Before winning the Prize, we had the opportunity to chat with Rodrigue Katembo, 2017 Prize winner from Africa. Putting his life on the line, 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.
Tell us about your path to become a park ranger at Virunga. What was it about the work that interested you?
I became park ranger in 2003. It was almost a calling, I was drawn to public service. I wanted to help stop poaching, and protect fauna and flora.
We understand you had some difficult experiences growing up in Eastern DRC through military conflicts. To the extent that those experiences informed your path to becoming a ranger at Virunga, how comfortable are you talking about your experiences as a child soldier?
My past experiences shape who I am now, and my army experience has helped me understand the security situation we face at Virunga.
We understand your mother played an important role in getting you to leave the army and go back to school. Is she still living in Bukavu? How does she feel about everything you’ve accomplished?
My mom is still living in a village near Bukavu, she was the one who convinced me to leave the army and go back to school. She is very proud of me, especially as I am her eldest son.
How did you first hear about Soco’s exploration activities?
There were rumors going around town that there was petrol in block 5 of the park. One morning, during my patrol, I came across five vehicles. They said they were going to see the chiefs of that area. I asked if they wanted to come to my office to meet. They asked to talk to me at my home instead. They spoke about their plans to put up an oil exploitation base in block 5. They said they had the authorization to set-up near the river. This all felt wrong to me, and I knew it was against the law. They refused to go see the Director, said he wasn’t ‘friendly’ to their work. They offered me money, showed me a bag of money right then and there. I refused. I told them the park belongs to all Congolese and people around world. My team and I managed to get them out of the park, but they initially pretended to leave and then tried to go around me, telling my rangers that I had agreed. Luckily the rangers checked with me on the radio. I reported this to the park Director and we began strategizing.
What was going through your mind as you were putting on the undercover recording equipment and going to meet Soco contractors?
I was motivated by the desire to see the truth come out in the light of day, I was prepared to deal with whatever happened to me. It was a choice between fighting to protect the park, or accepting that the park would be destroyed and letting it be taken over by oil exploration. We needed to gather proof of the corruption and collusion. That’s when the park Director and I came up with the idea to document evidence using undercover recording equipment. In order to stop Soco we needed to document and gather proof of their illegal conduct.
Where were you when you heard of Soco’s plans to give up oil exploration? Did you have any idea something like this could happen?
This was the objective all along: to obtain as much proof as possible to show that Soco was breaking the law. They were not only breaking national laws, but also international conventions that protect the park, as it’s a World Heritage Site. Many died because of armed groups in the park. Soco had launched efforts to destroy the park’s value through poaching. They used to give money to poachers to kill elephants and hippos. I was always hopeful this work would help bring Soco to court. It was a fight well worth fighting.
How have lives for people living near Virunga changed because of this work? Why should people care that Virunga National Park stays protected?
The park has a huge impact for people around it who depend on it for fishing. Protection of park also ensures people’s access to water, regulates climate, helps farming and regulates rainfall. The park employs about 500 guards who are all from the neighboring community, so there’s a strong economic benefit to the park.
Wildlife in the park is stabilizing. When I took over managing sector 5, there were about 500 hippos – when I left after 3 years, there were about 1700. The elephant population has also stabilized. Soco had tried to kill a lot of wildlife by giving money to poachers. But now, the fauna is getting stronger.
We learned that right after your arrest in September 2013, after you had been beaten and tortured, you went back to your post at Virunga, instead of doing what most people would have done—quit and find a safer job. What kept you going?
I was arrested around 10pm at night, they threatened to kill me, I was beaten along the way. I didn’t think I would come out of it alive. When I was finally released, I spent three months in Goma where I was placed under surveillance by national security agency. From there, I went to Nairobi, it was to ensure my protection as there were still threats being made to my life. Shortly after I got to Nairobi, the park Director was shot 3 times, bullets to the abdomen, and he was evacuated to Nairobi as well. That’s when I knew I had to go back, we couldn’t let them win like that. The Director also came back to Virunga when he was better.
What are you working on now, and what can people do to help?
I think that it’s a great privilege to have this opportunity to talk about the work that we do and about the park. It’s an opportunity for Upemba park to become known to the world. It’s also an opportunity to encourage people to go visit Upemba park. The park is a bit isolated and harder to get to, but it’s huge. Supporting Upemba park also helps support development in the area.
You can help by demanding that world leaders safeguard rangers like Rodrigue who continue to protect the endangered wildlife of Upemba National Park by signing this petition.
You can also support the brave rangers stewarding Virunga National Park by donating to the Virunga Foundation.