A day after the Netflex documentary Virunga screened October 30, 2014 in NYC, I had the opportunity to meet with key members of the team, all responsible for bringing this vital film and its subject to our awareness. The film is about Virunga National Park in eastern Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I spoke with Joanna Natasegara (producer), Orlando Von Einsiedel (director), Andre Bauma (head caretaker of orphaned Mountain Gorillas at the park) and Dr. Emmanuel de Merode (Chief Warden of Virunga National Park), who have tirelessly traveled the world discussing the film and the immediacy of the pressures confronting the park’s continued viability. The park’s issues resonate for all of us and are those that trend for all time, for this World Heritage Site is a microcosm of what we face as global citizens if we wish to safeguard our planet’s resources and encourage sustainable, renewable ways to produce the elements we need to live into the next millennia as a productive species.
In conversation with Orlando and Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, time and again points came up about what Orlando characterizes as the David vs. Goliath story that is manifesting in the park and that Joanna Natasegara and Andre Bauma affirm is manifesting everywhere on our planet. The “David” represents the citizens, the ecological terrains, the wildlife, the little known habitats that allow synchronicity, and function to replenish the basic elements we need to survive and thrive together. The “Goliath” represents strongmen (predatory corporations, armed militias and natural resource pirates and poachers), who lack vision, ethics and understanding to see that the impact of their destructive actions will eventually contribute to their own progeny’s genocide. In the film the “David” is Virunga National Park and all it sustains (which includes the rest of us in the domino effect of climate and ecology). The “Goliath” is SOCO International oil company, a corporation with a team of lawyers and fat bank accounts which has been banned from oil exploration and drilling in the park. The strongman has gained a foothold because the intense poverty caused by a history of war and instability drives people to seek a way to get to the next day to survive; sometimes poaching the wildlife to engage in illegal trafficking, sometimes exploiting the park’s natural resources, sometimes kidnapping children or adults and forcing them into slavery or indenturing them to extract minerals and other riches while the kidnappers remain just beyond the reach of the law.
Emmanuel de Merode has confronted the spirit of the strongman first hand, witnessing devastating attacks on people living in the park, the habitats and wildlife. He has seen the bodies of 9 Mountain Gorillas mutilated, killed in a wanton and callous disregard (2007); he’s witnessed the deaths of elephants and rhinos for their ivory, and gone to funerals of heroic park rangers (140 have died thus far), who have sacrificed their lives to protect the animals and secure the park from exploitation of its natural resources (rich minerals, the wood-made into charcoal to be sold, ivory and exotic products from wildlife that fetch a hefty price). It has been a daunting job because the park encompasses a huge territory: 3,000 square miles of mountains, savannas, rivers, forests, marshlands, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Under his leadership when the Congolese Government appointed him Park Director in 2008, the Rwandan Civil War had ended and peace was returning. Then came additional armed conflict (armed militias live in and around the park), in 2012 which Orlando chronicled in the film. Now the park is again achieving a state of stability and peace, but at best this may be uncertain. And there is always danger and the threat of death for the Park Rangers who protect the park, its people and animals
When the film opened in April, the danger came to Emmanuel.
We heard the announcement when the film screened at Tribeca and I met either cousins of yours or friends of cousins who were upset for you and crying, so worried that you wouldn’t survive. Could you talk about what happened.
Emmanuel: I was shot in the chest and the stomach. It was an ambush. (On the Virunga National Park website Emmanuel said that he was fired upon by 3 gunmen on the road from Goma returning back to Rumangabo.)
So many people were praying for you.
Emmanuel: I am thankful to the people who helped me survive. I was very fortunate to have made it through. There are others who were not as fortunate. (Emmanuel is referring here to Park Rangers who have been killed in the line of duty protecting the park’s resources.)
How did you come to the place where you are now?
Emmanuel: I started as a young man working for the parks. (Emmanuel is an anthropologist. He spent his early years in the field supporting Congolese Park Rangers through the 12-year civil war before he witnessed the massacre of 9 Mountain Gorillas in 2007 and shifted focus to stop the illegal trafficking of natural resource.) I received my inspiration from the rangers that I worked with. They are dedicated and loyal and have great integrity and strength. I learned from them what to do and was guided by them. They gave me hope. They taught me a great deal.
What is the Virunga Alliance?
Emmanuel: It is an initiative which has been created to develop sustainability and economic prosperity in the park. (Emmanuel is seeking to draw a billion dollars of private sector investment in sustainable development in eastern Congo before 2020)
What do you mean by sustainability?
Emmanuel: There are enough water resources in the rivers to create hydroelectric power that will produce enough energy for the area and water resources for fisheries. It’s a clean development strategy. We are looking for ways to develop renewable energy and projects to improve agriculture and further develop the tourism in the region and the park.
