Cablegate: Virunga Park Report: Tentative Agreement by Rebel Group To

Published: Fri 12 Dec 2008 01:18 PM
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1. (SBU) Summary. Following renewed fighting in North Kivu in
October, 2008, park rangers have returned to Virunga park and in
particular to the Mikeno sector, home of the approximately 200
mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Laurent
Nkunda's rebel National Congress of the Defense of the People (CNDP)
force currently controls a large area of the Virunga park, including
Mikeno. The park rangers' situation is tenuous, based on
negotiations between the Congolese conservation authority (ICCN)
representative for Virunga park and CNDP. Surprisingly, these
unarmed rangers include a mix of CNDP-friendly rangers and rangers
loyal to the Kinshasa government. A census of the gorilla population
is currently underway to provide updated information on the numbers
of gorillas in Mikeno. CNDP is reported to be charging admission for
gorilla visits to journalists traveling to the park, though ICCN
reports that this has been only in limited cases and is not part of
a wider CNDP effort to generate income through access to the gorilla
population. While the return of park rangers to Virunga represents a
significant victory for ICCN, the widespread instability and ongoing
fighting in the region continue to pose a direct threat to the
mountain gorillas and conservation efforts in general. End Summary
CNDP controls gorilla sector of Virunga park
2. (U) The Virunga park, a roughly 8,000 square kilometer area
located in North Kivu and Orientale Provinces in the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the world's most significant
reserves of biodiversity. In particular, Virunga is home to
approximately one third of the world's remaining population of
mountain gorillas, which are concentrated in a 250 square kilometer
area of Virunga park known as the Mikeno sector. When fighting in
October, 2008 led to forces under the control of Laurent Nkunda
(CNDP) taking control of a significant portion of Virunga park,
including Mikeno, park rangers were forced to flee the area. Between
October 29-31, more than 50 rangers working in Virunga fled the
park, eventually gathering in Goma to establish a makeshift
temporary camp along with hundreds of thousands of other
internally-displaced Congolese. Nkunda's forces had been in control
of the Mikeno sector since before the recent push in October 2008,
and according to reports some rangers thought to be more in step
with Nkunda's forces stayed throughout the recent siege.
3. (U) The renewed fighting in Virunga park was cause for great
alarm among conservation groups. While CNDP had previously used
Virunga as a base of operations, they had not up until this time
seized control of the park's headquarters. Emmanuel De Merode, the
Belgian national named in August 2008 to be the Congolese Institute
for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN's) Director and Chief of Site
for the Virunga Park, wrote that "Fighting [..] has now totally
engulfed the park station and our Rangers have been forced to flee
into the forests for their lives. The rebels now are the only
occupants of the park station at Rumangabo."
Park rangers gain negotiated access to Virunga
4. (U) A USAID representative met with De Merode and ICCN Virunga
Communications Director Samantha Newport on December 3 to get a
briefing on the current situation in Virunga, particularly with
regard to the gorilla population. According to De Merode and
Newport, their efforts to negotiate with CNDP representatives were
successful in allowing for the return of over 50 park rangers and
their families to the Virunga park's headquarters at Rumangabo and
gorilla area in Mikeno district. In all likelihood, De Merode's
Belgian nationality was a key consideration in CNDP's decision to
allow the rangers to return to the park. Not being Congolese, De
Merode does not have any affiliation with a particular Congolese
political or ethnic structure, and so his motives can be more
directly understood to be solely in protection of Virunga's
wildlife, particularly the highly endangered gorilla population. De
Merode remains highly concerned about the situation, describing the
rangers' position as tenuous.
5. (SBU) The fact that CNDP has allowed a group of men of fighting
age and condition access to the park, within CNDP areas of control,
is a very positive development but by no means guaranteed to last.
