"VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo — The trouble started when a British company suddenly appeared in this iconic and spectacularly beautiful national park, prospecting for oil.
Villagers who opposed the project were beaten by government soldiers. A park warden, who tried to block the oil company, SOCO International, from building a cellphone tower in the park, was kidnapped and tortured.Virunga’s director, a Belgian prince, was shotand nearly killed hours after he delivered a secret report on the oil company’s activities.
Much like the fight over drilling on federal lands in the United States, the struggle over oil exploration in Africa’s national parks is a classic quandary, pitting economic development against environmental preservation.
But out here, the quest for oil seems to be more volatile, and the stakes are arguably higher — on both sides…
Virunga’s champions say that if they lose the battle here, it will open the floodgates to drilling in protected spaces across the continent.
The park is considered one of the most biodiverse slices of the planet. Its savannas of yellow grass, towering volcanoes bubbling with lava, jungles, swamps and cloud forests constitute an otherworldly world for gorillas, elephants, lions and chimps — a rare mix.
Beyond that, Virunga’s Lake Edward, where the oil is believed to lie, is part of the headwaters of the Nile. While SOCO has said it will not proceed without Unesco and Congolese approval, an oil spill here could contaminate water that tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, rely on.
“Any toxins from here could flow up to the Mediterranean,” said Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga’s director. “It could reach all the way to Spain.”
Mr. de Merode has made countless enemies over the years. He routinely confronts rebels, poachers and various other outlaws who skulk through Virunga, which lies on the border of Rwanda and Uganda, in the eye of several recent wars.
In April, he was driving back from the Congolese city of Goma, where he had just delivered a confidential report to state prosecutors about suspicions of illegal oil activities in Virunga. A group of men in fatigues popped out of the bushes and raised their rifles.
“You ever been shot?” Mr. de Merode said, recounting the ambush. “It’s like getting winded. But it doesn’t knock you down, like in the movies.”
He said he dived into the bushes with his gun and fired wildly back.
The shooters, who have yet to be identified but are suspected of being rogue government soldiers, vanished. Mr. de Merode staggered into the road. He had been hit in the stomach and the chest. Several aid agency cars whooshed past, reluctant to pick up a man with blood splattered all over him.
He waved down two motorcyclists, who sped to an army checkpoint and hustled him into a truck. But as his life was slipping away, the army truck ran out of gas.
“I had to reach into my pocket and give them 20 bucks” in bloodied bills, Mr. de Merode said.
The truck then broke down and could not be restarted, and Mr. de Merode needed two more rides before barely making it to a hospital.
The House of Merode is a family of Belgian nobility. Mr. de Merode, 44, was born a prince, and his two young daughters, who live in Kenya, are princesses. He spends most of his time in Congo, in a mountainside tent, getting paid $800 a month by the Congolese government.
'I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” he said, “just a little bit more.”
The New York Times
By Jeffrey Gettleman Nov. 15, 2014