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How Virunga National Park became a battleground for imperialism

By Gugulethu Hughes

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

This is a tale of two extreme ends exhibiting the very worst of their imperialistic desires by arming black Africans to fight a war that was never intended to benefit them. 

Since the advent of colonialism, Africa has become the central point for Nordic expansionism which has led to mass displacement of local peoples from productive land. The removals have either been forceful or made possible through deceit, and the result has been wars and deaths of local people. One country that has consistently faced the full might of imperialism is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The impact of Belgian imperialism on the DRC psyche remains as archaic as the initial colonization of the country. Most recently, we witnessed the DRC government roll out the red carpet for the Belgian King Phillippe. On his first visit to the Congo, he brought the only remains, a tooth, of Patrice Lumumba, killed by Belgian agents in 1961. King Phillippe was even afforded the opportunity to address the Congolese parliament where he romantically spoke about Belgium’s colonial past. 

Such is the mentality of imperialists. They speak about colonialism in the past tense as if it is still not rearing its ugly head. One of the citadels of Belgium imperialism in the Congo is in the Eastern Kivu Region where the Virunga National Park was set up. 

As is the case with many national parks worldwide, and particularly in Africa – they exist for the preservation of Nordic peoples, their ambitions, and their fetishes. In setting up national parks in Africa, the colonialists assumed a priori that black indigenous people were incapable of preserving their own environment and adding beneficiation to their own natural resources.  

It was assumed that Africans required Nordic parental guidance to reach an acceptable level of environmental custodianship. To achieve this, the imperialists secured for themselves, with the aid of colonial regimes, massive tracts of land to be used for conservation purposes. While we have been sold the idea that Eurocentric conservation methods are the best-in-class, the colonists have remained aligned to the primary goals of Eurocentric conservation.  

Colonial preservation is the ultimate goal and achieving this requires the displacement of local people to create restricted areas for tourist purposes. When the imperialists and their black surrogates in conservation organizations talk about community involvement in conservation efforts, they’re talking about black people working as administrators, park rangers, and occupying other menial roles necessary for the maintenance of colonialism. The only reward is salary benefits and misplaced ideas of intrinsic benefits emanating from a false sense of being part of conservation efforts. 

It comes as no surprise that the bulk of conservation and wildlife camps in Africa have their pricing set in U.S. dollars. The other incentive, particularly for park rangers and tour guides in wildlife conservancies, is death that comes with hero status. Park rangers are put on the frontlines of protecting the interests of conservation imperialists against the interests of poaching imperialists. Tour guides, normally black men, are always placed in precarious positions during wildlife tours. 

This pillaging of African land under the guise of environmental preservation has also largely been aided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO was founded in London to rebuild schools, libraries, and museums that were destroyed during World War 2. In line with its formation as a colonial organization, UNESCO has put seals of approval in 147 African properties and marked them as World Heritage Centers. 

Founded in 1925 as Albert National Park, Virunga National Park got certified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1979. It is one of the oldest African parks set up by imperialists along with Namib-Naukluft National Park established by the German colonial administration in 1907; Etosha National Park also founded in 1907 in Namibia by German Governor Friedrich von Lindequist; Kafue National Park in Zambia founded in 1924 and established as a national park by British conservationist Norman Carr in 1950; and several others. 

The overriding theme is that all these parks and many others after them were not founded by Africans, but rather by Europeans. Virunga National Park was founded by the Belgian kingship dynasty. In the peer-reviewed environmental history website environmentandsociety.org, historian Raf De Bont best details the establishment of the National Park, writing, 

“The park’s foundation and subsequent expansions were initiated by a small network of individuals, the composition of which is important to understanding the ANP’s management philosophy. The Belgian king Albert I and his son Leopold (later Leopold III) were involved, alongside a transnational group of aristocrats, diplomats, and naturalists. These men and women largely shared the same class background, as well as an interest in the outdoors, big-game hunting, scientific collecting, and (more progressively) nature protection. It was ultimately a coalition of the immediate confidantes of the royals, Belgian associations for colonial zoology, American natural history museums and hunter’s clubs, and international nature-protection societies that managed to create the necessary clout for the establishment of the park…” 

De Bont further wrote that, “…during its foundational years, the promoters of the ANP consistently presented the park as a place of scientific research and international collaboration—a natural laboratory, which was intended not only to serve Belgian researchers, but scientists from across the globe… It was modelled after the Swiss National Park, a ‘strict nature reserve’ where scientists have to get permission to study its fauna and flora under ‘natural’ conditions. This ambition was also reflected in the institutional makeup of the ANP. The Park’s director was always a scientist—first the zoologist Jean-Marie Derscheid, later the geologist Victor van Straelen. The director did not report to the local colonial authorities but served directly under the Minister of Colonies in Brussels. As such, the ANP was often perceived as constituting a state within a state. Its largely independent administrators were advised by an administrative commission composed of an international group of scientists and preservationists. This network guarded ANP’s “strict” preservation regime and also promoted it as a model to be applied in other imperial contexts…” 

The above summation highlights how Europeans use Africa as a platform of extraction of all its natural endowments. The only reason behind the creation of the parks is that it is impossible to relocate the African landscape to Europe. This European attitude towards Africa is not only limited to our land and natural resources, but also extends to our very own humanity. After all, some Europeans still struggle to accept that Africans are human beings and not subjects for further research. 