In response to the question of whether ICCN was working with CNDP to
get rangers back into the park, De Merode clarified that ICCN had
gained CNDP's 'permission' to re-enter the park. Significantly, De
Merode noted that the rangers included a 'mixage' of rangers
sympathetic to CNDP along with others loyal to the government in
Kinshasa. The term 'mixage' is noteworthy in that it makes specific
reference to the process of military integration that Laurent Nkunda
negotiated for his troops in 2006 which would have permitted them,
KINSHASA 00001099 002 OF 002
unlike other armed groups going through the process of military
integration, to remain in North Kivu province and under his control.
If the reference was meant to suggest that the park rangers were
being forged into an integrated force, which the original mixage
process was meant to create, it would be a change from the previous
situation in which only forces loyal to Nkunda were allowed to
remain in the areas of the park under CNDP control and benefit to
some degree from the limited tourism revenues that were generated.
Whether De Merode continues to maintain the confidence of both the
Congolese government and the CNDP - a tightrope act that for the
time being is producting results - remains to be seen.
6. (U) The return of rangers to Virunga allows certain conservation
efforts to resume for the gorilla population. A census of the
gorilla population is underway for the last week, which will be the
first gorilla census completed since August 2007. During the 2007
census, a total of 72 habituated and 120 non-habituated gorillas
were counted in the area, providing the basis for the estimate that
the DRC is home to approximately one third of the world's mountain
gorilla population. The census will take between 3 and 4 weeks to
complete and will seek to identify every individual gorilla in the
ICCN "Lurching from crisis to crisis"
7. (U) Aside from armed conflict in the park, Virunga is still
menaced by the charcoal trade which represents the most important
single threat to the park's long-term sustainability. With very
little forest around or outside the park, and very few economic
opportunities available in the area, there are few alternatives to
the local population for production of charcoal other than cutting
trees inside the park. Charcoal is a lucrative commodity in the
area, with a bag commanding between $20-25 on the market in Goma.
Estimates of overall production indicate that charcoal represents a
$30 million per year industry in the area. Astonishingly, ICCN
indicated that they understand that local families can spend up to
80 percent of household income on fuel, meaning that there is
intense demand for charcoal production and few available
substitutes. Last year Rwanda generated $6 million in tourism
revenues from gorillas, which suggests that sustainability is
possible in the DRC if and only if the gorillas can be managed as a
valuable resource and generate income for the local population.
Past experience with gorilla tourism in the DRC included
insufficient revenue sharing provisions and other development
opportunities for local communities. Last year's killing of 7
mountain gorillas in Virunga, which captured worldwide attention,
shows the dire consequences for the DRC's gorilla population when
they are seen to stand in the way of the livelihoods of the local
population and economic interests of political and military
officials profiting from the charcoal trade.
8. (U) Poaching also presents an ongoing threat to wildlife in the
Virunga park, though it has been focused primarily on other large
mammal species including elephant and hippopotamus. With three armed
militia groups in and around the Virunga park, pressure for meat
from the forest is intense. Virunga's hippopotamus population, in
particular, is seriously threatened by poaching. The estimated 700
remaining hippos are a fraction of the over 20,000 which were in
Virunga 20 years ago. Poaching of the hippo and elephant populations
dramatically increased in 2007 and is understood to be ongoing and
driven by armed groups operating in the area.
9. (SBU) Conclusions: Given the tenuous situation with regard to
ICCN rangers' access to the Virunga park, it will be important to
keep an eye on the situation but to tread very carefully when
discussing the situation with the GDRC. It is remarkable that De
Merode has been able to achieve the return of rangers to the park,
and ensuring that gorilla protection efforts are not subsumed by a
political agenda on either the CNDP or GDRC side of the conflict is
the most positive outcome that can be hoped for. With regard to
development assistance, developing sustainable alternative fuel
sources is the most critical factor in reducing charcoal production
and associate habitat degradation. The USG should consider increased
investment in biodiversity conservation efforts in Virunga that
target reduction of cutting in the forest, provide alternatives to
charcoal from Virunga as the primary fuel source in the area, and
establish other livelihoods options for the local population. Until
an end to conflict in the area allows for development of a viable
tourism sector urgent consideration should be given to how to help
the local population earn a living without resorting to charcoal
production in critical areas.
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