Green militarisation and escalating violence in Virunga National Park

On Monday, 9 April 2018, five rangers and a driver were killed in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A sixth ranger was wounded. In a statement, Virunga National Park said it is, “deeply saddened to confirm reports of an attack on our staff today”.

The attack on the rangers was the most deadly in the park’s recent history. In the last 20 years, more than 170 rangers have been killed.

Jason Burke, a journalist with the Guardian writes that,

The rising toll has earned the park a reputation as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world. Last August, five rangers were killed when local militia attacked their post in the northern part of the park on the shores of Lake Edward.

The Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa. It covers an area of almost 800,000 hectares in the northeast of DRC. In 1979, Virunga became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In an interview on 12 April 2018 with BBC World Service, Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian aristocrat who has been park director at Virunga since 2008, explains the violence in Virunga and what should be done now:

It’s mainly to do with the situation, the geographical situation of Virunga National Park. It’s in a region that has suffered a succession of armed conflicts, and because of the nature of the work, rangers are expected, it’s their duty to continue the work whatever the conditions. And so they regularly find themselves in situations of violent conflict. And because of that, on average, we’ve tragically lost one of our staff per month in the past few years.

The way it works for a ranger is that he’s a serving law enforcement officer, and has responsibility for upholding the law in the area that is their jurisdiction. And that means a great many things and that put them in harm’s way during periods of armed conflict.

Essentially they have to ensure that the law is upheld and that means correcting all the wrongs that are happening, and protecting not just the wildlife but also the people that happen to be moving through the park. That’s where the danger lies, it levels many of our rangers up against the armed militias. That means that they are regularly attacked. In March we tragically lost two of our staff, the two rangers who were killed were captured, they were tortured and subsequently executed as a act that would constitute a war crime.

So, given these recent developments, we have to take a series of measures. The first is to do everything to secure our staff, and the second measure is that we have to confront this situation, we can’t unfortunately walk away from it.

That involves strengthening the ability of the rangers to uphold the law and to enable them to do their work safely and to address these issues that are leading to the presence of armed militias in the park.

Fighting fire with fire isn’t helping

Judith Verweijen and Esther Marijnen, from the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University, have been carrying out research on militarisation and conservation in and around Virunga for several years.

In January 2017, they wrote an article for The Conversation about the militarisation of conservation in Virunga. They write that,

It would be wrong to question the objectives, dedication, and sacrifices made by the park management and staff. Many rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty. But based on our research in the region, we have doubts about the effects of the park’s current policies on conflict and violence in the wider Virunga area.

Their concern is that strict law enforcement aimed at preventing armed groups from illegally exploiting natural resources can lead to more violence.

There are many armed groups operating in and around Virunga. They are involved in charcoal production, poaching, fishing, and agriculture. All of these are illegal inside the national park. And they are having a devastating impact on Viruga’s biodiversity.

The park’s approach, as described by Emmanuel de Merode to BBC World Service, is for the park rangers to attempt to uphold the law by preventing these illegal activities. The park management collaborates with the Congolese army, and park rangers conduct joint operations, together with soldiers, aimed at clearing the park of armed groups.

But in addition to the danger to rangers’ lives, there’s another problem. Verweijen and Marijnen write that,

While depleting the park’s resources, thousands of people living in the Virunga area depend on illegal resources exploitation for their livelihoods. They pay armed groups to access the park and protect such revenue generating activities. The resulting links between people and armed groups complicate efforts to tackle illegal resources exploitation.

Virunga’s approach is counterproductive

Verweijen and Marijen give three reasons why Virunga’s fighting fire with fire approach is counterproductive:

  1. The rangers’ operations in Virunga are not part of any wider political and socio-economic measures to deal with the large number of armed militias. In fact, the DRC government has not developed any such measures. When rangers succeed in chasing armed groups out of the national park, they are dislocated, but not dissolved. “The result,” write Verweigjen and Marijen, “is a vicious cycle of attacks and counter-attacks,” which increases insecurity and puts the lives of park rangers further at risk.
  2. No alternative livelihood activities are offered after park rangers and the army drive armed groups out of the park. Because people living around the park depend on illegal activities inside the park for their livelihoods, park rangers’ operations against armed groups drive people closer to the armed groups. “People feel they have little choice but to solicit the protection of armed groups to re-access the park,” Verweigjen and Mirijen write.
  3. The park rangers and army operations intensify conflicts over land, local authority, and between communities. An attempt against an armed group changes the power balance between armed groups, elite networks and communities. Verweigjen and Mirijen conclude that, “Efforts to push armed groups out of the park risk setting in motion a chain of reactions that may spiral out of control.”

Follow the money

Funding is one of the reasons that Verweigjen and Mirijen give to explain why Virunga National Park’s policies on addressing the increasing violence are not questioned.

The park is run by a partnership of DRC’s National Parks Authority, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the Virunga Foundation, a UK-based charity incorporated in October 2005. Funding comes from the EU, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. The EU is the main funder of the Virunga Foundation.

In its Trustees’ Report for 2016 (the most recent available on the Charity Commission’s website), the Virunga Foundation states that,

Since 2009, Virunga Foundation has been the primary contributor to the effective management of Virunga National Park…. This was formalised in 2011 through the signing of a 10 year Management Agreement between Virunga Foundation and the Congolese Government through ICCN. During 2015 this was extended to a 25 year agreement.

Verweigjen and Mirijen note that the Virunga Foundation and the EU push a “triple-win rhetoric” of conservation, development, and peace building. Here, for example, is Chantal Marijnissen, head of the Environmental Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, talking recently about the “Virunga model”:

You have to actually be there, to see it, to really understand what’s going on, what these people are doing, to protect, not only the park, I mean these beautiful open spaces, but also these very, very poor populations around the park that really need the income, and if you don’t find a way to create a different sort of economic model, in a country where several civil wars, either internal, but also the displacement of people from Rwanda, and not only in 1996, but since the 1960s have created these population movements that have had huge impacts on this region.

So, providing an alternative economic pattern to the region that helps stabilise a whole region is fascinating.

And the 2016 Trustees’ Report describes the Virunga Foundation’s primary purpose as conservation of the national park, and continues by stating that,

The Virunga Foundation is also playing a key role in peace building and in the economic and social development of a region that is recovering from a catastrophic period of armed conflict. The Virunga Foundation launched the Virunga Alliance in April 2014, a comprehensive programme dedicated to creating a healthy post conflict economy through the sustainable development of resources in and around the Park including tourism; electricity produced from hydro power, fisheries and agribusiness. This is an effort to which the international community, and in particular the United Kingdom, is deeply committed.

In 2013, the EU signed a €6.15 million grant agreement with the Virunga Foundation. In December 2015, the EU signed another grant agreement, this time for €15.4 million over a five year period. And in 2016, the Virunga Foundation signed another agreement with the EU for €12 million, to be used to develop a new hydropower project.

The EU is giving development aid to a British charity, which uses the money for the paramilitary training of park guards (by former Belgian commandos), paying their salaries, and to fund patrols together with the Congolese army. In a 2017 paper about EU aid to Virunga, Marijnen points out that “This amounts to the ‘green militarisation’ of development aid.”

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