Enduring Torture and Death Threats in Service of Conservation

If Virunga is threatened again, “I will be there,” says Congolese ranger and Goldman Prize recipient

The trials that Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo have overcome as a warden in Virunga National Park are hard to imagine from my Bay Area home — he’s been beaten and kidnapped, threatened with death, and tortured. He’s gone undercover to document the transgressions of a British oil giant, been offered bribes to look the other way, and been told he’s a disgrace to his country. But he’s endured it all in service to his community and to conservation.  

photo of chinstrap penguinsphoto courtesy of Goldman Environmental PrizeRodrigue Katembo, who has put is life on the line to protect Virunga National Park, will receive the Goldman Environmental Prize this evening in San Francisco.

In 2003, Katembo, now 41, joined the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) as a ranger in Virunga, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s flagship national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. Going into the job, he knew there would be risks — the Congo has suffered from decades of civil unrest and terrible violence, and Virunga is considered among the most dangerous national parks in Africa to work in. It’s also home to a quarter of the world’s 880 critically endangered mountain gorillas, and dozens of other threatened species, including hippos, elephants, and okapi.

His first years at Virunga went smoothly. Park staff worked together with an eye to the future and to restoring the war ravaged park. But in 2010, SOCO, an international oil and gas exploration and production company headquartered in London, arrived in the Congo with plans to look for oil within the park bounds. (SOCO received a concession from the Congolese government to explore in Virunga despite the fact that, under the UNESCO convention, oil exploration is not permitted in world heritage sites.) Things in the park took a turn for the worse.

Katembo remembers when SOCO representatives first arrived in Virunga saying they had authorization to explore for oil in a region known as Block V, part of which extended into the park. Katembo was a sector warden by then, and this region was under his management. “I said, it’s not possible that the Congolese government is giving them authorizations when it’s well known that the law is against any kind of exploration,” he says, speaking through a translator. “I said they were wasting their time and they had to go back to Kinshasa,” the Congo’s capital city.

Katembo says SOCO then began bribing everyone, from officials in Kinshasa, to the military, to Wildlife Authority officials. Local leaders who couldn’t be bought were targeted and beaten. “They gave money to everybody,” he says, “and everybody was for oil exploration.”

Everyone, that is, except for him and Virunga Park Director Emmanuel De Merode. (De Merode, too, has found his life in danger for his work protecting the park — in 2014, he survived an ambush and shots to the abdomen and chest.) The two quickly formulated a plan, and in 2011, Katembo began wearing hidden cameras to document SOCO employees and Congolese army intelligence officers as they offered him bribes to look the other way.

This continued for some time, but in 2013, Katembo halted construction of a communications antenna in the park. This put him in direct conflict with SOCO. Two days later he was arrested by Congolese security forces, and beaten in front of all of the other rangers. His younger brother, too, was beaten in front of him.  “The guards that started to cry were told they would end up like [me],” he recounts.

Katembo was kept in custody for 17 days, though he was never formally charged. He was tortured and told he would be killed. Following strong international pressure by human rights and environmental groups, he was released.

photo of chinstrap penguinsphoto courtesy of Goldman Environmental PrizeKatembo observes a band of mountain gorillas in Virunga.

The ordeal didn’t make him back down. In 2014, he submitted evidence documenting SOCO’s repeated violations of international law to Congolese prosecutors. In 2015, following the release the documentary Virunga — which highlighted his work to protect the park and garnered international attention for the cause, and the Church of England’s public divestment from the company, SOCO withdrew from the region. Katembo calls the withdrawal a victory not only for himself, but also for local communities and the people of the Congo.

Tonight, Katembo — along with five other grassroots activists from around the world — will be honored with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his years of unwavering dedication to Virunga.

The road has been a long one, but by all appearances, Katembo has taken it in stride. He’s never considered standing down, something he says would be impossible given that 160 rangers have already died to protect Virunga, many while SOCO was active in the park. To take a step back, he says, would be “to betray the combat of these rangers.” It would also betray communities living near Virunga and his mission to protect the park. “You know that even if there are dangers and even if you have to endure a lot of threats, you have to continue,” he says of his work for the Congolese Wildlife Authority.

Despite SOCO’s withdrawal, the fight isn’t completely over. Katembo would like to see a written commitment from the oil company promising that it won’t return to the park. (Before withdrawing, SOCO confirmed the presence of oil reserves in Virunga.) He’d also like the Congolese government to step up efforts to protect the park, including from illegal settlements.

For his part, Katembo has transferred to Upemba National Park in the southern  Congo due to concerns about his continued safety in Virunga. Upemba, which Katembo describes as “a forgotten park,” faces its own struggles, which range from poaching to encroaching settlements to illegal mining. Rangers there, too, put themselves at grave risk to protect the park’s wildlife, and Katembo is leading a campaign for Upemba to be designated a UNESCO world heritage site, which would lend greater protection to the park.

At the same time, he remains as committed to Virunga as ever: “ I know that if they need my physical or intellectual contribution to continue the fight, I will be there.”

TAKE ACTION: Sign this petition to support the Save Upemba campaign, which seeks UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the national park.   

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