Guns, Gorillas and Netflix: A Belgian Prince in Congo

RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of Congo — “Emmanuel was over at my house for dinner the other night,” Ben Affleck said in an interview, “and despite the fact that he’s spent most of his life in Virunga, he’s been shot, he’s seen people he’s loved killed, my 16-year-old daughter said: ‘Why is it appropriate you do this? You’re not Congolese.’”

“There were people there and I was trying to raise money, ‘Violet, what are you doing?’” Mr. Affleck continued, during the interview in Los Angeles. “But he answered calmly: ‘I’m here in all humility, trying to do my part.’”

“Emmanuel” is Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest protected area and in many ways the front line of human-wildlife conflict. And the source of Violet Affleck’s consternation isn’t so much Mr. de Merode’s mission to save Virunga’s mountain gorillas and use the park to help bring economic stability to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country plagued by violence and a persistent stripping of its rich natural resources. Instead, Violet was zeroing in on the fact that he’s a Belgian prince in a country with a violent colonial past.

If Violet’s teenage-abetted forthrightness surprised her father, he may want to get used to it. Mr. de Merode, who rose to fame in a 2014 Netflix documentary about the park, is increasingly the apple of a certain kind of celebrity’s eye — those who are committed to saving the planet, with a nose for a cinematic story along the way.

Many stars attach their names to causes and move on — remember Kony 2012? — but Mr. Affleck said the most important thing he’s done, “what I want to be remembered for,” is the Eastern Congo Initiative, which he started in 2010 and has linked thousands of Congolese cocoa and coffee farmers with big brands like Theo Chocolate and Starbucks. Now he is teaming with Mr. de Merode, whose impact he calls “a real inspiration,” helping bring park-made chocolate to American supermarkets.

A Barry Jenkins-directed biopic is in the works and Mr. de Merode recently met with Leonardo DiCaprio’s team, who are producing the project. Mr. de Merode discussed the script, went to In-N-Out Burger and updated Mr. DiCaprio on the situation back home.

Congo’s government recently approved auctioning oil leases in and around Virunga, which threatens to worsen climate problems globally and security locally. What’s more, a rebel group called the M23 is embedded in the park, fighting Congo’s army and threatening park staff, communities and the future of Virunga’s infrastructure projects. These are the very problems the park battled in the 2014 film.

“Today’s situation is almost an exact mirror of where we were back then,” Mr. de Merode said. “I can’t believe it really.”

A few weeks before the Affleck dinner, I had been with Mr. de Merode in Congo. “If anyone tells you to stop, keep going,” he had said as he passed a squad of Congolese troops at the entrance of Goma International Airport.

Congolese soldiers, in dark green uniforms and sunglasses and cradling Kalashnikov rifles, stared as Mr. de Merode strode by. Others chanted his name. He wore a satchel bag like a professor en route to class, along with leather boots, fatigues and a beret folded beneath a shirt epaulet — his uniform as director of the park.

As he checked the wings, tires and coolant of his Cessna 206, he also looked at the sky, where dark clouds were moving in fast.

I asked if it was safe to fly. “Not if we wait much longer,” he said. Soon after he started the plane, the control tower radioed that his paperwork, including the flight plan he was required to file, had been lost.

Minutes later, though, with rain pouring, the tower cleared us for takeoff and the Cessna taxied past United Nations jets and Congolese army helicopters before lifting into the air toward Virunga.

Congo is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world, crucial to our warming planet. It’s been ravaged by decades of civil and proxy wars among a bewildering number of militias and armies.

Violence and disaster displaced almost as many Congolese as Ukrainians in the last year, yet most outsiders remain unaware in part because this place is so difficult to sum up.

The narrative most people know belongs to the 1,000 mountain gorillas in this region, the only habitat for an endangered species that shares 98 percent of our DNA. More than one-third of these great apes live in Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Bordering Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga’s tropical highlands are a vital corridor for gorillas, along with dozens of rebel groups. Some are linked to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide or Islamic State, and many tax resources from locals, target staff and poach wildlife.

Dian Fossey started the idea of gorillas-as-conflict-symbols, a crusade that ended with her unsolved murder in 1985. Decades later, Brent Stirton’s 2007 images of Virunga’s executed gorillas spurred international outrage.

Patrolling the park’s 3,000 square miles mean Virunga’s 779 rangers have regular conflicts with armed groups; it also explains why conservation guards carry Kalashnikovs, even rocket propelled grenades. More than 200 rangers have been killed since 1996.

Papa Diddy Mwanaka, a ranger, said, “It’s not easy when colleagues fall, but you have to forget it in order to continue.” He is 60 and has spent over half his life in fatigues.

What are they fighting over? Land. Large animals like gorillas need it. And so do people. Four million live a day’s walk from the park, and many are poor and malnourished.

Over 80,000 people live inside the park, using it for food and cutting trees for fuel, which becomes charcoal, a $40 million a year industry, one taxed by rebels and crucial for communities without access to fuel, lighting or heating. The park loses upward of $170 million, much of it through illegal trafficking of its goods, including ivory.

