At 3.45pm on April 15 Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian-born, British-educated head of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, left the city of Goma for the 90-minute drive north to the headquarters of Virunga in Rumangabo. The road was once paved, but two decades of constant warfare in this part of eastern Congo have taken their toll. Today it is a ribbon of rock and rutted mud, scarcely negotiable except in four-wheel-drive vehicles.
De Merode was alone in a Land Rover marked with Virunga’s emblem, a mountain gorilla. After 45 minutes he reached one of the few stretches flanked not by wooden shacks and swarms of people engaged in the daily grind of survival, but by dense tropical vegetation. He saw a man to his right lift an AK-47 and open fire. Others shot from the opposite side. Eight bullets hit the vehicle. Four smashed through the windscreen. One hit him in the chest, breaking four ribs, puncturing his right lung and passing through his liver. A second went through his abdomen.
The Land Rover’s engine died. De Merode grabbed his own AK-47, clambered out and took cover in the trees. He fired wildly until his assailants fled. ‘I stayed there 20 minutes, but knew I was quite badly wounded and if I didn’t get to a hospital it didn’t look good,’ he recalls. Two drivers saw his blood-soaked clothes and refused to stop. Eventually he flagged down a motorcyclist. Several vehicles and two hours later de Merode reached a hospital in Goma. He was subsequently airlifted to Nairobi. He admits he is lucky to be alive. ‘If the bullet had hit an inch to the left I probably wouldn’t have made it. At best I’d have been paralysed and wouldn’t have been able to run into the forest so they’d have got me.’
But five months on, who ‘they’ are remains a mystery.
De Merode, 44, a Belgian prince who was raised in Kenya and educated at Downside and Durham University before devoting himself to conservation in Africa, was appointed Virunga’s director in 2008. His task was to rebuild Africa’s oldest national park, a Unesco World Heritage Sitethat had been the epicentre of Congo’s long carnage, infested by armed militias and plundered for its wood and wildlife. Virunga’s 3,000 square miles include snow-capped mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, forests, savannahs, more animal species than almost anywhere else on earth and nearly a third of the world’s 900 mountain gorillas. ‘I’d happily spend the rest of my life here,’ de Merode says, in accentless English, of a park that still bewitches him.
He has pursued his mission with a courage and determination that belies his polite, mild-mannered appearance. He has turned its corrupt, demoralised rangers into a disciplined, well-armed force. He refused to abandon the Rumangabo compound when it was stormed in 2012 by M23, the latest rebel group to terrorise the region, and has lived in a tent there for the past six years while his wife and two young daughters remain in Nairobi.
He refuses to speculate on who tried to kill him, but his efforts to save Virunga have made him plenty of enemies: the dozen rebel groups still inhabiting the park; the poachers who have killed thousands of its elephants and hippopotamuses; powerful figures who have illegally annexed its land; and those who cut down its forests for charcoal, a huge industry in a land with little electricity.
And then there is Soco International, a British-registered company based opposite the Ritz in London’s Mayfair. For several years de Merode has fiercely opposed Soco’s search for oil in the park.
He says drilling would be a ‘potential disaster not just for Virunga and its fragile ecosystem, but for the rule of law, the region’s stability and all of Congo’s national parks’. Soco denies any responsibility for the attack, but its powerful Congolese supporters cannot be excluded from the list of suspects.
Soco’s opponents claim that those supporters have used intimidation, detention, bribery, violence and even murder to advance their, and by extension the company’s, interests. They note that they have repeatedly identified de Merode as Soco’s most formidable opponent, and that shortly before leaving Goma that April afternoon he had given a dossier containing the results of his four-year investigation into Soco’s alleged transgressions to Virunga’s lawyer for delivery to the state prosecutor. After the attack, other Soco opponents received anonymous text messages warning that they would suffer the same fate as de Merode. Moreover, Soco’s supporters include elements of the Congolese army, whose soldiers control the stretch of road where de Merode was shot. The soldiers sealed the crime scene, in effect preventing Virunga’s rangers from bringing in their sniffer dogs and making their own investigation that afternoon. ‘Soco and its allies repeatedly identify de Merode as a major obstacle, and Soco’s allies include some dangerous people,’ Daniel Balint-Kurti, a researcher investigating Soco for the British anti-corruption NGO Global Witness, observes.
Roger Cagle, a former US Marine from Texas who is Soco’s deputy chief executive, denies all the allegations of wrongdoing levelled against his company. He calls them ‘malicious lies’ from people who ‘will stoop as low as they possibly can to make sure we’re not there’.
