Securing the right to safeguard our planet

Defenders of the earth risking their lives to save its precious sites, writes Alex Sores

Protecting the environment can be deadly. At least two defenders fighting against environmental destruction around the world were killed each week last year. Many more people engaging in peaceful struggles to protect nature regularly face down serious threats or violence.

Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been the scene of one such struggle. Over the past 20 years, roughly 130 of its park rangers have been killed while protecting the park and its communities from rebel forces, poachers and other threats.

In addition to rebel groups and poachers, the park has been under threat for decades from the illegal charcoal trade. Now it faces grave danger because of the arrival of the oil industry.

Virunga is one of Africa’s most biologically diverse parks. More than 218 species of mammals, 706 species of birds, 109 species of reptiles and 2,000 species of flora are spread over 3,000 square miles of lush tropical forest, semi-arid savanna and snow-capped mountains. One quarter of the globe’s remaining mountain gorillas live there, as well as the endangered Zebra-like Okapi, which is found only in Congo.

A coalition of community members and local groups, led by anti-corruption and environmental activists Alphonse Muhindo and Bantu Lukambo, has sought to prevent an oil company, SOCO International, from drilling in the park.

The activists say that oil exploitation could irreparably damage Virunga’s fragile ecosystem, increase instability throughout the region and ravage established park programs for sustainable development and tourism.

SOCO International claims that its investments “can help alleviate the pervasive poverty that has for decades been the stimulus for much of the region’s instability and conservation’s primary threat.”

UNESCO has recognised Virunga as a World Heritage Site, which should protect it from industrial exploitation. World Heritage sites – whether stark ancient cities or voluptuous parkland – make up just 1% of the earth’s surface.

Yet, according to a recent study, one in three sites is at risk of being exploited because of its natural resources. The list includes Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as well as Virunga. Local activists, however, have argued that the park would better benefit local communities if hydropower, tourism and sustainable fishing projects were developed instead. These industries have major long-term economic potential.

Muhindo and Lukambo, through their respective organisations Réseau Cref and IDPE, have spent most of their lives defending Virunga, and their efforts have led to threats against their safety.

In 2012, the two men were forced to flee Congo in response to persistent anonymous death threats related to their campaign. Yet they returned a few months later and continue speaking out against the oil project.

The struggle to protect the park was chronicled in the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie follows the struggles of various individuals protecting the park, including an ex-child soldier turned park ranger, a conservationist and a French investigative journalist. It features shocking undercover footage that shows SOCO employees, contractors and allies offering bribes to and discussing payoffs with armed rebels.

Days before the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last April, one of its protagonists, the chief warden of Virunga, was shot in the stomach and legs in eastern Congo in what has been classified as an attempted assassination. He was shot soon after he submitted a report on oil operations in Virunga to a Congolese public prosecutor. SOCO has denied any involvement in the shooting and also in the intimidation of activists.After the documentary was released, SOCO commissioned an investigation into the activities shown on film. SOCO has said the review exonerated it, but critics and observers have said that the company’s investigation was partial and opaque.

Since the documentary was released, SOCO has scaled back its Virunga operations and promised not to drill in the park. The battle is not over, however. Congo’s government has proposed redrawing the boundaries of Virunga to allow drilling in specific areas of the park.

Sadly, the threats Muhindo, Lukambo and other environmentalists have faced are not unique. In 2014, documented killings of environmental defenders worldwide hit 116, according to Global Witness, a research nongovernmental organisation.

In October, it reported that four Peruvian activists were murdered after expressing concerns about the environmental impact of the $7.5 billion Chinese-owned Las Bambas copper mine. Lukambo, the people featured inVirunga and countless other environmental defenders deserve the recognition and support of the international community — and need it.

The international community must hold to account those who threaten, injure and kill environmental defenders. Governments must strengthen environmental safeguards and guarantee the rights of civil society to act to protect the places most precious to the planet — and to our future as a species.


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