A green vision for Eastern Congo?

This is an English version of an article which first appeared in TAZ on 15 June and on taz.de on 17 June
Translated from the original German by Grace Mellor
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Virunga National Park and its rangers
A green vision for DR Congo

Multi-millionaire Howard Buffet wants to rescue Africa’s oldest national park and use it to bring peace to the country. Is he motivated by megalomania or a “helper complex”?
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By Simone Schlindwein

VIRUNGA PARK taz | New barbed wire, a six-foot high lava stone wall, blue and white striped wooden posts, and a sign that says “Virunga National Park boundary”. On the other side of the wall the forest grows denser and more primordial. The air is cool, with barely a single ray of light penetrating the tree canopy. The dirt track cuts a winding path through the undergrowth. Suddenly, we arrive at a turn-off onto a road.
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The park administration headquarters appear in the middle of the jungle like a spaceship: a building with well-equipped offices sitting alongside modern construction machinery, cement mixers and diggers – here for the construction of hydroelectric power plants on the nearby Rutshuru River. Safari jeeps are lined up ready for tourists; the luxury lodge with its fireplace lounges and whirlpool baths awaits guests.
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Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It stretches from the banks of Lake Edward, across the savanna, to the mysterious snow-covered peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains in the north – the highest mountain range in Africa. The park’s vast range of biodiversity needs protecting, particularly the endangered mountain gorillas that inhabit its forests. Virunga attracts up to 300 visitors a month, and the expensive tickets sell out far in advance.
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Many visitors are drawn here because of the documentary film Virunga, with its sweeping camera shots of elephant herds and close-ups of baby gorillas playing. The images are fascinating and the message is rousing: the park is in danger! Because underneath Virunga there is oil. The British oil company Soco has already set up rigs to carry out tests. The work is currently on hold, but still in the pipeline. After all, the Congolese government needs the oil – and the money.
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But a new protagonist who has money already has joined the battle for conservation. Alongside the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the WWF, the sign at the entrance to the park also features the logo of US billionaire Howard Graham Buffett’s foundation. The 60-year-old trained farmer, son of investor Warren Buffett, and former director of Coca-Cola feels a special calling to protect Virunga. He also financed the documentary film. He calls his “Virunga Alliance” a “Marshall Plan for Eastern Congo”.
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In a Skype conversation with taz, Buffett recalls his first visit to the DRC in 2009. War was raging and he was not able to fulfill his long-awaited dream of seeing the gorillas. But he did meet park director Emmanuel de Merode, and this was to be the start of a close friendship.
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When Buffett returned to the DRC in 2012 he stayed at the park’s five-star lodge. There was still a war going on and, once again, he couldn’t visit the gorillas. The area had been seized by Tutsi rebels of the M23 (March 23 Movement).
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“We could hear gunfire in the distance,” Buffett recalls. Sitting in the lounge by the open fireplace, he and his friend Merode concocted the “Marshall Plan”. “One evening, I sat with Emmanuel, he was disappointed“, says Buffett. The problem was the funding of a hydroelectric power station – an investor had dropped out because of the war. “I remember leaning back, either on the sofa or on the table, I don’t remember, and saying that we have to do this project.“
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Since then, Buffett’s foundation has invested around $150 million in Eastern Congo: in roads, coffee-roasting facilities, eco-tourism projects, one-stop-border-facilities, hydroelectric power plants – Buffett can’t list them all. “I have no limit,” he says. “When I see a project that would benefit the park, we fund it.” By now he has visited Virunga five times, and has even finally managed to see the gorillas.
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But Buffett soon realized that the park can only be saved if there is peace and a steady stream of tourists. For this to be achieved, he would also have to find a solution for the rebels. The M23 headquarters were located just a stone’s throw from the park station, and its officers often came to the lodge in the evenings for a whiskey. Right there and then, the US entrepreneur invited M23 chief Sultani Makenga for dinner. A participant at the dinner recalls: instead of whiskey, they drank a lot of Coke.
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Buffett went on to finance the peace talks between M23 and the Congolese government in Uganda, which led to the M23 being forced out of the DRC. Its former fighters are living in exile in Rwanda and Uganda, and Buffett now dreams of establishing a demobilization program, “so they can come home and find a job.”
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A project of this kind should really be the task of the UN mission MONUSCO. Is Buffett perhaps seeking to replace them? “Absolutely,” he answers outright. “We have achieved more here in a short space of time that the UN has in 15 years.” A statement that verges on megalomania.
