In the Field: Prize Staff Visits with Rodrigue Katembo and Mountain Gorillas in DRC

July 26, 2017

Program officer Myriah Cornwell recounts the first time she met 2017 Goldman Prize winner Rodrigue Katembo on a site visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Katembo went undercover to document and release information about bribery and corruption in the quest to drill for oil in Virunga National Park, resulting in public outrage that forced the company to withdraw from the project. 

When I first met Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, we sat on the Mikeno Lodge balcony overlooking the forests of Virunga National Park. Virunga staff gathered at nearby tables planning park operations while tourists discussed the day’s wildlife sightings over cold beers. The bustle of daily activity sharply contrasted with the Virunga documentary footage of this same site. Virunga captures the park at critical moments in 2012 as Soco International operatives attempt to illegally explore for oil and the M23 rebellion overtakes the park itself.

Rodrigue played a critical role in the fight to protect Virunga National Park. He went undercover and captured on hidden cameras Soco contractors offering bribes and discussing illegal activities. In so doing, Rodrigue put his life in danger. In September 2013, just days after he had stopped a Soco operation from building a telecommunications antenna inside the park, Rodrigue was arrested and tortured for 17 days. After he was freed, Rodrigue still faced great danger, and temporarily relocated to Kenya. When he returned, Rodrigue was promoted to director of Upemba National Park in southeastern DRC, ostensibly for his own safety. Yet Rodrigue still faces threats to his life.

As we sit on the porch of a bungalow, avoiding half eaten fruit thrown by monkeys above us in the tree canopy, Rodrigue tells me that once he has adequate supplies for his rangers, he will begin the campaign to remove the Mai Mai, a violent militia operating in Upemba National Park. He expects that this campaign will be quite dangerous as the Mai Mai outnumber the park rangers and are heavily armed, trading bush meat and minerals for guns.

From left: Patience, the team’s interpreter; Myriah; Rodrigue.

Despite efforts to keep him safe, Rodrigue has found himself in an almost identical situation to that of Virunga; he’s fending off militia fighters and a company attempting to illegally extract natural resources from the park. Except this time, Rodrigue has far fewer resources than Virunga and no Oscar-nominated documentary to expose the illegal activities. Because the Virunga Foundation is contracted to help run the park, it can secure direct funding that is effectively applied to the park’s operations. Virunga has found success in hosting tourists and fending off poachers and militias. In Upemba, the previous park director sold off the park’s boats and trucks before he left. Rodrigue had to fundraise to get the only official vehicle in Upemba, a park that spans 1.75 million hectares.

Despite the peril he faces, there is no place Rodrigue would rather be. Rodrigue is a serious man, but he lights up whenever he starts discussing conservation and national parks. His passion for parks rivals that of Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope. He explains to me, “I am a conservationist—from the smallest frog to the biggest elephant—I protect them all. I may focus more on the elephants [in Upemba] because they are being poached, but I care about protecting all of the nature in the park.”

Myriah spots a gorilla.

As we traveled through Virunga, Rodrigue clearly commanded respect from the rangers, even though he is no longer with Virunga. Park rangers that Rodrigue had trained saluted him as we passed, and wanted to talk with their former commanding officer. The interpreter that I worked with told me that he got his start working for Rodrigue in the Central Sector of Virunga. Rodrigue has served as an inspiration for rangers in Virunga, and he’s hoping to replicate his success in Upemba. As we hiked down the mountainside after visiting the mountain gorillas in Virunga, Rodrigue had a huge smile and told me, “This is the best job: conservation.”

You can help support Rodrigue by signing the petition to Save Upemba.

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