As we begin the new year of 2019, we, the member organizations of the Synergy of Ecologists for Peace and Development, regret to draw a mixed assessment for the conservation of Virunga National Park during the year 2018.
Indeed, the good news is that with the combined efforts of local communities – governmental conservation institutions and international partners, the population of Mountain Gorillas has increased, during the year 2018, with 11 new births, particularly in the families of the Mikeno Gorillas of Virunga National Park. This growth, a positive outcome for the entire Virunga Massif shared by the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, has resulted in IUCN changing the status of this species from “Critically Endangered” to that of “Endangered” for the first time since 1994.
However, on the security front, Virunga National Park remains affected by an ever-increasing insecurity situation, maintained by criminal networks, national and foreign-armed groups, as well as by certain elements of the national security forces present in the Virunga massif, as a consequence:
- At least 9 rangers from ICCN were killed while carrying out their duties protecting Virunga National Park during various attacks on their positions or convoys in the park, respectively in February, April, May and November 2018;
- Weak voice of local and international advocates who push for the legitimate and international recognition of park rangers among human rights defenders in the environmental sector;
- Low political support for the governance and administration of the ViNP;
- Proliferation of taxation services disguised as technical service in the fishing enclaves;
- More than once, during the year 2018, clashes broke out between Rwandan soldiers and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, FARDC in the Mikeno area and north of Mutaho in the southern sector of the Park;
- At least 120 Congolese fishermen were successively arrested between March and December 2018 by the Ugandan navy for violating lake borders and remain detained in Uganda after being convicted by the Ugandan court and two other Ugandan fishermen arrested and detained on the Congolese side were released last November for the same facts committed on the Congolese side;
- At least 26 other Congolese fishermen have been killed in confrontations with either the Ugandan navy or other security forces;
- The militia group Mayi-Mayi, including the one of Charles KAKULE continue to maintain criminal networks benefiting from poaching, illegal trafficking of animals in the Park but also keeping insecurity in the central sector of ViNP, while in the southern sector it is the FDLR group that maintains a similar illegal network for logging and the trafficking of charcoal and other wood products;
- Expansion of pastures and villages within the park in the south-west to KITSHANGA; KILOLIRWE, KlNGl, … without any political decision to discourage this illegal practice;
- The oil project was reactivated by the Congolese Government which, beyond projecting the partial disaffection of Virunga National Park and Salonga National Park for oil exploitation, they opened business negotiations with new companies, reinforcing threats to the Park;
- The invasion of the Park remains at its height in the Southern sector, Northen and Center by the population in complicity with corrupt politicians;
- Illegal fishing has reached a very worrying threshold on Lake Edward;
- The electoral campaigns deteriorated the collaboration between the ICCN conservation staff and the local population following political manipulations. Case of Vitshumbi in late November 20l8.
As a result of these threats, tourism was suspended in the Park just after the May 11, 2018 attack on British tourists in Nyiragongo territory and until today tourism remains closed.
In response to these threats, we recognize the efforts of the Virunga Alliance, which is developing a large number of development projects around the park to improve the social conditions of the residents and to ease the pressures on the Park.
Meanwhile, local defenders organisations and other foreign partners have increased advocacy actions against these threats and continue activities to mobilize the community, and push for justice and for the strong application of the penal code on questions regarding the protection of wildlife and flora.
We ask instantly at the American government, the European Union, the African Union, the Congolese government, the ICGLR, the SADEC to consider sanctions against all officials regardless of their positioning involved in the actions that threaten Virunga National Park.
Done at Goma, 07/01/2019
For the coordination of the SEPD