what it looks like ofter the M23 has departed. He is going north to Lake Edward, the road is still dangerous, so he is escorted by soldiers. Since 1996 more than 140 Virunga-Rangers have been killed on duty.
De Merode is steering, his driver has been told to sit in the back. At the roadside bags filled with charcoal are displayed for sale. Every day a small forest is felled in Virunga. The off-road vehicle bounces through pot-holes. „The roads used to be good“, he says. „Years ago we could reach lake Edward within an hour.“ It starts to rain and the road is dissolving even more. Nearing a village the holes become deepest and there always are helping hands with shovels. In east Congo a bad road is the best employer.

Eventually even the park director’s vehicle gets stucked and it takes one or two hours to get it free again. It is night when the convoi reaches Lulimbi at Lake Edward. The 65 kilometers journey has taken a whole day and as it turns out de Merode has forgotten to bring food. The rangers share their rations, pasta, sardines and cookies. The Belgian is eating fast and focused. Sometimes he falls mute in the middle of a conversation, a thought is carrying him away.
When was his last day off? He ponders the question but knows no answer. He visits his family in Nairobi every few months. His wife last visited him here ten years ago, his childen have never been here, they never saw a gorilla, so far. He says, he is trying to keep his two worlds apart.

Lulimbi is a place of hope in Virunga. In 2006 the hippo was almost extinct there, but the population is increasing. Since 2010 it has gained 16 percent. Elephants and lions also are increasing. The place looks like Serengeti, it is hard to imagine that only a couple months before it was a stronghold they had to defend against the FLDR with the sue of machine guns. The attackers left four corpses.

Emmanuel de Merode has ordered luxury tents from Europe he wants to place here for tourists. Currently they are packed away at camp. It is doubtful if he will ever need them. Who will be wanting to go for a safari next to oil derricks?

If they ever start drilling for oil, the’ll start here. But Cagle says it wasn’t scientist who drew Virunga’s borders and they can be re-drawn any time. On the whole side of Lake Edaard that belongs to Uganda oil drillings has taken place „and there was no riot nor uproar.“ This other side is not Unesco natural worlheritage, though.

But the’s right, there is riot and uproar: EU, Great Britain, Belgium and the Unesco protest the granting of concessions for oil exploration in Virunga. Total enterprise, which owns a concession for the North drew back because of the public pressure. SOCO is determined to go on. They wouldn’t search for oil in the gorilla sector, the enterprise is wont to emphasize. Nobody said they would, though, for the gorilla sector is volcanic area and there is no oil in volcanic soil.

Cagle strategy is clear: he wants to discredit Virunga’s ecologial value. And to point out environmentalists as opposed to progress. „If I lived there I’d be happy to welcome every kind of development“. His spokeswoman lists their projects: a mobile clinic, wells, a radio mast, rebuilding of a road. The radio mast is located next to the SOCO camp, the road is running nearby.
Cagle likes to describe SOCO’s investments like some kind of NGO-projects: they’d want to help the government to evaluate the oil reserves. Afterwards, the government had to decide what to make of them. The business model of the British concern is to search for oil where no-one dares to go and then sell the concessions. If there really is oil in Virunga, somebody else will probably extract it while Cagle will be searching elsewhere in Congo. He sees potential there.

Asked when he ahs been to North Kivu the last time Cagle looks up. „I have never been there“, he says.

From the collected talks of Julien Lechenault, SOCO emjployee in Goma: „We don’t talk to these people, that’s why we have others do this shit for us,.“ And:“ We talk to everybody. Well, not me, not SOCO, but our security firm. We don’t want to hear what they say.“ And:“ I don’t know how much he pays for information. We don’t ask, we just pay the bills.“ And:“I know he’s in contact with most of the groups.“ Here Lechenault is talking about the SSC-man responsible for SOCO’s safety. Evfen if these commentaries by Lechenault are considered private and inofficial, they prove that Soco-staff has knowledge of payment to militia. At one time he says: „We can’t work the way London would prefer to.“

One of the most important assistants seems to be Major Burimbi Kingi Feruzi, official liaison-officer to SOCO. But Feruzi’s work also entails paying rangers for supporting SOCO. He claims to have payed one ranger $ 19.000, another one is offered $ 3000 in a taped talk. SOCO denies any knowledge of these incidents. If such payments ever took place they were not authorized by the enterprise and contradictory to the firm’s policies.

In September 2013 Ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo is arrested for doing what is his duty: to prevent SOCO-staff from erecting a radio mast in the park. On the road to prison the soldiers talk about ways to kill him. At the interrogation they say: „SOCO is allowed to search for oil in the park by order of the president. How dare you be against them? A guy like you can vanish in the lake anytime.“ It takes three weeks from him to be released.

At night lions and hyenas are roaring around Lulimbi and the next morning de Merode takes a boat to go to the other side of Lake Edward. „Half of the lake is under control from the Maji Maji“, the director says. Around the lake the park administration has put out buoys to mark the zone wherein fishing is prohibited. De Merode is trying to put an end to overfishing and thereby double the earnings. More proceeds from fishing might prevent people from invading the park even further, he hopes.

The fishermen are the third problem SOCO has to face. A fisherman from Vitshumbi tells: „they came here in 2010. They promised us jobs and a better life. People rejoiced.“ But then they learned that the Brits only planned to invest some 100 000 Dollars in community projects, and that the oil drilling could endanegr their lives’s substance. When the villager start to protest. Activist are arrested and receive threats by text message. SOCo prefers telling the press the people would consent with their plans. The fisherman says: „Every club or organisation received money and they then supported SOCO.“ The former SOCO-staff member Julien Lechenault in a secretely taped talk confirms this calling it „fake politics“.

Maybe, there are „fake politics“ taking place in Kinshasa. A draft for a new law proposes a simple majority in cabinet to decide upon oil drilling in Congolese national parks. This woukld mean defeat for Emmanuel de Merode and victory for Roger Cagle. But, as yet, nothign has been decided, the bet’s still on.

When the park director returns to Rumangabo, a few days later, the General is gone leaving only a few empty shells in the mud. And he has left money for food and lodging. A General who pays! That’s a first!
And de Merode’s email inbox contains requests by travel business agencies: When will it be possible to send tourists to Virunga
The end of January the first tourists arrive. In early April 150 ambassadors of state and civil society are meeting in Goma for a conference on Virunga. The governor of North Kivu says: „I can see what the park offers to the people. I’m still wwaiting to see what oil has to offer them.“

Last Tuesday de Merode drives from Goma to Rumangabo on his own, taking an allegedly safe road. Three attackers spring from a bush, two bullets hit his torso, two days prior to the release of the Virunga movie.

Emmanuel de Merode is seriously injured. But he lives and so does his crazy plan.

Source: Der Spiegel



One thought on “The Treasure of Virunga…De Merode’s ‘crazy’ plan…he lives and so does his plan!

Comments are closed.