Tag Archives: virunga national park

DR Congo – Why fighting fire with fire in Virunga Park isn’t helping conservation

The Conversation


A patrol post in Virunga. Using the army to fight illegal resource exploitation aggravates conflict. Author supplied

Conserving nature in areas immersed in prolonged violent conflict is challenging. One such area is the Virunga National Park, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The park management tries to face these challenges head-on with the aim of protecting Virunga’s rich biodiversity. In particular, the survival of the well-known endangered mountain gorilla is at stake.

It would be wrong to question the objectives, dedication, and sacrifices made by the park management and staff. Many rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty. But based on our research in the region, we have doubts about the effects of the park’s current policies on conflict and violence in the wider Virunga area.

As we show certain conservation practices – like strict law enforcement to combat illegal resources exploitation by armed groups – can inadvertently aggravate violent conflict. They may, for example, reinforce the links between populations and the armed groups on whom they depend for their livelihoods. This undermines conservation efforts in the long-term.

Devising alternative policies for addressing armed groups is no easy task. But as we discuss in a recent article, there’s remarkably little debate on this issue. The media and policymakers pay limited attention to the effects of the park’s policies on the dynamics of violent conflict. In fact, the dominant story line is that the Virunga National Park contributes to peace building. But the reality on the ground is much more complex, as we discovered talking to people who live in the area.

Battling armed groups

A plethora of armed groups operates in and around the Virunga National Park. Their presence isn’t specific to the park: tens of dozens of armed groups roam the eastern Congo, reflecting a militarisation that has become self-sustaining. But there’s a particularly high concentration of such groups in the park.

It provides cover and access to populations and natural resources needed to generate revenue. For instance armed groups are engaged in facilitating charcoal production, poaching, illegal fishing, and “guerilla agriculture”, or cultivation where it’s forbidden.

The effects of these activities on Virunga’s biodiversity are devastating. Illegal fishing contributes to the rapid depletion of fish stock, not least as it often takes place in the waters where fish breed. Charcoal production, for its part, is at the root of intense deforestation, which has grave consequences for the entire ecosystem.

But while depleting the park’s resources, thousands of people living in the Virunga area depend on illegal resources exploitation for their livelihoods. They pay armed groups to access the park and protect such revenue generating activities. The resulting links between people and armed groups complicate efforts to tackle illegal resources exploitation.

As we discuss in recent work, the park management tries to address armed groups by collaborating with the Congolese army. So park rangers conduct joint operations with army soldiers to push armed groups out of the park. As a result, conservation has come to merge with counter-insurgency. But this approach is counterproductive.

The park management tries to address armed groups by collaborating with the Congolese army, this approach is counterproductive. Author supplied

Clashes in the park

First, the operations are not part of wider political and socio-economic measures to deal with armed groups. Thus far the Congolese government has failed to develop such measures. This means that the armed groups are temporarily dislocated, rather than dissolved. The result is a vicious cycle of attacks and counter-attacks between armed groups and the mixed units of park guards and army soldiers. This rising violence doesn’t only increase the insecurity of inhabitants, but also puts the lives of the park guards further at risk.

Second, the tensions sparked by the operations seem to drive people closer to armed groups, causing the park guards in turn to develop growing animosity towards them. Because populations depend on illegal revenue generation activities in the park, and no alternative livelihood activities are offered after the operations, people feel they have little choice but to solicit the protection of armed groups to re-access the park.

Third, the operations feed into conflicts over land, local authority and between different communities. In the Rutshuru area, for instance, tensions between Hutu and Nande populations have intensified over the past months. This is partly due to military operations by the Congolese army against a Hutu armed group that operates in the park.

Any attack against an armed group alters the fragile power equilibrium between armed groups, allied elite networks, and associated civilian communities which often have the same ethnic background as armed group leaderships. So efforts to push armed groups out of the park risk setting in motion a chain of reactions that may spiral out of control.

Dominant stories

It’s widely reported that the Virunga Park is plagued by armed conflict. But this reporting often echoes heart of darkness clichés or simple storylines pitting bad guys (savage rebels) against good guys (usually the park guards and staff). These narratives are rarely accompanied by indepth reflections on the causes of the violence, which tend to be simply ascribed to resources plunder.

Also, by stressing that Virunga is the most dangerous park in the world to work, it becomes taken for granted that conservation has merged with counter-insurgency.

Attention to spectacular figures like the heroic park guards and evil rebels overshadows attention to the people living in or along the borders of the park. Their voices are rarely heard. But their accounts give a different picture than mainstream representations and show how people are suffering under the rising insecurity.

Another reason why the park’s current policies aren’t questioned is that donors and the park management have institutional interests in diffusing a seductive “triple-win rhetoric.” They emphasise that the park promotes at once conservation and development as well as peace building. This would prove that Virunga is an area that works compared with the rest of the DRC, which is viewed as a “failed state”. Such narratives of success ensure that aid, mainly coming from the European Commission, and donations continue to flow.

The current park management is based on a public private partnership (PPP) between the Congolese state agency for nature conservation and a British NGO, the Virunga Foundation. The NGO has assumed full responsibility for the park’s management. As it’s a European NGO who supervises the park guards -– who moreover have received military training by former Belgian commandos -– western audiences appear to ask less questions about the ways in which violent force is employed and how this affects conflict dynamics and people’s security.