De Bont also asserted that, “although the ANP eventually allowed tourist activity in some designated areas, its infrastructure mainly catered to the international scientific community. As Congolese historian Joseph Nzabandora and others have shown, the local population was increasingly denied residence in the ANP, as well as blocked from using its natural resources. To ‘restore’ the primitive character of the region, the park administration set up eviction schemes, heavily affecting the local Banyarwanda (both Hutu and Tutsi), Nande, and Hema population. An exception was made for the Batwa (or ‘Pygmies’ in the anthropological language of the time), who were framed as part of the ‘pristine’ natural equilibrium and who were seen as subjects of scientific interest themselves. They were allowed to stay and occasionally hired as guards or guides…” 

The current director of the Virunga National Park is Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode. He’s been at the helm since 2008, only two years after the first “democratic” elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1960. 

It must be noted that what is deemed as democratic elections in Africa often are just Nordic colonial objectives. This is why the DRC remains the most pillaged piece of land in Africa, and the Virunga National Parks remains under the auspices of the Belgian Kingdom. 

In 2006, the British got into a deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo government to explore oil in Virunga National Park. This marked a protracted struggle between two fronts of imperialism; On one end was the conservation imperialists, and on the other was the exploration and resource extraction imperialists. 

The conservation imperialists used black park rangers to defend the Park against marauding M23 rebels sponsored by SOCO, the Rwandan government, and the Ugandan government. The latter two have always served imperialists from both ends well. The result was the displacement and deaths of many black people in Virunga as the M23 rebels took control of the area. 

To present themselves as the lesser evil, the conservation imperialists released a Netflix documentary titled “Virunga.” The documentary was executive produced by Warren Buffet’s son Howard G. Buffett. Buffett’s son has his footprint all over Africa in conservation efforts and the Monsanto-powered food production sector. The younger Buffett went as far as securing permanent residency in South Africa after he bought many hectares of land in the Waterberg foothills of Limpopo from Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre. 

Buffett’s son then started his own cheetah reserve called Jubatus. He later sold it in 2009, relocating the cheetahs to another park in Rwanda. He also poured more than US$24 million for the conservation of rhinos in South Africa using his conservation trust. 

In the “Virunga” documentary, one of SOCO International’s representatives is secretly recorded by an undercover journalist saying, “the only solution is to recolonize all these African countries, they are backward children, and we must parent them.” 

The documentary presents the Belgian prince managing the park as working to protect the mountain gorillas and other wildlife whose existence is threatened by oil exploration activities, M23 rebels, and poachers. 

Another SOCO representative is heard saying, “why are these people so intent on protecting these gorillas as if they shit diamonds or iron ore…”

In 2014, SOCO put an end to oil exploration activities in Virunga and exited the country. In 2019, they changed their name to Pharos Energy PLC as a way of preventing further reputational damage. The Bill Gates faction of imperialism had won the war, but the people of DRC remained and remain as second-class citizens in their own land after suffering casualties from a war that had nothing to do with them. 

The Virunga National Park is a reminder to all Africans that we have been sold a conservation lie. Some of us have been blackmailed into partaking in the preservation of the innermost elements of imperialism. This blackmail is constantly made possible through use of flowery language by imperialist-handled governments and Non-Governmental Organizations when defining conservation and its challenges. 

Global elites are now pushing to transform 30% of Earth into protected areas by 2030. This aligns well with their “Climate Change” agenda. However, Africa is going to be the hardest hit continent if we allow it. To achieve their target, it requires that indigenous peoples be displaced from land to make way for protected areas. One could argue this sounds a lot like imperialism. 

It is the duty of progressive people to fight against this drive. Displacing indigenous people is not a new phenomenon, all national parks are a product of displacement, but we are witnessing it unfold before our eyes in places like Loliondo, Tanzania. 

The resistance against the imperialist adventures by the Maasai must never be left out to them alone; this is an African war that we all must partake in.

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Gugulethu Hughes


Gugulethu Hughes is the ScoonTV Africa correspondent

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