Violence, the Virungas, and Gorillas

An Interview with Conservationist Helga Rainer

How did you decide to focus on conflicts around Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Some of my early work with refugees and the environment focused on the energy issue and the linkages with violence, especially for women who had to move increasingly farther and farther away from the refugee camps to get fuel. I was also concerned with the health effects of wood burning, especially on children under five years old due to the smoke particulates. This was when I first interacted with energy-saving stoves.

Based on what I saw on the ground, I felt that the role of the environment in conflict was an aspect not being talked about. The conversations about the role of environment in conflict were about resources like coltan or oil, but there were other dynamics happening that were necessary to explore.

How would you sum up your findings?

I ended up looking at the role of national park spaces in conflicts. There are physical boundaries, but also psychological boundaries, and the dynamics around power in terms of land being appropriated for a specific reason. The space of a national park, at least in the [northeastern DRC states of the] Kivus, was a dynamic in the conflict because of how it was created and where it is located and what it represents.

What’s driving the conflict around the Virunga National Park?

The conflict is complex, and there’s no one factor driving it. One aspect is the lack of a strong presence of the state. That’s not just because parks are near armed conflict, but also because parks in sub-Saharan Africa are inadequately managed, partly due to lack of resources. This is compounded when parks are in a conflict zone. So you end up with a place that is a vacuum and can therefore be a place of refuge.

So it’s not unique to Virunga?

I ran a quick analysis of the number of parks on national borders across Africa, and at least a quarter are near an international border, which is very high. That’s a fact that feeds into the location of these spaces and how conflicts are shaped. One of the bodies of literature I engage with in my [doctoral] thesis explores the role of borderlands that are not only on the edges of countries, but even just land on fringes of cities and other internal spaces. They tend to be areas that are not powerful at the center and have certain dynamics due their relationship with the center and neighboring areas.

Why is that?

I can’t answer that question because I didn’t look at other parts of world. Someone would have to look at the history around how international borders were developed. But colonialists (certainly for Africa) used natural boundaries – rivers, lakes, and mountain ranges – to help define whose territory belonged to whom. Those are areas where you find most biodiversity, so it’s not unsurprising to find protected areas along international borders.

So the conflicts in Virunga date back to its creation by the Belgian colonialists?

Virunga was created during colonial times, and I believe that’s where the history of the creation of a protected area fed into the dynamics in this context. A lot of the literature around the conflict points to land as the resource at the heart of the conflict, and that fits with how colonialists changed or confused land tenure systems, and in the way that was entrenched under [former Congo/Zaire President] Mobutu. So the appropriation of land by colonialists for conservation would have been under that colonial expropriation of the land.

Is it similar for other countries around the park?

The contexts between Cameroon, DRC, and Uganda are quite different. A country like Cameroon has done well off exploiting its other natural resource base, so it probably doesn’t prioritize tourism development probably because it is making sufficient revenue from other industries. A country like the DRC, where under Mobutu certain forms of governance became embedded, created particular contexts.

What about Uganda?

When I was there it was a very dynamic time in conservation. It was a very exciting time to be engaged in conservation in Uganda. There were resources available to make things happen. I had very good relationships with local government officials, the wildlife authority and communities and other NGOs, including the research institute in Bwindi. That meant for a positive way with projects that continue to endure. Uganda was in conflict in the seventies and eighties and over that period, wildlife populations were decimated and institutions to manage the country were destroyed. In Kivus [in the DRC], the conflict was initiated in the mid-90s.

Is the violence driven by greed for resources or grievances over past conflicts?

What I was hearing in the mid-90s and early 2000s while working for IGCP was that the conflict in the DRC was all about greed and people wanting to exploit the minerals. Others said it was all about grievances and the Rwandan conflict. Doing my PhD I came to the conclusion that both aspects are at play, but the causes of the conflict stem from grievances, which continue to play a significant role in its perpetuation.

Do you mean the Rwandan genocide?

