Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it turns out that tracking down the man responsible for securing the future of one of Africa’s national parks is trickier than I had anticipated – even more so since he became a bona fide movie star, thanks to the 2014 release of Academy Award-nominated documentary Virunga. Emmanuel de Merode is very much in demand these days, both at home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he has been the Director of Virunga National Park since 2008, and by an international crowd keen to hear more about the Park’s ongoing, fascinating story. Thus commenced a five-month chase from our London HQ during which I became online BFFs with his assistant; learned to respect the temperamental nature of DRC phone lines; and wondered if I’d ever manage to defeat his intimidating schedule.
However, when I eventually connected with de Merode, it became immediately evident that this is someone who is used to negotiating conflicts that go well beyond a diary clash. A Belgian prince born in Tunisia and raised in Kenya, his background matches that of the terrain he oversees: diverse, complicated and unconventional.
Virunga is one of three national parks sharing 3000 square miles of land at Africa’s geographical heart. This position on the juncture between territories has engendered a difficult and bloody history, beginning in 1994 when refugees from the Rwandan genocide overflowed into the DRC, ultimately leading to the First Congo War in 1996 and Second Congo War, which ended in 2003.
During this time rebel militias flourished, surviving through the trafficking of natural resources, including gorilla poaching. This latter gained global attention in 2007, when militias slaughtered five gorillas in the Park. In 2008 the situation became even more fragile with the start of the CNDP War, whereby M23 rebels captured the Mikeno sector of the Park where the gorillas live, alongside the headquarters. All of the above took place in a context of four million people living in extreme poverty on the outskirts of the Park.
This is the Gordian knot of issues that de Merode inherited when he came to the post. “The two big hurdles that we had to overcome were to set up an effective reform of the Park service, and to work out a way to operate under armed conflict and behind enemy lines,” he says. “We had to negotiate with our own government to discuss our ability to open a dialogue with the rebels…if we didn’t secure that agreement, then the Park would probably have collapsed and we may have lost the mountain gorillas. Alongside that,” he laughs, “we didn’t have any money, because we’d run out of funding. We were in survival mode.” A difficult first day by anyone’s standards, then.
However, defending the Park is a battle against not only internal, but also external influences. Virunga’s untapped oil reserves have attracted attention from global firms including SOCO International, a London-based oil and gas company whose prospecting activities accidentally became the subject of the eponymous documentary.
“The film didn’t really start as a film: it came at a time when we were having real difficulty investigating [SOCO] and Orlando, the director, came on a different project. It became clear that he had a very valuable skill set with respect to investigative journalism, so initially we were just working together to produce material. However, it very quickly became so compelling, beyond what we expected, that it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be a small ripple of a film.”
This prediction was certainly accurate: Virunga ended up with Leonardo di Caprio as executive producer and an Oscars nod for Best Documentary Feature. The film captured the heart-wrenching fight of de Merode and his rangers to combat the cycle of violence, war and corruption, as well as the sacrifice entailed; since 1996, 154 of 400 rangers employed in the Park have lost their lives and de Merode himself was the subject of an assassination attempt just a few weeks before the premiere. According to de Merode, “when you choose to become a ranger in Virunga, your chances of suffering a violent death are between 30-40%. There is no military on earth that suffers that level of fatality.”
Awards and acclaim aside, the real impact of Virunga lies elsewhere. Crucially, SOCO has withdrawn its activities within the Park. But perhaps more unexpectedly, it has become the best advertisement possible for de Merode’s great hope for the Park’s future: tourism.
“For us, tourism is fundamental. We’re absolutely not going to succeed in Virunga without it. It’s a funny situation, because it’s a film that everyone said would deter people from coming, but in reality it’s had the opposite effect. There is that segment of people who want to do something completely different that can truly be defined as an experience, where any apprehension is overruled by the level of interest.” The film’s real legacy, then, is its ability to combat “the sense of fear and violence that people have. It doesn’t have a place when you come here and experience it for yourself. We have had over 5000 tourists come to Virunga without a single incident.”
