Virunga documentary what we've learned

Virunga

“You must justify why you are on this Earth”

Orlando von Einsiedel’s 2014 documentary combines investigative journalism with a report on Virunga National Park‘s endangered wildlife. It shifts between shots of playful gorillas, butchered animals and secretly recorded conversations with SOCO’s contractors. The film highlights the British mining company’s involvement in the unrest that was reignited in Congo around that time.

The reason for the company’s sudden interest were the oil reserves located beneath Lake Edward, a part of Virunga’s World Heritage Site. Suspenseful, heartbreaking and shocking, the documentary makes an ardent plea for human compassion. For those, who are short on time, here’s what we’ve learned.

TIMELINE

  • 1885

    1. European nations carve Africa into colonies,
    2. Congo is privatized and ruled by corporations under King Leopold II,
    3. resources are raided, millions are killed and mutilated (severed hands)
  • 1960

    1. Patrice Lumumba leads Congo to independence, but foreign mining interests unite against him,
    2. Katanga, Congo’s richest province, is set up as a separate state with the help of European mercenary soldiers, one of whom is videotaped saying: “A black man is like an animal to me”
  • 1961

    1. Lumumba is executed with the support of Western governments,
    2. law and order break down,
    3. mining continues and precious metals are exported
  • 1994

    1. genocide in Rwanda ignites civil war, with many of the murderers fleeing to Congo,
    2. rebel groups profit from trade in rare minerals, and the global electronics industry continues to buy them,
    3. over 5 million dead
  • 2003

    A frail peace agreement is reached.

  • 2006

    First democratic elections in 40 years take place.

  • 2010

    Oil discovery is claimed in Eastern Congo under Lake Edward in Virunga National Park, home to thousands of people and the last mountain gorillas.

  • 2012

    Instability returns.

Virunga documentary 2014

1. Poaching is a major problem

Virunga’s gorillas are killed, sold or mutilated. The perpetrator’s logic is that once all the gorillas have been killed, there will be no reason for the rangers to protect the park anymore. The documentary features one particularly chilling shot of an elephant with its face sliced off.

2. A park ranger has one of the most dangerous jobs in the world

Virunga has lost more rangers than any other park in Africa, mainly while protecting the local people. All the rangers that take care of visitors to Virunga are trained by European special force instructors. As Rodriguez Mugaruka Katembo, a high-ranking park ranger, states, all park rangers accept the fact that they may die at any moment in an ambush.

One such instance is documented by the cameraman, who rattles the screen as he scampers to safety while trespassers open fire on the park rangers. In 2014, the number of rangers who died while defending the park reached 130. By the time National Geographic’s interviewed Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director, in 2017, the number had reached 160.

3. Pringles are the way to a gorilla’s heart

The animals’ intelligence grows over time and their strength far outweighs that of their caretakers, which means that a knowledge of their psychology is necessary in order to handle them. André Bauma explains that while Pringles are not used as food, they come in handy when dealing with the gorillas. When they’re given something they like, they’re more likely to look at a human in a favorable way.

4. Tourism is vital

The documentary shows that tourism helps to sustain the conservation of nature. However, since the beginning of the unrest captured in the documentary, safety has become an issue. As all governments dissuade their citizens from traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga’s park rangers meet tourists at the Rwandan border and escort them through the park. As Emmanuel states in the same National Geographic interview, they are then escorted back to the border, or the airport.

Since the interview, The National News has reported that Virunga National Park closed down for eight months in July 2017, following the abduction of two British tourists and the death of a park ranger, who was shot by the Congolese militia. The park is constantly readjusting and tightening its safety measures. The article, published in 2019, also reports that more than 175 rangers have been killed while protecting the park.

5. SOCO’s involvement

The secret investigation into SOCO’s role in Congo’s instability is the major theme of the documentary. Mélanie Gouby bravely extracts information out of SOCO contractors with appeasing smiles and a hidden camera strapped to her chest, later commenting on the chilling turn their conversations often took. While unearthing the depth of the ongoing corruption, she captures two (now former) SOCO employees , Julien Lechenault and a mercenary soldier named “John”, saying:

“The best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonize [African] countries” because the locals “are like children, not mature enough”

Their staggering reflections on the Congolese people are used as a dehumanizing tool to defend SOCO’s actions, which are documented as going against both Congolese and international law. To achieve this, the locals are tactfully bribed, including the leader of the rebel army M23. This leads to the resumption of war. “John” further explains his take on the people’s mentality by saying:

“It’s primeval, it’s ancient, it is inbred psychology that you cannot change”

It’s important to note that SOCO washes its hands of the state of affairs in Congo by explaining that they subcontract a security company to handle security issues. By outsourcing these processes, the company can deny any knowledge of the goings-on within the country.

6. Turmoil

The Congolese army leaves the front line, allowing M23 rebels to advance. Villagers flee, many of whom end up badly wounded, or killed. Rodriguez Mugaruka Katembo is arrested, held without charge and tortured. On his way back from handing in a report on SOCO’s illegal activities, Emmanuel de Merode is ambushed by unidentified gunmen and shot several times, but he survives. In the 2017 National Geographic interview, he stated that he was shot four times in the legs and stomach. Not once did he consider resigning from his post.

PostScript

In response to the documentary, SOCO denied any involvement with the rebels and the company asserted that all its actions were lawful. In 2019, Global Witness stated that the mining company left Sub-Saharan Africa in 2018, following a deal that breached Congolese law. The full report is available under the link.

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