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Virunga Park is a powerful institution in Eastern DRC. Officially, it is funded by the country’s conservation body ICCN, but only five percent of its roughly $5 million annual budget actually comes from the state; the rest is made up of EU aid money and revenue from tourism. Soon there will also be income from the sale of electricity. This will turn Virunga, already the province’s largest private employer, into the biggest investor in Eastern DRC – eventually supplying more electricity than the state provider.
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In addition, the park administration employs almost 500 rangers. With their machine guns and ammunition belts they look more like an army – and they are better equipped and trained than the regular soldiers. Their enemies are the poachers that roam the forests and savannas. Most of the rangers are locals – some of them even former rebels. Today they defend Virunga National Park like a state within a state.
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A few kilometers beyond the park station the forest thins. Goats graze among wooden huts, women carry firewood – the district of Rutshuru lies like an island in the heart of Virunga, surrounded by various shades of green. This territory is home to around 1.5 million people – a number that is growing constantly – and its inhabitants are penetrating deeper and deeper into the park; the boundary between maize fields and jungle is a fluid one.
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In the small town of the same name where the roads intersect everything looks peaceful, at least at the first glance: children amble to school, women carry tomatoes to the market, lorries piled high with charcoal chug south, setting off on the 80 kilometre journey to Goma, the provincial capital.
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Just two years ago, Rutshuru was in the hands of the M23 rebels. Since the end of 2013, it is back under the Congolese government’s controle. But the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and local Mayi-Mayi militia still make the area unsafe – hiding in the park, kidnapping people, ambushing vehicles. “We live on an island of instability, and the park is to blame!” says Innocent Gasigwa, head of a local civil society organization.
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The barbed wire and white sandbags of the MONUSCO camp are visible from Gasigwa’s desk. Until recently, 2,300 displaced persons were housed in tents just outside this camp, but provincial governor Julien Paluku sent them home, claiming there was peace now. MONUSCO head Martin Kobler, the German, arrived in the UN camp by helicopter, declared “Rutshuru is now an island of stability!” and then flew off again.
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These “islands of stability” are Kobler’s favourite concept. The idea is that the state gains control over an area from rebels, the authorities moves in and the area is secured. After the M23 rebellion, Rutshuru was the first of these “islands” to emerge. But the new district administration has an annual budget of only $700. taz witnessed how the district administrator disappeared when Ministry of Finance auditors arrived from the capital for an audit. Since they came, the coffers have been empty.
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“Stable” is not a word that anyone would use to describe Rutshuru district. No one dares going out after dark; when farmers harvest their crops, militia lurk at the forest edge ready to plunder. Gasigwa shows the latest report that he presented to MONUSCO: kidnaps, plundering, rape, murder, vehicle ambushes – the entire spectrum of violence on an almost daily basis. “Unemployment is driving the young men into militias,” he says. History repeating itself over 20 years.
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In 2012, the British oil company Soco opened an office in Rutshuru. Innocent Gasigwa recalls how the Brits raced along the streets in their luxury SUVs while locals lined up, begging for jobs. No one was hired. Soco disappeared again. Instead, Virunga director Emmanuel de Merode explained that drilling for oil is bad for the environment, and that the park itself will create jobs. “Why Virunga, of all places?” asks Gasigwa.
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Park director de Merode is well aware of the problems. As an offspring of Belgian nobility and legally a prince, he personifies the country’s dark colonial history. He sits in his ranger’s uniform in a hotel in Goma while an escort of armed bodyguards wait in the parking lot. He has to be careful: shortly before the Virunga documentary film was released de Merode was shot and only just escaped with his life. He had clashed with Soco and the Congolese government – risky enemies to make. Even his friend Buffett is regarded with suspicion in the DRC: the American’s private jet no longer has permission to land in Goma, so he enters via Rwanda where he is close to president Paul Kagame.
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When 45-year-old de Merode speaks about his vision for the park, his pale blue eyes light up. “We are aware that we are taking away a lot of fertile farmland from one of the poorest population in the world, that’s extremely unfair. That’s why we want to create jobs,” he says. The key to gaining new sources of income, according to de Merode, lies in generating electricity, which will attract investors. Investors like German soap manufacturer Savonor: The Burundi-based company is now setting up a factory in Rutshuru, ready to start churning out soap made from Congolese palm oil as soon as the hydropower plant is up and running.
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De Merode estimates that for every megawatt of electricity produced, 1,000 jobs will be created. By the end of 2015, the hydroelectric power plants are expected to be generating 50 megawatts: “This would mean up to 50,000 jobs!”, he cheers. But since when has peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo been a numbers game?
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