In the two years since the film’s release, Virunga has enjoyed its first large-scale tourism successes with the re-opening of Mikeno Lodge and the launch of several camps. Just as collaboration has got the Park to the point where it can embark on tourism as a serious industry, it is collaboration that underlines the experience on offer. Guests are invited to wholeheartedly participate in the Park’s daily activities, patrolling with rangers and undertaking ecological monitoring. It’s this inclusivity that de Merode believes is pivotal to Virunga’s tourism success. “It’s a bit rougher and more rustic than the equivalent you find in Rwanda or Uganda, but you don’t feel like a visitor – it’s the people who make it really interesting.”
In return, locals are beginning to see the tangible benefits of tourism revenue, 30% of which goes directly to community development. Nine new schools have been built; over 30km of water pipeline laid; and rural electrification programmes are underway, all contributing to the bank of trust required in the peacemaking process. “They also enjoy having people come because it’s a very poignant sign that things are getting better – that we’re moving beyond the war”, he adds. Meanwhile, travellers gain an understanding that “travel to remote, difficult places like Virunga can be done in a way that can transform the lives of some of the most impoverished and vulnerable people on earth.”
Tourism is one of three strategies being adopted in the Virunga Alliance, an overarching $200m project aiming to position the Park as the main driver behind the economy in North Kivu. For de Merode, it represents an opportunity to overcome the interlinked political and economic problems surrounding the Park that conservationists cannot eradicate alone.
“We’re living with this idea of environmental injustice. We have about 2 million acres of some of the most fertile land in Africa, and around that you have 4 million people. It’s a catastrophe, because that land within the Park’s boundaries represents around $600 of revenue for a farming family in Eastern Congo per year. At the same time, you have a National Park that is also a World Heritage site. It has huge value at that level, but it also has a cost: and that cost is being borne almost entirely by the local population, among the poorest on Earth. $1bn of revenue is being forfeited so that the rest of us can enjoy Virunga’s amazing wildlife.”
He continues, “As conservationists, we just don’t have the strength to tackle these enormous issues. This is where the Virunga Alliance comes in: by building alliances with public institutions, civil society and the private sector.”
Alongside rural electrification and agriculture, de Merode’s hope is that tourism will enable a new kind of industry “based on certain values to do with peace-building and positively affecting the lives of the poor and most vulnerable, without destroying the environment”. An important tenet of this is to replace the shortsighted extraction of natural resources with sustainable agriculture, enabling the Congolese ownership of their own raw materials and “a return on their own future”.
This emphasis on both inviting the world in and encouraging locals to look outwards summarises de Merode’s vision. He never uses ‘I’ when talking about the Park’s future, only ‘we’, recognising that the project is bigger than any one person: it involves the rangers, the tourists, the four million people living around the Park and the world beyond, all working in tandem. “It’s an understanding that it really isn’t just about tourism: it’s about a complete landscape of activities of which tourism is one, and when you engage in that you can get involved in everything else, including conservation, social development and peace-building. It all feeds into itself.”
As travel professionals, de Merode is keen for PUREists to acknowledge their potential to Change Worlds in destinations like Virunga, asserting “There are probably few places on earth where the work you do can play such an important role in bringing about change”. The survival of the mountain gorillas is one such example: over recent decades, a species that de Merode’s parents once told him he would never see when he grew up has actually doubled in size.
It’s perhaps this kind of success that leads him to remark that despite the risks, he has every reason to be optimistic about Virunga’s future. “I wake up every morning and feel really good about getting on with it. My day-to-day life is the best job in the world”. As I thank him for taking the time out from this manic, wonderful job to talk to me, he apologises: “I’m sorry it’s been so frustrating for you – I often cause that for people”. I’m sure Emmanuel de Merode is causing frustration for all the right people through his uncompromising determination to forge the right future for Virunga – but after hearing about the scale of his ambitions, I’m definitely not one of them.