Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, Virunga Ranger, wins Goldman Environmental Prize for Defending Congo’s Wildlife

Putting his life on the line, Rodrigue Katembo went undercover to document and release information about bribery and corruption in the quest to drill for oil in Virunga National Park, resulting in public outrage that forced the company to withdraw from the project.

Rich in resources, mired by conflicts

A former Belgian colony, the Democratic Republic of Congo is no stranger to the resource curse. Rich in natural resources such as fossil fuels, precious metals, and gemstones, the country has long been at the center of military conflicts and exploitation from foreign multinational companies. Among them is SOCO International, a British oil company. In 2010, the Congolese government sold SOCO the right to explore for oil in an area known as Block V, about half of which extends into Virunga National Park.

A World Heritage Site, Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa and the crown jewel of Congo’s ecotourism. It is an area of extraordinary biodiversity and an important habitat for about a quarter of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. The park’s protection also ensures surrounding communities’ access to water and food, as well as important economic opportunities for the 3,500 people employed by the park, ecotourism operators, and a small hydroelectric plant.

Despite its importance, Virunga—on Congo’s eastern border shared with Uganda and Rwanda—has been ground zero for the country’s military conflicts, making patrolling Virunga one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. More than 160 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 15 years, often at the hands of armed rebels and poachers.

A career in public service

Rodrigue Katembo, 41, is a Congolese park ranger who grew up during the turbulent years following the country’s independence from Belgium. As the nation was ravaged by military conflicts and political unrest, he was forced into being a child soldier at 14 years old, but left a few years later after his mother helped him escape.

Katembo returned to school, determined to regain the opportunities he lost during his childhood. He studied biology in college, going on to earn a master’s degree. He was drawn to a career in public service, and became a park ranger at Virunga National Park in 2003. He flourished in this role, and with a reputation for high integrity and exceptional leadership, Katembo quickly rose up the ranks to become warden of the park’s central sector—an area of interest to oil companies.

From undercover investigation to Netflix

In 2011, during one of his regular morning patrols, Katembo came across a handful of vehicles that claimed they had legal authorization to drive into Virunga National Park and set up an oil exploration base by the river. They offered Katembo money in exchange for letting them pass, but he refused, holding firm to his principle that the park belongs to the people of Congo and around the world. Coordinating closely with his team via radio, he was able to get the vehicles out of the park.

Katembo reported the incident to the park director, Emmanuel De Merode. They agreed on the need to carefully document evidence of corruption, and met with a film director who helped Katembo with undercover cameras to record footage of SOCO and its contractors offering bribes and discussing illegal activities. Katembo conducted these undercover investigations at a huge risk, knowing that corruption wasn’t limited to SOCO and its contractors. It likely extended into the ranks of Congolese military as well as executives at the national agency overseeing Congo’s protected areas.

Katembo and the footage he gathered during his undercover investigations were heavily featured in the documentary film Virunga. The film premiered in April 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival and gained a massive international audience through Netflix. Leading investigative media outlets picked up the story, and in July 2015, amid growing public outrage at SOCO’s conduct, the Church of England announced it would divest its $1.8 million holding in the company. A few months later, in November 2015, SOCO announced it was giving up its oil license in Block V.

Since SOCO’s departure from Virunga, wildlife in the park is showing signs of recovery. Populations of hippos and elephants, which had been poached heavily as part of SOCO’s attempts to devalue the park, have stabilized. With enhanced security in the park, civilians are free to access water and fish at Lake Edwards.

Katembo has paid an enormous price for his activism. In September 2013, just days after he had stopped a SOCO team from building a telecommunications antenna inside the park, Katembo was arrested and tortured for 17 days. He returned to duty immediately after his release.

Since then, Katembo has been promoted to director of Upemba National Park, where he continues to protect the park and wildlife from poachers, militia, and extractive industries. Thanks to his leadership, dozens of elephants have returned to the park. Zebra numbers are on the rise, while deforestation is decreasing.

In 2016, Katembo helped shut down eight quarries and removed more than 1,400 small-scale miners who were illegally mining for coltan—a metal often used in smartphones. However, extractive industries and armed rebels remain the most serious threat to the understaffed and under-resourced park, its biodiversity, and Katembo’s safety.

Source: The Goldman Environmental Prize

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