Congo has suffered grievously from outsiders attracted by its vast mineral wealth. For 23 years from 1885 King Leopold II of Belgium plundered its rubber and ivory, killing, mutilating and enslaving millions in the process. The more recent decades of war, which caused five million deaths, involved foreign armies and militias backed by neighbouring states that coveted its diamonds, copper and cobalt.
Soco is merely the latest of many outside entities lured by Congo’s natural riches, and willing to take their chances in a notoriously corrupt and violent state. Founded in 1991 by Ed Story, a Texan with a passion for elephant polo who remains its chief executive, it has previously operated in high-risk countries such as Libya, North Korea and Yemen, which the oil giants spurn. It earns more than $600 million a year in revenues and is one of Britain’s 200 largest public companies. In 2006 Soco secured a Congolese government licence to explore Block V, a 2,900 square mile concession that is half inside Virunga and includes most of Lake Edward, a small sea on which 40,000 fishermen and their families depend for their livelihoods. That licence was ratified by presidential decree in 2010.
The fishermen, environmentalists, diverse NGOs and de Merode were appalled. They feared that oil spills would destroy Lake Edward’s fish stocks and threaten a priceless ecosystem. ‘Lose it and you will never be able to replace it,’ Anthony Field, the leader of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s campaign to block Soco, says of the park.
They argued that oil would jeopardise the fragile peace that has held since M23’s rebellion ended last November because every armed group would want a share. ‘Renewed oil interest in the DRC represents a real threat to stability in a still vulnerable post-conflict country,’ the International Crisis Group warned in a report entitled Black Gold.
De Merode goes further, insisting that oil exploration in Virunga is explicitly banned both by Congolese law and by the World Heritage Convention, which trumps national legislation. ‘Any oil- related activities in the national park are illegal,’ he argues. He says that allowing a foreign oil company brazenly to flout the law, as he sees it, would wreck efforts to restore peace and stability to the region, encourage four million impoverished people living near Virunga to believe they were entitled to farm, hunt or make charcoal there, and mean that none of Congo’s four other World Heritage Sites was safe. ‘If we fail here the whole conservation sector in Congo is going to fall. It would be a disaster,’ he says.
Soco, assisted by the leading British PR company Bell Pottinger, rejects all those claims. Cagle stresses that the government invited Soco to bid for the concession. He contends that its oil exploration in Virunga is legal because it is a ‘scientific study’, and Congolese law allows an exemption for scientific studies. He argues that oil could promote stability by improving the economy, adding, ‘The representation that this would destabilise one of the most destabilised areas in the world is ludicrous.’
De Merode initially refused to let Soco enter the park, but in February 2011 a convoy of Soco vehicles carrying a local MP and a dozen armed soldiers came in anyway. The company later agreed to pay the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) – the government agency that oversees all Congo’s national parks – $15,000 a month for access to Virunga. It established a base in the fishing village of Nyakakoma on Lake Edward’s southern shore after securing land from the local chief, Mwami Ndeze, and after several delays it finally began seismic testing in May.
Soco has spent nearly a million dollars on social amenities in Nyakakoma and other impoverished villages near Lake Edward, though some projects, such as a communications mast and an improved road into the park, were clearly required by the company too. It has secured the backing of some powerful officials, distributed cash and beer at public meetings, and commissioned a catchy pop song that runs, ‘Welcome to our Soco and we all love you since you have brought home development…’
Cagle claims Soco enjoys ‘overwhelming’ local support, but that was far from obvious in July when I accompanied de Merode on his first trip to Nyakakoma since his ambush. It felt more like a military incursion than a visit by Virunga’s director to a village within his jurisdiction. He gave no notice. He arrived in a patrol boat from the north end of the lake, 30 miles away, and was guarded by eight park rangers armed with AK-47s, a PKM machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He was apprehensive, but insisted, ‘We have to remind people there’s a state authority.’
Fishing boats at Nyakakoma on Lake Edward, where seismic testing has begun. PHOTO: Brett Stirton/Getty
De Merode is popular within the park, and had earlier been presented with a goat and serenaded by the women in the war-blasted village of Rwindi, the headquarters of Virunga’s central sector.
But Nyakakoma’s inhabitants watched in tense silence as he walked past the wooden pirogues on the beach, past the humble fishermen’s shacks lacking water and electricity, along tracks of baked earth to the spartan ranger station on the village’s southern fringe. Soco’s base is on Nyakakoma’s western edge, a large, fenced compound protected by several dozen Congolese troops from which we saw a yellow helicopter and several four-wheel-drive vehicles come and go at regular intervals.
