The oil issue might destroy everything. If we fail, we’ll not only lose Virunga, but also the other parks in Congo. All the other parks are going to sink. Everyone will say, ‘You’re not allowing us to exploit the oil or ore in this park but you did so in Virunga.’
If we fail here, the whole conservation sector in Congo is going to fall. It would be a disaster.
— Prince Emmanuel de Merode, Director of the Virunga National Park
I woke up last week to an email from Netflix announcing a new original film that they had funded and watched it over the weekend. The description sucked me in right away:
In the forested depths of eastern Congo lies Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse places in the world and home to the last of the mountain gorillas. Here, an embattled team of park rangers that includes an ex-child soldier and a Belgian prince, risk their lives to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site from armed rebels, poachers, and even corporations trying to wrest control of Congo’s rich natural resources.
This region has always been of interest to me since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and watching Gorillas in the Mist. More recently, it has been the work of The War Nerd at the now defunct NSFW Corp, and Pando. He is one of the best writers I have encountered who tackles a lot of the major struggles around the world. His article, Congo: A Tutsi Empire, Interrupted Once Again By Do-Gooders, really had me interested in the area again. His focus is on the Tutsi-led militia, M23, which was trying to control the eastern edge of Congo, close to their homeland in Rwanda.
(Quick reminder: the Tutsi were the people who were the victims of genocide in Rwanda – 800,000 dead within four months – before taking the country back over.)
Virunga is a national park in eastern Congo that borders Rwanda (to the south) and Uganda (to the east.) It is a huge park; roughly the size of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Virunga is full of the African wildlife you would expect to see, but more known for being one of the last refuges of mountain gorillas in the wild. Around 800 mountain gorillas exist in the wild today, spread across the hillsides of three dormant volcanoes in Virunga, and neighbouring parks in Rwanda and Uganda. Virunga is home to the Senkwekwe Centre for orphaned mountain gorillas, which is part of the focus of Virunga.
The other element in play is SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration and production company based in London, UK. They have been eager to get into the Virunga National Park to start exploring the region for potential mineral deposits, as other areas of the Congo are rich in the rare minerals used in modern electronic equipment. Their methods of getting control over the region are rather illegal and immoral, if we are to believe the documentary filmmakers.
Virunga the film is incredible, both in terms of how they layout the background of the Congo and how complicated it is, and telling the story of the main characters of the area: the director for Virunga National Park, a ranger of the Park, a gorilla carekeeper, and Mélanie Gouby, a journalist who has been working in the region for several years. Each of them have fascinating stories to share that keeps you locked into the film. As the tension increased between the Park rangers, M23, and SOCO, my heart beat faster and I couldn’t look away.
It is an incredibly moving film, and highly recommended. The scenery is breathtaking, the story better than any scripted movie put out this year. Have some Kleenex nearby as it will definitely trigger some emotions within you by the end.