Bantu Lukambo and Josué Kambasu Mukura have risked their lives while working to protect Virunga National Park, which is exposed to many threats including extractive activities, poaching and armed conflict. Engaging with local communities, they strive to demonstrate the huge potential of the park as a sustainable way out of poverty.
Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Words by Pierre Lefèvre, environmental journalist
Fighting to preserve the natural richness of Virunga National Park is the deed of two Congolese men, Bantu Lukumba and Josué Kambasu Mukura – at the risk of their own lives. The IUCN Heritage Hero award is recognition of their commitment. More importantly, by drawing international attention on their action, it would help improve security in one of the most dangerous regions on the planet.
“Afraid? No, I’m not afraid,” says boldly Bantu Lukambo, director of the Congolese NGO Innovation for the Development and Protection of the Environment (IDPE). “If that were the case, I could have left my country in 2014 and gone to England where I was offered refuge. But I am determined to fight to preserve Virunga National Park. It’s the future of our children.”
“Determined” is a word qualifying Bantu as well as Josué Kambasu Mukura, Secretary General of the fishing cooperative FECOPEILE (Federation of fishermen of Lake Edward). The two men are engaged in the protection of this natural jewel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), even if this puts their lives in danger. The park is indeed one of the most dangerous regions of the world: in the past 10 years, over 150 Congolese guards were murdered there. In 2014, the Director of the park, the Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode, was himself the target of an attack, which left him brutally wounded.
Founded in 1925 during Belgian colonisation by King Albert I, Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site, is Africa’s oldest park. It stretches along the borders of Rwanda and Uganda in the province of North Kivu, on a strip of 790,000 hectares. It has a unique biodiversity due to its exceptional geography. Located in the Great Rift Valley, the park offers a wide variety of habitats ranging from the Rwenzori Mountains at an altitude of over 5000 meters – Africa’s largest glacial region – to swamps and steppes, and across tropical forests, savannah, wetlands and two active volcanoes – the Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira with its spectacular lava lake.
It is this outstanding lushness that explains the abundance of species in the park. On the slopes of several extinct volcanoes live a third of the world’s population of the emblematic mountain gorillas. Some 200 gorillas are left today. Virunga’s wildlife also includes hundreds of species of birds, elephants, buffalos, rare animals like the okapi, and hippos, while 20,000 people live on the shores of Lake Edward. It is the highest concentration of species in Africa.
While it is blessed with nature, Virunga National Park is also one of the regions most threatened by corruption, by armed conflicts between the official army and rebel groups, and by the oil industry. Illegal activities of all kinds exacerbate this unfortunate list: illegal trafficking of charcoal and wildlife (apes in particular), poaching…
It is precisely to act against these threats and for the preservation of wildlife that Bantu, son of a fisherman, became a teacher and in 1994 created the IPDE in partnership with the park’s national authority, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), and other local and international organisations. The decision came when a massive influx of refugees fleeing the Rwandan conflict caused deforestation and poaching at a large scale. In addition to awareness campaigns and advocacy on the international stage, the IPDE and its staff of about 20 employees are involved in microprojects on livestock, agriculture and fish farming management. Its objective: raise awareness on environmental crimes and sanction them as crimes against humanity.
But this advocacy has a high price: since the IPDE was established, Bantu is regularly threatened. He was arrested six times and was forced to leave the country on three occasions to avoid being killed. His life was particularly threatened after he rescued baby gorillas which were captured and sold by poachers. He also fled DRC after protesting against the oil project in the park by British company Soco.
The same kind of spirit inhabits Josué, who ceaselessly engages with local communities to raise their awareness on the importance of preserving their natural heritage. “By protecting Virunga National Park, we protect people’s lives,” he insists, “because the park gives us everything.” Indeed several families around Lake Edward live from fishing, which brings them food and money once the fish sold at the market in Goma. This income allows their children to go to school.
Like Bantu, Josué devotes his heart and soul to the cause. Tirelessly, he strives to mobilise local communities to rally against oil projects of any type. He too had to flee his village and hide to escape death. Nonetheless, “I’m never discouraged because I defend a noble cause for the benefit of all,” says Joshua wholeheartedly.
Both men strive to convince local people that within Virunga National Park lies great economic potential, a way out of out of poverty through activities that don’t threaten natural resources. Lake Edward alone can feed sustainably more than 3 million people. Ecotourism already generates more than one million US dollars of income. More safety for the park could increase this figure to USD 235 million, benefitting local communities and creating more than 7,000 jobs. Josué is positive: “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
The candidates with most votes will receive a people’s choice award during the IUCN World Conservation Congress on 3 September.
More about the Heritage Heroes Award:
The Heritage Heroes award aims to recognise the outstanding efforts of a few brave people, around the four corners of the world, who relentlessly invest efforts to make a difference in the way natural World Heritage sites are conserved, sometimes despite life-threatening situations.
The award is both a celebration of the places and people that inspire us, and a wake-up call on the reality of threats on the ground.
IUCN received over 30 nominations for the Heritage Heroes awards from across its World Heritage networks. The selection panel, led by experts of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), has shortlisted three nominations for the Heritage Heroes awards, which will be launched at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.