Prince Emmanuel de Merode, conservationist and anthropologist, made the journey from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Stony Brook University to present the 2014 documentary “Virunga,” on Nov. 28.
Merode spoke of the conservation efforts toward Virunga National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the need to help Congo economically and environmentally. He plans to create thousands of jobs to help the wellbeing of both Virunga and the people who live surrounding the park by harnessing the power of hydroelectricity from the park’s rivers. The State University of New York bestowed upon him the Honorary Degree Doctor of Humane Letters for his environmentalist efforts as the director and chief warden of Virunga National Park located in Congo.
“Conservation is no longer about working with protecting wildlife,” he said. “It’s about the relationship between conflict dynamics, the nature of violence, which really is a problem of our generation and the way we treat natural resources. It’s something that we need to come to expect and deal with.”
There are more internally displaced people today in Congo than there have ever been, according to Merode. There has been a civil war every four years, disrupting the lives of the Congolese people. He said the conflicts are due to Virunga National Park’s “stunning beauty, extraordinary diversity, incredibly charismatic species, and those amazing landscapes.”
Virunga is about 200 million acres of land, located in the Albertine Rift Valley in eastern Congo. This park is one of the biggest on Earth with a large population of people living around the perimeter. Despite its immense resources, people live in poverty and are growing in numbers. There’s not enough land available for living. “We have to move very fast to find solutions to build cities and industrialization, so the energy helps that,” Merode said.
He also mentioned his efforts for tourism to attract more business into the economy and to help the conservation efforts of the park, since tourism slowed down this past year due to a hostage situation.
The park’s oil resources caused the problems Congo faced when the documentary was filmed during the M23 Rebellion from 2012 to 2014.
The documentary showed SOCO Inc., a British-owned oil company that wanted to drill for oil in the park. They threatened the already endangered 200 mountain gorillas that reside in Virunga. Their motive for killing the gorillas, and other poached animals like the elephant, was portrayed in the documentary to get rid of the reason for protecting the park. If there were no animals to save, the park would be theirs.
The end credits of the film stated, “In April 2014 Emmanuel filed a report on SOCO’s activities to the Congolese Legal Authorities. As he returned to the park he was ambushed by unknown gunmen and shot several times. He survived.”
Patricia Wright, Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook, said the film showed the incredible sacrifices everyone involved made.
“These people who persevered to protect the park eventually won, and that’s amazing that the oil companies left.”
Another audience member, Hodan Hassan, chief development strategist for the Global Health Institute at Stony Brook’s Centre ValBio provided her comments about the film. “I think it really conveyed the issues rendered in the park,” she said. “It was specifically very engaging to me because it touched a lot of the issues I care about: the property, the ongoing war in Congo, the exploitation for companies getting to the resources, so it touched a lot of important topics that people have to be aware of.”
The documentary, which de Merode said was never meant to be a film but footage of their conservation efforts in Congo, discusses the issues between the park and the poor economic state of the Congo, which is the moving agenda in the film.
“The relationship between natural resource extraction and conflict [can be seen] in Eastern Congo which is a country that has suffered 25 years of very violent war. It’s the longest-lasting armed conflict on Earth at the moment.”
Due to this conflict, he said that 6 to 7 million Congolese people have died, which leads back to illegal resource extraction like oil and charcoal.
On top of the illegal resource extraction, the group M23 rebelled against the Congo to gain political control. They too were involved in intruding the park for resources that they could sell on the market for enormous amounts of cash from international buyers. They also were able to gain control of the land, which would, in turn, displace residents who lived around the park.
Prince de Merode said that during their conservation efforts for the park for the past 20 years, there was an extraordinary level of sacrifice. A total of 180 staff members have died in those 20 years protecting the landscape and species of the parks.
“There is no park on Earth — that is protected on Earth — that has suffered the number of service deaths than we’ve seen in Virunga and it’s something that is continuing,” he said.
The U.N. report from the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo addressed to the Security Council dated May 20, 2018, reported that “The security and humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not improve.” Armed groups presented a threat to the Congo and to the natural resources and economy. Innocent civilians were caught in the middle of the conflicts and were killed or displaced in the country.
Shimelis Gulema, a professor of African studies at Stony Brook, jokingly called Congo the “problem child of Africa.”
“In a way the Congo is potentially the richest country in Africa from all of their resources, but at the same time there is so much poverty,” Merode said. “It shows the contrast and the irony of contemporary Africa. What Congo shows is the bigger picture of Africa of the resources and the image of so much misery and poverty. What I understand from the film, there is a big debate between how to reconcile the need for conserving nature, and at the same time there can be the quest for development to do that. How do you develop without endangering environment?”
Prince de Merode spoke about the duality of the park, and how Virunga is a blessing and its own undoing. Its beauty and resources attract people who want to exploit it, affecting the civilians and animals who live there.
Elisabeth Hildebrand, associate professor of anthropology, mentioned how the features of the park are interconnected. “People in the west, we love gorillas; we love cute animals,” she said. “We want to save those animals but many people don’t realize how the wellbeing of the animals is critically tied to the people around them.”
Merode also mentioned that there are four million people who live around the park. He said, “This is where the idea of hydroelectricity has a way of enabling the Congolese people to gain control of their economy.”
Investors like Howie Buffet got involved, followed by the European Union. They were able to raise $120 million in hydroelectric programs around the park to create the current.
“For every megawatt of electricity that you generate from the park’s rivers, you can create between 800 to 1,000 jobs,” de Merode said. “What’s even more interesting is that 9.6 percent of those jobs are ex-combatants, so there are people who have chosen to leave those armed militias that you’ve seen in the film… They have a choice that they didn’t have before.” These new workers can support their families and their communities with these new opportunities.
In regards to the creation of jobs from hydroelectricity, Jessica Zuniga, the international programs coordinator from the Study Abroad office at Stony Brook said, “It’s what they need because right now, bribes is what’s making them sacrifice their own environment, because they are so desperate for money; they’re so poor… I think that if people have jobs, and that’s how they make their money and not helping these companies, they can have work that is steady and consistent and not from helping somebody.”
She added that this type of work from hydroelectricity could potentially bring more tourism to the country. She said: “Right now, paying people for bribes is not making it a nicer place to live… They can change their environment very easily. The environment is the same, but change what attracts people to visit there. When they have a steady income, there’s less crime and less poverty. I think they need some education to build pride in where they live and to understand that it’s more worth protecting than exploiting.”
Merode said that although his team lost an immense number of staff and friends, their deaths were not in vain. Their new goal is to generate up to 105 megawatts, which is a huge investment, not just for aid but also to normalize the economy. His goal is intended to create around 100,000 jobs.
“What’s even more amazing is that there has been a great movement because of that film — for Howie Buffet and some of the billionaires to actually contribute, to providing other ways to make a living in that region,” professor Patricia Wright said. “They’re talking about hydroelectric power that they are generating now from those beautiful streams, they’re creating enough of it to sell power back to other countries and make a living off of it,” she said. “They are creating jobs and creating lives for those extraordinary people who live around the park.”
Time can only tell what will happen to Virunga National Park and Emmanuel de Merode has an agenda to preserve it.