The genocide was a significant moment that was the product of a longer period of time and history and would go on to have a regional impact. That’s part of the message. Not just the Rwandan genocide, but also the circumstances back in history that created an environment for such a thing to occur. And so that has to be factored in.

But it goes back further to when Belgians were moving people around, taking Kinyarwandans from Rwanda-Urundi. The Belgians were moving people around, allocating land for agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. Mobutu behaved in the same way, promoting certain groups when it suited him, and allocating land to particular ethnic groups, supporting him at that time, so Kinyarwandans were caught up in that.

The interhamwe and genocidaires were able to capitalize on anti-Tutsi attitudes within the Kivus as a result of both colonial and postcolonial contexts and survive within the Kivus. Like any conflict, allegiances shift over time. Today you’re friends and during that process there was engagement from whole region and Rwanda behaved in ways to defend its own borders and engage with proxy groups which is engaged by proxy groups, and that fueled conflicts.

Is oil exploration a main threat to the park?

The causes of the conflict run much deeper. Soco doesn’t appear, according to the Virunga documentary, to be behaving in an appropriate way, but I don’t think that’s the most significant variable. To solve the conflict in the DRC is incredibly hard and complicated. Obviously the discovery of oil potentially adds another layer of complexity.

Is conflict over charcoal a driver?

I interviewed a lot of former combatants including FDLR as well as conservationists and what was so striking about those interviews was the emphasis the environmentalists put on the economic drivers like the charcoal, whereas the former FDLR rebels put the emphasis on the use of the space to achieve their ideological goals. The former FDLR never ever confirmed that there was an abundance of resources in Virunga National Park. Mostly they said their ideological goal was to take over Rwanda. Some even stated there was nothing in the parks — all the hippos are gone.

That’s not to say charcoal isn’t funding armed men. But when the conflict ends, the issue of charcoal extraction will continue. Charcoal isn’t being taken out of the park because of conflict. It is providing a basic fuel for a human population, regardless of whether the conflict.

If you resolve conflict does it become easier to exploit park’s resources?

Yes, it can become easier to exploit. Post-conflict phase is often most vulnerable time for environment. People tend not to go into areas where there are armed groups.

Rwanda passed a policy within the last decade that banned the cutting of trees. I am not familiar with the details but I think it may have linkages to the charcoal trade in the Kivus due to an increase in demand from Rwanda. But this is something that you would have to verify as the details are hazy from my end.

Is alternative energy to wood important for conservation?

The need to move to modern fuels is a bone of contention of mine. That we still talk about energy-saving stoves is disappointing. There are a lot of energy-saving stove projects. And there are some beautiful looking stoves. And of course they reduce the amount of wood people consume. But I’ve never come across a conversation where people are willing to back up a project where people get and use energy.

Is energy talked about in politics?

There’s been some efforts at rural electrification. Energy projects are usually for industry. Build that dam so the factories can have energy to produce. And of course that’s an important economic development.

What are the big lessons? What did you learn that you didn’t know back in 1999?

Somewhere along the line I became aware of the reality of power dynamics and agendas, and how that begins to manifest itself, and that there’s always going to be a group, or individual or NGO, that will have an agenda. In my early 20s I was very naïve that people see that it would make sense to protect the forest, and why wouldn’t government want that? Learning over time, there is a spectrum of agendas happening around any one issue, that will range from economic or ecological. You have to be able to navigate and negotiate that without losing transparency of having to manipulate a situation, but it also makes it more interesting.

Helga Rainer, Conservation Director at the Great Ape Program, has extensive experience in natural resource management, conflict, and development. She has worked with both national and international NGOs in Europe, Asia, and Africa on project development and implementation. Her work has included research on urban environment projects in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as well as development of regional conservation strategies in southwest Uganda, and she served as the Uganda Country Program Officer for the International Gorilla Conservation Program.

Photo Credit: Annette Lanjouw