Dede's Green Scene: Virunga by Dede Tabak, March 11 2015, 0 Comments

Imagine a beautiful national park that is being threatened by horrifying violence and corruption. Park rangers do everything in their power to not only keep the park safe, but try and stop an oil company from illegally invading the park with the intention of drilling and destroying the park itself. Sounds like an episode of Saved by the Bell right? This isn’t the plot to a fictional television show, but the reality of what is happening in Virunga National Park.

The struggle taking place at Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is highlighted in Virunga, an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Orlando Von Einsiedel. Virunga is the largest and most biodiverse park in Africa, home to chimpanzees, hippos, elephants, and the world’s last mountain gorillas. The park was founded primarily to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Massif. The film focuses on the Virunga park rangers as they try to rebuild the park after decades of violence and instability. Von Einsiedel was originally going to document the positive story of the Congolese trying to restore their country and conserve the park for a brighter future, but while living with the park rangers for over a year and he found a darker story of the park rangers and conservationists struggling to keep the park together and safe from poachers, rebel forces and oil exploration.

The Chief Warden of Virunga, Emmanuel de Merode, works with 680 park rangers who risk their lives to patrol the two-million acre park. Over the last 15 years, 140 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty. In 2010, oil was discovered under Lake Edwards in Virunga. Since then, a British Oil Company, SOCO International, has been illegally investigating for oil in the park. SOCO specializes in exploring for oil in risky areas of violence and uncertainty. The company has attempted to bribe park rangers and officials to get what they want. Melanie Gouby, a French journalist, is one of the main characters of the documentary. She bravely wears a wire on more than one occasion with SOCO employees to confirm that they’re using rebel group M23 to undermine Merode and his resistance to SOCO drilling and threatening to destroy the park.

The film also focuses on two brave park rangers, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo and Andre Bauma. Katembo escaped from being a child soldier and is now head park ranger at Virunga. He is so devoted to the park that he wears a wire numerous times to uncover incidents of officials trying to bribe him in order to let SOCO enter the park. Bauma was at one time a park ranger himself, but now works as a Chief Caregiver at the Senkwekwe Orphan Gorilla Center. The Senkwekwe Center plays a critical role in rehabilitating orphan eastern lowland gorillas confiscated from animal traffickers. There are only 800 Mountain Gorillas left in the world and Bauma is now the adopted mother of four of them. In one moving scene, Bauma stays behind to protect his gorillas while the other rangers are being evacuated. “We must justify why we are on this earth," says Bauma. "For me, gorillas justify why I am here. This is my life.”

Virunga was a huge success at the Tribeca Film Festival and caught the attention of celebrity environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who eventually became an Executive Producer of the film. DiCaprio and his production company, Appian Way, collaborated with Netflix to stream Virunga online. Von Einsiedel is excited to make the film accessible to all 57 million Netflix users to get the important message out to the masses. In fact, the film has been so successful that DiCaprio and Netflix are looking to produce other environmental conservation documentaries to air exclusively on Netflix.

Since the film’s release, SOCO International has agreed that there will be no exploratory drilling in Virunga unless Congo and the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, agree it would not threaten the park's world heritage status. Merod is still concerned that SOCO will return at a later time to extract the oil. And violence and corruption remain. In 2013, after filming had ended, Merode was shot four times after returning from Goma with sensitive information about oil exploration. He survived and is back at work as Chief Warden of Virunga. Despite this, the film has increased tourism to the park, which is great for the community. Tourism will boost the economy and create jobs and hopefully, peace. Other development projects are in the works with hydropower and fisheries. Also, Von Einsiedel has given the rights of the film back to the park, meaning all of the profits the film has earned will go back to Virunga Park. “This was always more than a film,” says Orlando Von Einsiedel to “This was always about trying to create a tool that could be used to protect Virunga National Park.”

Virunga National Park is more than just about protecting gorillas. It's also about the limits of human greed. If we set a precedent that destroying a World Heritage Site and one of Africa’s oldest national parks for oil and business interests is acceptable, then what on our planet can we protect? As Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo says at the end of the film,

“We cannot stand weak and say SOCO, go ahead. In the end, we will be judged if we just stand by as the park vanishes. But our wish is that the park lives forever.”

Virunga is available now on Netflix. If you would like to donate to this cause, please go to the Virunga National Park Web site.