Saving gorillas and the DRC in one fell swoop

Oscar-nominated film Virunga is another tourism-as-antidote-for-Africa’s-woes.

Virunga National Park
Gorilla redemption doesn't address fundamental problems of inequality, writes Fernandez [AP]

“The best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonise these countries.”

Such is the proposal of one Julien Lechenault, an ex-field operations supervisor for the British oil and gas company SOCO International in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The “countries” in question are former European colonial possessions in Africa, among them the DRC, which was brutally administered by Belgium until its independence in 1960.

According to Lechenault, the Africans are “not able to manage themselves” and are instead “like children”.

These and other endearing comments are featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film “Virunga”, which details the plight of the eponymous Congolese park – the oldest national park in Africa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to the bulk of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

Exploitation, Inc

In recent times, Virunga has had to contend with poachers, militias, and other threats to the flora and fauna of one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

DR Congo conflict

More than 130 park rangers have been killed since 1996 – often for standing in the way of resource exploitation.

The trees of Virunga have helped fuel the charcoal industry, while its oil reserves have been coveted by the likes of SOCO, which was granted a concession for oil exploration within the park boundaries by the law-averse Congolese government. This move violated not only Congolese law but also the protections afforded by the park’s World Heritage Site status.

Although the company announced in 2014 that it was ceasing operations in Virunga, the film stresses the less-than-convincing nature of the supposed withdrawal.

Plunder ‘management’

Lechenault’s prescription for “recolonisation”, made while he was still employed by SOCO in the DRC, was secretly recorded by French journalist Melanie Gouby.

But perhaps 'management' is simply a euphemism for full-scale plunder.


Of course, it’s not clear how the Europeans are so much better equipped to “manage” African affairs – as Lechenault suggests – when it was the period of colonial rule that set the stage for mass bloodshed and other forms of disarray.

But perhaps “management” is simply a euphemism for full-scale plunder. The film establishes the continuity of resource pillaging over the years, starting with the effective privatisation of the Belgian Congo and its bloodsoaked rule by corporations under Belgium’s King Leopold II.

It’s common knowledge that vast resource wealth and conflict go together like bees and honey, with international and local actors jostling for profit. As the protagonists of “Virunga” see it, the park represents an opportunity to throw a wrench into the vicious arrangement – and to bring stability and economic development to the eastern DRC.

Tourism-based hope

At one point in the film, Gouby asserts that Virunga is “one of the only hopes this region has”.

Meanwhile, park director Emmanuel de Merode surfaced at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month to market his vision of a tourism-based model of peace and prosperity.

In an interview with CNBC Africa, de Merode – who happens to be a Belgian prince, a detail that may cause reflexive discomfort in many viewers – argued that a proliferation of tourism industry jobs would help the region “move out of this chronic state of civil war”.

The interviewer chimed in with a prediction regarding the deluge of tourists that would then accompany stability: “The dividends of peace must be huge.”

Business, as usual

It might appear slightly incongruous to appeal to the World Economic Forum – a shrine to wealth and neoliberal exploitation – for assistance in resolving issues stemming in part from these very phenomena.

The notion of tourism-as-antidote-for-Africa’s-woes is additionally problematic. For one thing, it’s hard to pinpoint how the injection of tourism revenues into a system of institutionalised corruption like the DRC’s would significantly enhance the wellbeing of the average Congolese person.

For another, a glance at the fees for visiting Virunga reveals that, at least at the moment, this is a tourist destination that is financially off-limits to most Congolese, not to mention most of the world’s inhabitants.

A single-occupancy tent costs you $244 (breakfast included), while the Nyiragongo volcano trekking permit will set you back $255.

Granted, there’s a special trekking permit rate of $52 for nationals of the country. But to put these quantities in perspective, consider that – according to the World Bank – the GNI per capita in the DRC in 2013 was $430.

Africa and the world

This is not to say, obviously, that Virunga shouldn’t be preserved, that oil companies shouldn’t be kept out, and so forth – but rather that a bit more thought should be put into the process than, for example, the formula advanced by one helpful journalist following the release of the documentary: “Book a ticket to Virunga. See some gorillas.”

The logic here is that “money talks” and that the Congolese government simply needs to be persuaded, by foreign demand, of the lucrative potential of developing the tourism sector.

Given said administration’s dedication to self-enrichment at the expense of the people, however, it’s hard to see how this strategy will take us anywhere good.

It’s nice to dream, of course, that we can save the gorillas and the DRC in one fell swoop. But gorilla redemption doesn’t address fundamental problems of inequality and the forever-exploited divide between haves and have-nots – a divide that is reinforced by the high-class tourism industry and its commitment to the sacredness of privilege.

A better dream would be one in which the prevailing socioeconomic order is magically obliterated. In that case, there might really be some hope for saving Africa – and the rest of the world along with it.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.