#WORLDRANGERDAY2017 – PARK RANGERS UNDER ATTACK IN THE DRC
- 10 defenders killed in the DRC in 2016 – the highest number in Africa
- 9 of those killed were park rangers
- The DRC government is threatening those campaigning against abuses in the natural resource sector
Natural predators are the least of Rodrigue Katembo’s worries as chief warden of Upemba National Park. This 10,000km area of outstanding natural beauty and rich biodiversity in south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is also home to armed groups and criminal gangs.58
When Global Witness spoke to Rodrigue about the job’s challenges, he told us:
My predecessor was ambushed and decapitated by Mai Mai rebels. Upemba is very risky. The ranger team has no social support, no material support, no food. They’re unable to even take their kids to school. 59
Well-armed poachers have also killed park rangers. These violent murders are part of a disturbing trend across Africa. In the past year, Global Witness has documented similar killings in South Africa, Cameroon, Uganda and Zimbabwe.60
The threat of violence forced Rodrigue to abandon his previous post at Virunga National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.61 Half of DRC’s murdered park rangers in 2016 worked in Virunga, where exploration by extractive companies has multiplied the risks for rangers, who are already at threat from the poachers operating in the park.
In 2007, the DRC government granted companies rights to explore for oil over 85% of Virunga’s territory.62 Aware of the devastation that oil drilling could wreak, Rodrigue made an extraordinarily courageous decision. He went undercover with a film crew to expose the corruption and private interests behind the park’s exploitation; a move which was likely to put his life in grave danger.
REVEALED: THE SHADY TRUTH
The resulting documentary, the Oscar-nominated Virunga, was released in 2014. It provides compelling evidence that British oil company Soco International benefited from the ‘climate of violence’ in and around the park in its pursuit of Virunga’s oil.63
It includes undercover footage of Rodrigue being offered thousands of dollars to spy on the park’s director, Emmanuel de Mérode, and report back to Major Burimba Feruzi, a Congolese intelligence officer regularly paid by Soco. De Mérode was subsequently shot and wounded in April 2014, in an apparent assassination attempt as he returned to the park having reportedly delivered evidence of suspected corruption for the public prosecutor.64 There is no evidence that Soco were connected with the attack.65 The film also captured a Soco official and one of the company’s contractors appearing to admit that Soco paid off armed rebels who operated in the park and might encroach on the search for oil.
Further evidence released by Global Witness in June 2015 showed that the same Congolese intelligence officer who tried to bribe Rodrique received US$42,250 (equivalent to over 30 years’ salary for a Congolese army Major) from Soco in spring 2014.66 There is also evidence that Soco paid a local MP, at the time a government minister, to campaign on its behalf.67 The MP helped organise payments to local organisations to hold a pro-oil demonstration in the park.
Soco has stated that it never employed any Congolese soldiers, and that any financial arrangements were “above board” and agreed with the Congolese government.68 It said that it treats any allegations of this nature with the “utmost seriousness” and that the company is “committed to operating under the best business practices”.69 In a 2014 letter to Global Witness, Soco denied breaching UK bribery laws and condemned the use of violence and intimidation.70
Virunga exposed Soco’s modus operandi to the world. It prompted the Church of England to divest its total holdings of £1.6 million in the company in July 2015,71 and the EU Parliament to adopt a resolution seeking to prevent oil exploration in the park and neighbouring areas in December of the same year.72 The EU parliament also called on the UK’s Serious Fraud Office to investigate all bribery and corruption allegations relating to Soco International.
FEARS FOR THE FUTURE
There is no guarantee this story will have a happy ending, as Soco’s oil exploration may increase pressure for Virunga to be opened up.73 The Congolese government may yet hand the oil licence to another company. Web news service Africa Intelligence ran an article in May this year on how the state-run exploration company Cohydro has been in talks with a little-known firm Quest Oil International, which is reportedly linked to Soco, over the transfer of drilling permits in the park.74
And, every day, Virunga’s rangers continue to risk their lives to protect Congo’s wildlife. Rodrigue has fought off numerous armed attacks and suffered death threats.75 In September 2013, he was arrested on spurious charges and tortured for 17 days.76
When you look at what has been happening around the mining exploration, when you look at the ambush against the park director […] when you look at all these incidents, there is no investigation, there is nothing, there are no steps that have been taken to look into these crimes
Congolese forest ranger Rodrigue Katembo77
Rodrigue told us that the government provides no protection to the rangers, or compensation to the families of those who have died. 78
“The only thing keeping me motivated to stay in Upemba is that the guards trust me and want me to stay. If I were to leave, all the other guards would desert and the poaching would start again. Then you would have a park with no wildlife. I am staying there for them.”79
A CONTROVERSIAL HISTORY
Conservation efforts in the DRC have a controversial history. The creation of national parks has impacted local communities, leading to human rights abuses, loss of livelihoods and even conflict between park rangers and local people.80 These communities are not always consulted before national parks are created, and face restricted access to their lands and resources, upon which their lives depend.81
What is more, the DRC is an increasingly unsafe space for civil society to operate, with more and more national and international activists facing trumped-up legal charges because of their work.82 Indeed, Global Witness staff were thrown out of the country last year.83 The febrile political climate in the DRC has exacerbated this problem.
Source: Global Witness
An ambush by local rebel forces led to five deaths in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, while another ranger died in Virunga.
Learn more about World Ranger Day
World Ranger Day both commemorates Rangers killed or injured in the line of duty and celebrates the critical work Rangers do to protect the world’s natural and cultural treasures.
World Ranger Day is observed annually on the 31st of July and is celebrated by the International Ranger Federation’s (IRF’s) member Associations, The Thin Green Line Foundation, and by organisations, schools and individuals who support the work of Rangers and the IRF worldwide.
The first World Ranger Day was observed in 2007 on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the IRF.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the sacrifice that these Rangers make; to honour the fallen Rangers and their colleagues who still bravely undertake their role in the field.