As word of his arrival spread, nine villagers – men and women, young and old – arrived at the ranger station. They were trailed by two agents from the Agence Nationale de Renseignements – the internal security agency. The nine said they risked serious reprisals for talking to de Merode, but spent the next two hours describing a climate of fear in Nyakakoma.
They claimed that almost all the 6,000 villagers opposed Soco but criticism was forbidden. The committee representing the fishermen had been disbanded and replaced by one that supported Soco. Fishermen’s nets not removed from Soco’s seismic testing areas had been cut.
They also claimed that the soldiers stationed in the area by the government to keep the peace were running a protection racket for illegal fishermen and letting them land their catches at night in Nyakakoma – de Merode added that the soldiers had recently fired at one of Virunga’s marine patrols when it tried to arrest some unlicensed fishermen. They said the soldiers had poached a lion, three elephants and several antelope – a claim confirmed by the rangers. One older fisherman told how, in April, soldiers assaulted him after he complained about Soco, beat him with their rifle butts until he lost consciousness, then left him for dead. He had to sell all his belongings to pay his $150 hospital bill. Asked if he had reported the assault, he replied, ‘I’m just an insect. If I report the crime I’ll be killed.’
Most serious of all, the villagers claimed that the soldiers had killed two fishermen who opposed Soco. They said that in early April Kesereka Jackson, 28, was found dead at the spot on the edge of the lake where he had been seen arguing with the soldiers the previous night. They said Kakule Katembo, 35, had clashed with the soldiers after being asked to vacate his usual fishing grounds by Soco’s survey team, and was found beaten to death beside the lake the next morning.
A trained investigator sent to Nyakakoma later by Human Rights Watch spoke to several witnesses and confirmed the villagers’ story. Ida Sawyer, HRW’s senior Congo researcher, said, ‘Two fishermen were found dead, hours after they had criticised Soco’s activities in the park and argued with the soldiers who work alongside Soco. Many other fishermen, activists and park rangers have been badly beaten, threatened and intimidated after opposing the oil company’s work in the park.’
De Merode, who has launched a formal investigation into the killings, was appalled by what he heard. ‘It gives you a very violent sense of injustice,’ he said as he hastened to leave Nyakakoma before darkness fell. ‘I’ve seen a lot in Virunga but this truly shocks me because it is so brazen and unforgivable.’
It is impossible to be sure who, if anyone, is directing the soldiers’ actions, but Cagle vehemently denied responsibility. ‘They’re not associated with Soco. They’re assigned to us. We can’t tell the army to go and kiss off,’ he said, adding, ‘Do you think these are the only people murdered in this region?’
The villagers’ allegations accord with abundant other evidence of excesses by Soco’s supporters and others who think they might benefit from Soco being there. It has been amassed by the Telegraph, local and international NGOs, and – above all – the makers of a feature-length documentary called Virunga that will be released in November (virungamovie.com). Its director, Orlando von Einsiedel, spent 11 months there in 2011 and 2012, filming not only de Merode’s battle with Soco but also the bravery of his rangers as the M23 rebels advance on Rumangabo, guns and artillery blazing. One ranger, Andre Bauma, refuses to abandon four orphaned mountain gorillas kept in a sanctuary there, saying he loves them like his family.
‘What is happening in Virunga is an appalling example of what is happening in many places in the world where vulnerable societies exist in resource-rich environments,’ Joanna Natasegara, the producer, said. ‘We must secure Virunga to set a critical precedent for beginning to redress these injustices.’
In a report this week, Global Witness called for a criminal investigation, saying, ‘Soco and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence.’ WWF has accused state security forces of creating ‘an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at Soco community meetings’. A coalition of local NGOs has condemned ‘the intimidations, arbitrary arrest and torture of local community members opposing oil developments in Virunga’. It accused Major Burimbi Feruzi, an army intelligence officer who serves as Soco’s paid ‘liaison’ with the Congolese military, of using his military status ‘to silence anyone who has questions about the true impact of the oil project, in particular human rights and environmental defenders’. It remains to be seen whether the DRC will investigate these allegations.
Marc Musakara, 45, the fishermen’s leader in Nyakakoma, told the Telegraph of how he was detained last year after visiting western Congo to see how oil had devastated fishermen’s lives there, forced to quit his post, and fled to Goma after receiving death threats. Josue Mukura, the fishermen’s leader in the nearby village of Vitshumbi who also visited western Congo, said he too had fled to Goma out of fear for his safety.