(It was then that Emmanuel quoted the statistics on war and conflicts in the region which he said statistically has produced wars every number of years.) If statistics are to be followed they suggest that “war might break out in 2018.” The poverty of the people is very great. But if we can join together and create more prosperity, then the conditions in the park will stabilize and the likelihood for peace will be greater. There is reason to have hope. I am hopeful. It will not be easy and there will be problems and it will take a long time, but bringing prosperity to the region is possible.
Virunga the film, Virunga National Park and SOCO
When I asked Orlando about the film, he was characteristically Orlando downplaying the film’s success and highlighting the issues of the park particularly SOCO International. The film shows that SOCO International entered the park illegally to explore for oil, though Virunga National Park is a World Heritage Site and oil exploration and drilling are banned.
It is egregious that SOCO feels privileged to go into the park and explore for oil with impunity. They have no compunctions about it being wrong! A question, Carole, there must be a question here… You seem so calm (I direct this to Emmanuel who smiles.)
Emmanuel: You’re right about this idea they had that no one would stop them. I am calm now, but I have been angry and upset. SOCO didn’t anticipate the Park Rangers would be ethical. They had a low opinion about the rangers that no one would do anything to stop them and that no one would speak up at the wrongdoing, or that they could be bought. But they have been proven wrong. They have protested and spoken up about SOCO’s illegal exploration. The Park Rangers have the highest integrity and tremendous loyalty and dedication to the park and the habitats and animals they protect. They take great pride in what they do and risk their lives daily for the Park. SOCO underestimated them.
Do you think it’s possible that SOCO could be brought up on charges in a World Court of Opinion at the Hague?
Emmanuel: I don’t know. I can’t say if that would happen.
Both Orlando and Emmanuel discussed how SOCO cleverly attempted to divert attention from its illegal activity and solicit the support of an uber accepted conservation group to obtain viability and pretend to act like it had changed its position. In a PR campaign of alchemy…turning base lead to gold, World Wildlife Fund ended up endorsing this oil company citing that SOCO had “withdrawn from the park.” The previous year WWF had filed a complaint about SOCO’s activities in Virunga. So this year articles and press releases abound (in June 2014) about the World Wildlife Fund’s support for SOCO’s move to withdraw. However, an article in August reveals what is really going on behind the scenes: more corruption, lies and intent to get Virunga National Park declassified as a World Heritage Site, among other things. If the Mountain Gorillas are removed or killed, then most probably Virunga National Park would no longer enjoy its protection and the designation would be lifted and the oil exploration bans be vitiated.
Emmanuel: This was an attempt by SOCO to convince others that they were not going to pursue their exploration. They brought in the World Wildlife Fund who supported them for withdrawing from the park. It was meant to confuse and get people thinking that there was improvement and the crisis was over. SOCO left to analyze seismic surveys, but this was scheduled to occur. It did not mean that they had withdrawn for good. People thought everything was over with SOCO. That wasn’t true.
They are still going in there to explore for oil to drill? I thought I had read something about their promising not to.
Orlando: It’s just like Emmanuel said. SOCO got the support of World Wildlife Fund implying that it had withdrawn from the park and was not going to go on with its illegal oil exploration. So people let up on their efforts about the crisis with SOCO and thought that things were fine and that SOCO had stopped. But they didn’t. Human Rights Watch and other groups have investigated SOCO and documented their violations.
Orlando: Nothing has changed. They did it to try to improve their image. SOCO has not answered the allegations we presented in the film. It has continued to ignore them and has refused to respond. Nothing has changed. They are still going into the park illegally and they are lying about it. It is very clear that they are feeling under pressure. But they have refused to change.
What can I do, and what can I tell my followers to do to help?
Emmanuel: You can find information on the Virunga National Park website about the Virunga Alliance and you can donate to the Park in support of its projects and donate to support the Park Rangers. And you can visit the Park as tourism is successful. All this information is on the website. (there is also a blog with updates about the gorilla families, and general trending news about the park)
Orlando: You can also follow what is happening in the park on social media. And you can see the film Virunga on Netflix to spread the word and let people know what is going on. You can share the film. Because the film is going to be available to people in their homes, the public will be made aware of what is happening in Virunga National Park.
What’s next for you Orlando?
Orlando: I’ve spent these years of my life consumed with the film and the urgency of getting the word out about the struggles Virunga National Park is facing. I haven’t considered another project. What’s important is that the public be made aware and people put pressure on their leaders to do something about SOCO International and protecting this World Heritage Site. So Virunga will be on Netflix and we hope that will bring us closer to getting people around the world increasing the pressure to make sure Virunga National Park and other Sites are protected from companies like SOCO. Anything you can do to take action will help.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=902096562X,B008MK9ZEC,0771066775]