Last Thursday, the First Year Council began its series of documentaries with the film Virunga. Covering over 3,000 square miles high in the jungles of the Congo sits Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, home to the last of the endangered mountain gorillas. The park’s headquarters are situated in Rumangabo, where an orphanage holds the only captive mountain gorillas in the world, which were rescued as babies from poachers who had killed the adult gorillas. These orphaned gorillas are cared for in the hopes that they will one day be ready to return to the wild and join the other gorilla populations.
While this picture of rehabilitation and love is quite comforting, the picture shifted dramatically in 2010. In this year, it was discovered that oil lay beneath Lake Edward, which borders Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. SOCO International, a British oil and gas exploration company, sought immediately to begin drilling for the resources that lay underneath. With promises to build schools and universities, and to redistribute a portion of the resources, SOCO forced their way into Virunga National Park, while the rangers were powerless to stop them. Not only does forcing their way into the park cause SOCO to endanger the local, protected animal populations, it also compromises the lives of over 2,000 Congolese and Ugandans who depend on the lake for their livelihood of fishing.
However, the problems with SOCO International only begin there. Corruption in the government has allowed SOCO to bypass legal procedures, and the representatives describe forcing their way into the park as simply, “the cooperation of Virunga and SOCO.” Not only are government officials corrupt, the M23 rebel army “urges” the cooperation of the Congolese government with SOCO. Their pillaging and attacks simply pave the way for SOCO to enter areas without resistance from the Congolese national army. The most chilling result, or rather discovery, made in the wake of these injustices is the lingering effect of racism and colonialism ever present in the company’s operations. In a recording taken by a French journalist while conversing with SOCO representatives and contractors, two SOCO officials described the people of the Congo as “like children. For everything to go well, we’ll have to manage them, for they are unable to manage themselves.” Another official claimed that the people of the Congo, and the park rangers of Virunga specifically wished to “keep all the resources to themselves. They don’t give a damn about the gorillas.” In other instances, SOCO officials, when they were speaking about the Congolese, described them as “primeval” and unable to understand the workings of the current global economy.
In addition to the conflict that SOCO is causing, the M23 rebel army is constantly on the move, attempting to overthrow the Congolese government, and poachers run rampant through Virunga, killing the protected and endangered animals to sell on the black market. With all of this conflict going on, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is struggling immensely, to keep its economy afloat, to keep its animals from extinction, and to keep its people safe.
While the documentary was certainly eye-opening, it is hard for UNC students to become physically involved in helping the people of the Congo and the Virunga National Park. However, to learn more about Virunga and ways to raise awareness, visit virungamovie.com.