Bantu Lukambo, 41, the head of a local environmental organisation who lost a leg in a car crash, called up an anonymous text on his mobile that read, ‘You play with fire Bantu you are going to burn your second leg… Don’t believe that because we failed to get your director that we’re going to fail to get you.’ Alphonse Valivambene, the head of another environmental NGO, received a text saying, ‘If you insist on [opposing oil] you will be like the other one [de Merode] because we are everywhere.’ WWF said two of its staff had received death threats, and other opponents have been told they will be arrested, fired from their jobs or ‘crushed’.
Cagle said Soco had investigated the allegations as far as practically possible and had established that none of the death threats came from mobiles registered to the company. ‘In a country full of throwaway phones,’ he said, ‘I’m not sure how much further we can go.’ But the charges go well beyond intimidation. The film purports to show Major Feruzi offering Rodrigue Katembo, the warden of Virunga’s central sector, $3,000 to undermine de Merode and facilitate Soco’s operations. ‘You will get your share, and no one will know a thing,’ Feruzi laughs, unaware that Katembo is secretly recording the conversation. ‘They [Soco] need you. They know you are important in that sector where you can help us. They also know that you are the right hand of the park director. Do you understand? This means we’re buying you.’ At another point Feruzi introduces Katembo to his ‘boss’, Pieter Wright, Soco’s South African security adviser, who hands him an envelope containing $50 ‘just to say thank you’.
Cagle said the film did not prove that Feruzi or Wright had tried to bribe the warden, arguing that it could have been edited ‘however many ways they wanted to cut it’. Neither Feruzi nor Wright has been dismissed.
Katembo strung Soco’s allies along for months, and procured much of the evidence in de Merode’s dossier. But last September he was arrested by soldiers for trying to obstruct Soco workers who were erecting the communications mast in Nyakakoma. He claims he was beaten, publicly humiliated and held for 17 days at an ANR base in Goma. He later fled to Kenya for several months. ‘I’m afraid for my life seeing what they did to Emmanuel. They’ve promised many times they will kill me,’ he told me in the relative safety of Rumangabo. Cagle said he did not condone Katembo’s treatment and insisted, ‘We had nothing to do with that… He was removed by the military.’
Global Witness claims Soco secretly paid Célestin Vunabandi, a powerful local MP and, since April, Congo’s minister of planning, to promote its cause in the media and at public meetings. ‘Every time I was going somewhere… they had to compensate me and I was engaged every month,’ Vunabandi allegedly told Mélanie Gouby, a French journalist working with the filmmakers. He said he did not sign a contract because ‘British law does not allow for such a contract to be signed with politicians’. Global Witness calls that a ‘serious conflict of interest at the very least’ and ‘at worst… bribery’.
Cagle said Soco quite properly employed many contractors and consultants with local knowledge, and did not know Vunabandi, but insisted that Soco does not tolerate bribery or any illegal activity.
Bantu Lukambo, the environmental campaigner, says Soco supporters offered him a new prosthetic leg, $20,000 and jobs for five nominees. A young Virunga ranger, who must remain anonymous, alleges Guy Mbayma, the ICCN’s number two, paid five rangers $20 a day each for more than a month to tell villagers that the park’s administration supported Soco. ‘We were instructed to lie,’ he claims.
Mbayma was one of Soco’s strongest supporters. In March 2012 he visited Rumangabo while de Merode was absent and was recorded telling Virunga’s rangers that those who worked with Soco would get ‘money, money, money – are you going to refuse that?’ Those who opposed Soco ‘will be fired. I will sign your dismissal right this minute’.
De Merode says Mbayma did his best to destroy his authority. ‘It was a real power struggle,’ he says – one that ended only when Mbayma was sacked in June by Cosma Wilungula, the ICCN director. Wilungula told Global Witness that Mbayma had exceeded his mandate by running a ‘campaign to promote oil exploration’. Mbayma did not reply to emailed questions from the Telegraph.
The film also suggests that Soco pays armed security contractors to secure safe passage to Nyakakoma through an area of Virunga inhabited by the infamous FDLR militia where even de Merode’s rangers fear to venture.
Gouby secretly recorded a conversation in a Goma restaurant between Julien Lechenault, Soco’s operations manager in eastern Congo, and ‘John’, a former British soldier apparently working for Soco’s security contractor. ‘You’ve got to be able to give them [the militias] money to travel through the area,’ Lechenault says. He insists the money is paid by subcontractors, not Soco itself, to which John replies, ‘To give them money and then turn round and say “it’s nothing to do with us”, it’s just f****** hypocritical.’ Lechenault refers to Virunga as ‘a f****** mine’ and says ‘business is business’.