So the blind spots in the complex interplay between conservation and violent conflict stem to a large extent from deeply rooted unequal power relations between the North and the South. These inequalities cause certain narratives, policy options and voices to be heard, and others to be excluded. This means that the decolonisation of nature conservation is a precondition for its demilitarisation.

African environment – conservation can’t shy away from conflict zones

The Conversation

July 6, 2016


Despite ongoing conflict in the DRC, the number of endangered mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park has increased. Shutterstock

Between 1950 and 2000, 80% of the world’s armed conflicts took place within biodiversity hotspots. These are places that contain unusually high concentrations of animals and plants. The correlation between biodiversity hotspots and conflicts is striking. It has complex beginnings, and gives rise to both opportunities and challenges.

There is a high prevalence of conflict in biodiversity hotspots for a variety of reasons. Biodiversity hotspots are often expansive areas of forest in remote places. Here, it is possible for militias to remain hiddenfrom government control.

Many of these hotspots also house valuable species that can be harvested to fund paramilitary activities, including those of some high-profile groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, for example. This is a rebel group that is known to operate in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is believed to have acquired funds from the ivory trade.

The isolated nature of biodiversity hotspots may also mean that the impact of the conflict is magnified. Refugees may be forced to rely heavily on natural resources for subsistence. This is demonstrated by the deforestation of 113km² near Goma, at the edge of the Virunga National Park in the DRC, after the settlement of refugees.

The potential for conflict to affect biodiversity necessitates strategic planning, active intervention and good management. Understanding the spatial overlap between high conflict risk and high biodiveristy is important to achieve this.


Mammal richness index and conflict history map. Edward Hammill

Successful conservation is possible in conflict zones

Conflicts and effective biodiversity conservation are not mutually exclusive.

The eastern side of the Virunga National Park – one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet – is home to the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The area has experienced sustained instances of armed conflict over the past 40 years. Yet it has managed to sustain African elephants and seen an increase in mountain gorillanumbers, despite the conflict.

The most crucial factor in Virunga’s continued success has been the willingness of staff to maintain operations in times of conflict. Park rangers have vowed to continue working despite mortal danger. Director Emmanuel de Merode, a high-profile conservationist, anthropologist and Belgian prince remains dedicated to working within the park, despite an attempt on his life.

From a government perspective, managing conflicts can reduce the relative priority of biodiversity conservation. During times of conflict this can lead to domestic spending being diverted away from conservation and towards military activities or protecting vital infrastructure. But during ongoing conflicts within sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, provision of resources by the Wildlife Conservation Society, USAID and the United Nations Environmental Programme enabled effective biodiversity conservation to continue. It also aided rapid post-conflict development.

Providing financial support can also lead to positive outcomes beyond saving species, and in some cases provide a pathway to peace. This can be seen in the success of transboundary protected areas. These areas can foster communication between separated communities, and provide a common goal that allows conflicting factions to work in partnership.

Given the increased impact of armed conflict globally, it is prudent to explicitly account for this type of risk in conservation decision-making.

Incorporating conflict risk

The resources available for biodiversity conservation are limited. They must be used wisely. A basic requirement is data, particularly data that looks at where threatened species occur, how much conservation would cost in these areas, and what risks are associated with conserving those areas.

There are examples of how conflict data have been used effectively in the past. Several national-scale conflict risk maps have been created showing where conflicts have taken place before and where they’re happening now. These mapping exercises have been done by the Institute for Economics and Peace and work led by Håvard Hegre, a professor of peace and conflict research.

But conflicts are not distributed evenly across nations. The Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project shows how conflict risk varies substantially within countries. For example, the DRC has experienced some of the highest levels of conflict within Africa. But the majority of these conflicts occur along the eastern border, leaving a comparatively safe area to the west.

An expensive process


Edward Hammill

High conflict risk areas in Africa could be avoided entirely when planning and implementing conservation. But this will lead to the avoidance of many highly biodiverse areas, which is far from ideal. So if the placement of new African protected areas were conducted without accounting for the dangers posed by conflict, this could lead to losses that result in half of all species receiving insufficient protection.

Accounting for, and mitigating conflict risk is, however, a costly undertaking. A protected area network that would protect Africa’s 236 endangered mammals and mitigate the effects of conflict is predicted to be 50% more expensive than one that ignores conflict risk.

This 50% increase in costs would lead to 100% more conservation targets being met. This means returns on investment would be considerably higher. The funds required to conserve all 236 endangered mammals in Africa while accounting for the risk of armed conflict would be substantial, amounting to US$9.1 billion.

The key issue is that decisions around protecting biodiversity in conflict areas must go beyond simply avoiding areas perceived as being unstable. In Africa, opting simply to avoid conflict-prone areas would result in iconic mammals like the eastern lowland gorilla being essentially abandoned.

It is crucial to incorporate conflict risk into conservation. Understanding and incorporating conflict risk will allow managers to make informed decisions about the placement of protected areas and recruit rangers willing to work under these challenging conditions. Only through a continued commitment to long-term management will conservation in Africa’s conflict-affected, biodiverse regions continue to succeed.

DR Congo may redraw Virunga National Park boundaries over oil

BBC