On the southwestern flank of Virunga, a protected national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was once a thick rainforest. Today it looks like the surface of the moon, barren and smoking. Ten years ago, residents in the area could walk up a path and see elephants.
Now the elephants are gone. In their place are violent militias operating an illegal charcoal trade, cutting and burning Virunga’s rare forests to the ground.
The charcoal cartel is run by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, (FDLR) which is known for its links to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It is responsible for brutal attacks in remote areas of Congo’s dense jungle. Uniforms in tatters, its soldiers are seemingly penniless. But that picture is incomplete.
Although the FDLR survives on a range of illicit livelihoods, gold mining, kidnapping for ransoms, and the looting of villages, these days, according to locals and UN peacekeeping officials, charcoal is one of the FDLR’s most lucrative pursuits.
It is worth an estimated $35 million a year. But the costs to nature and human life are immeasurable.
During Congo’s civil war, which began in the late-1990s, military action against the FDLR focused on populated areas. The FDLR factions that settled in the forests of Virunga were thus left alone to build their empire.
Teams of rebel soldiers worked together to produce charcoal: felling trees and digging pits of roughly eight feet in diameter to bury and burn the wood underground. Some civilians joined willingly; others by force. And the business grew.
“It was an easy way to make money,” says Daniel Ruiz, a senior UN official, embedded in the peace keeping mission in Congo.
Locals call charcoal from Virunga ndobo, which is made from towering old-growth trees mostly extinct outside the park’s borders. Dense and slow-burning, it sells for roughly 60 percent more than common charcoal made from young eucalyptus trees.
The government has done little to stop the trade; stationed all along the supply route, from the park to the cities and export checkpoints, army officials and police invent taxes on charcoal and extort money from civilian porters.
“The best way to be successful in trafficking is to traffic something everyone will buy,” Ruiz said. By some estimates, four million people in eastern Congo depend on park charcoal for cooking fuel. And, according to Ruiz, “FDLR knows every kitchen in the region.”
The FDLR presence and rampant poaching has turned Virunga, a UNESCO heritage site, into one of the most dangerous national parks in the world.
Over 150 Virunga rangers have been killed in the past ten years by poachers and militia occupying resource-rich territories. With at least four million people living within a day’s walk from the reserve, it is also vulnerable to illegal farming and fishing by impoverished civilians.
The park’s previous director was transferred from his position after allegations that he was involved in the mysterious killings of seven mountain gorillas in 2007.
Virunga’s southwestern sector is still largely lawless, and FDLR rebels are free to run their charcoal trade. The only law enforcement agents operating in the area are national police and army soldiers, who are widely accused of complicity in the rebels’ exploits.
Field Trips For Rebels
According to Bantu Lukambo, the Congolese army, vulnerable civilians, and the FDLR form a dangerous conspiracy that enables Virunga’s charcoal trade to boom. Bantu Lukambo is conservationist based in Goma.
Packed in eight-foot long tarp sacks, park charcoal is transported out of Virunga on foot or motorbike, often fastened to the back of a teenager by a strip of fabric pulled taut against his sweating forehead. Sometimes, it goes out to the world in trucks with 200 bags piled high as the vehicle trundles around hairpin turns during its descent down the mountains.
There are two main roads, One, from the Congolese town of Kitshanga, goes east to Uganda across the southern sector of the park. The other road snakes down the western edge of the park, south to the town Sake, then east to the Rwanda border.
According to Virunga’s head of security, Gilbert Dilis, “the FDLR knows this part of the park better than the rangers. And the rebels are far in the forest. It’s a big risk.”
The Utility Of Brutality
Where does the illegal charcoal trade’s estimated $35 million in annual revenues go? Outside the cartel itself, the movement of its profits is today largely a mystery. “The supply chain for charcoal is smaller [than for minerals], but the profits go somewhere, laundered through companies in Goma and out [of the country],” Daniel Ruiz, the UN official, told me.
But even if the illegal charcoal trade in Virunga is purely business, it is a bloody one.
“If you want to produce charcoal on your own, you need the FDLR’s permission,” Malonga said. “But sometimes people make their way into Virunga and set up production sites out of view of the FDLR.” They bury freshly chopped wood underground and light it on fire, he said, creating a smoldering surface the size of a plastic kiddie pool.
“If the FDLR finds you producing without permission, they throw you into the burning pit,” he said. “They might hold you up against the heat while you burn, and let you walk away with the wounds.” These act as a ghastly reminder of the FDLR’s power wherever you go.
The FDLR also kidnap women from outside the park. They force them to produce charcoal and to “marry” rebel soldiers. “We call that sexual enslavement,” he said flatly.
The FDLR has spies along the charcoal trade routes, especially in urban areas. “If civilian facilitators complain about the terms of their agreement with the FDLR, they’re killed,” another local activist said.
Numerous UN annual reports say that the FDLR is responsible for raping women, abducting children, and burning villages. The group’s high commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on numerous war crimes charges. The FDLR is the target of UN sanctions and considered a terrorist organization by the United States. The success of its charcoal enterprise relies on its ability to act like one.
The children who live on the southwestern side of Virunga now have to learn about elephants from textbooks and old stories. They have never seen a real one and perhaps never will. This is a place worth saving, and there is still time.
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