Elsewhere in the film a spokesman for the M23 rebels says, ‘We are asking for a percentage. They [Soco] cannot exploit oil without us.’ Cagle insisted that neither Soco employees nor its contractors were authorised to pay militias. In unused footage Lechenault also appears to admit that in April 2012 Soco agents secretly financed a demonstration in Vitshumbi to counter a protest eight days earlier. ‘Money was made available to do… an anti-demonstration. Completely stupid but we did it,’ he says. Cagle said that Lechenault had since left Soco for unrelated reasons.
International pressure on Soco has mounted steadily. Unesco has repeatedly called on the company to withdraw. The British Government has declared its opposition to oil exploration in Virunga. The European, German and Belgian parliaments have passed resolutions expressing concern. The French oil giant Total renounced its right to explore in Virunga, joining Shell and 22 other leading mining and metals companies that have forsworn exploration in World Heritage Sites.
Human Rights Watch and Global Witness have urged the Government to investigate allegations of breaches of the UK Bribery Act, which makes it a crime for British companies to bribe foreign officials or fail to prevent bribery on their behalf. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has offered to pass any evidence of wrongdoing by Soco to the Serious Fraud Office. The SFO refused to comment beyond saying that it was aware of the allegations against Soco.
Even Soco shareholders are taking notice. Investec, an asset management company with strong conservationist credentials, sold its holding in what it called ‘the ultimate expression of discontent’. So did Norway’s pension fund. The Church of England, Aviva and Legal and General have raised concerns with the company.
WWF, which made an emotive film about Virunga starring Anna Friel last autumn and amassed a 750,000-signature petition, filed a formal complaint against Soco for allegedly breaching guidelines governing multinational businesses devised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Finally, in June, Soco retreated. Days before its AGM and a Unesco World Heritage Committee meeting in Qatar, it agreed in talks with WWF not to drill inside Virunga ‘unless Unesco and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status’.
WWF hailed the agreement as a ‘victory for our planet’, but Soco’s other opponents dismissed it. They argued that if oil is found the Congolese government could ask Unesco to redraw the park’s boundaries, or unilaterally declassify the park. Global Witness called the announcement a ‘ruse’. De Merode said it gave Soco a ‘massive PR coup’ but changed nothing. Unesco’s World Heritage committee demanded that the Congolese government remove all doubt by cancelling Soco’s permit, but it has yet to do so.
Soco itself did little to allay that scepticism. Rui de Sousa, Soco’s chairman, told the AGM, ‘We have not pulled out.’ José Sangwa, a senior Soco official in the DRC, wrote to the Congolese prime minister to say that reports of Soco’s withdrawal were ‘inaccurate’, and that it would assess the seismic data ‘so that the DRC government can take all appropriate steps to continue or not this exploration’.
Crispin Atama Tabe, the DRC’s hydrocarbons minister, had offered an insight into the government’s thinking in 2012 when he told Reuters, ‘We’re going to evaluate the quantity of the deposit. If it’s very significant we’ll compare the value of the park with the oil… We’ll see whether we respect the park or not. It’s up to us.’
Cagle insists that Soco will proceed with drilling only if the DRC and Unesco reached a bilateral agreement, and that without such an agreement his company will write off the $35 million it has already spent on exploration. In the meantime, he says, it has finished seismic testing and is winding down its operations in Virunga.
Cagle, who has never actually visited Virunga, is an angry man. He says he has never seen such ‘rancour’ directed against his company. He says Soco has done its best to investigate the allegations levelled against it, but those making them offer no proof or specifics. ‘If anything illegal has happened involving our employees or contractors or consultants, there’s no one more interested than me in seeing that they are dealt with appropriately,’ he says. However, he knew of no employee or contractor having been punished or dismissed.
Cagle even suggests that Soco’s opponents may be the real criminals. He calls Virunga’s rangers a ‘private army’ and notes that the park is a ‘hotbed of activity for conflict minerals’ with several airstrips. ‘There are people who don’t want the sun to be shining too brightly on that area of the world,’ he says.
De Merode is meanwhile promoting an alternative economic development plan for Virunga based on ecotourism, fisheries and three new hydro-electricity plants that would create jobs and power for thousands of villagers. He says he never considered quitting after the attack, but no longer leaves his headquarters without half a dozen guards. He does not believe for a moment that his battle with Soco is over. ‘I suspect we will still be fighting this in five years’ time,’ he remarks wearily.
"Virunga" will have a UK Picturehouse preview tour from Oct 6 and premieres November 7 in theaters in New York and LA and on Netflix in all territories where Netflix is available.