Three park-built hydropower plants help, providing jobs and encouraging preservation. “Between 180,000 to 200,000 people are direct beneficiaries of electricity in their homes. Hospitals get free electricity, schools get free electricity, there’s an improvement in safety because of free public lighting,” Mr. de Merode said.

Animals have rebounded, on his watch, with the number of gorillas doubling, one of the greatest stories in modern conservation.

Last year, Virunga started a hydro-powered chocolate factory that gives cocoa farmers a fair price and legal market, producing 10,000 milk and dark chocolate bars a month, which reach European supermarkets days later. Mr. de Merode hopes to increase production and get bars to stores in the United States with the help of Mr. Affleck.

Reshaping the economy “is the only answer for the park,” Mr. de Merode said.

Conflict scholars, like the political ecologist Esther Marijnen, perhaps Mr. de Merode’s harshest critic, question this approach, which relies heavily on so-called green militancy (armed conservation officers). “Their development enterprises are separate from conservation and tourism,” she said. “Virunga will never reach those goals as long as there is conflict in Congo. Are things getting better in Eastern Congo?” she said. “I think it’s very hard to say, very subjective. It’s very hard to see if their approach increases security in the long run.”

Such judgments miss the point, said Bienvenu Bwende, the communication officer for Virunga Energies, the park’s private utility division. “One person you raise out of poverty is one less person who is likely to go to the bush and join an armed group,” he said. “That’s how you need to assess the impact.”

Much of it sounds promising — an electric fence is being installed to stop illegal cultivation and save legal farms from wildlife like hungry elephants; the park offers microloans, and a water pumping station for 300,000 — then something catches my eye outside the Cessna’s window: little fires. Trees are being burned to make charcoal. This is what deforestation looks like.

There is an additional undercurrent in the story of Virunga and Mr. de Merode that’s hard to reconcile. For all of his accomplishments and resilience, the inescapable reality here is that a white man, descended from a Western European country that once ruled Congo, brutally stripping resources and killing natives, is at the head of an organization whose decisions affect hundreds of thousands of Congolese.

The Netflix documentary used hidden cameras to highlight the fight between the park, a big oil company and an invasion by M23 rebels. This narrative oversimplified things, some critics said, but Virunga’s staff took incredible risks during production, even wearing concealed microphones — and it worked. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and awareness of the park soared. So did millions in funding from the European Union, Howard Buffett, the Schmidt Family Fund and USAID.

Days before the documentary’s premiere, a different plot was unfolding Mr. de Merode was returning home when he was ambushed by men with automatic weapons. He was shot multiple times, got out of his Land Rover, returned fire with his AK-47, and escaped into the forest. Thirty minutes later he emerged a bloody mess and his attackers were gone. A good Samaritan stopped, picked him up and hours later, emergency surgery saved him.

Mr. de Merode said he’s lost track of how many times he’s been shot at, which seems less show-off-y than coping mechanism. When asked if he believes in God — after he was shot, he had multiple car breakdowns, heavy bleeding, then translated his own surgery between Indian and Congolese doctors — he refused to answer.

Jane Goodall, the legendary primatologist, calls him “a hero.”

In person, he’s uncomfortable with such attention. Exceedingly polite, with a medium build and tousled black hair, he chooses his words carefully, more dreaming artist than macho type.

The history shadowing Mr. de Merode is that Congo was once ruled by the oppressive Belgian King Leopold II — who made the country his private fief — and endured half a century as a Belgian colony.

Yet Mr. de Merode, was born in Tunisia, grew up in East Africa and has lived in Congo for three decades. He has never lived in Belgium, and he isn’t part of the royal family either.

“It’s just a title,” he said of his own, one given to the family in honor of their role during Belgium’s Independence. But the trauma of memory remains. “I have to be sensitive and acknowledge that there is a difficult history but my role here is to be at the service of the Congolese people. I have no professional ties with my country of origin, my loyalty is 100 percent to the Congolese state and people.”

Many Congolese say a European leading will always be delicate. “That’s a problem in the mind of the people. Many people in Congo think that Belgium is protecting their resources with de Merode,” said Charly Sebusha, a youth activist with the Lucha advocacy group, who has met with Mr. de Merode.

One way to heal past stigma and understand the current plans for Virunga, Mr. Sebusha said, is more dialogue, which could also improve community-park relations.

“There are so many projects undertaken by Virunga that the population are misinformed about,” said Samson Rukira, a member of Rutshuru’s civil society, a town near the park. Like Mr. Sebusha, he believes that more dialogue could help.

Belgium’s Princess Esmeralda agreed that a European in charge “can look wrong,” but said that Mr. de Merode “has enormous expertise because he’s lived his entire life in Kenya and the DRC. We have to understand he was chosen by the Congolese, he was not imposed by anyone else.”

Many Congolese say the biggest problem isn’t race. They’re resentful of being forced off their land by Virunga policies — even if they are farming or living illegally in the national park — and while park development does help many gain electricity or jobs, not everyone will benefit, a sticking point in a region where unemployment is high.

“The demography around the park is growing, the population is growing,” Mr. Sebusha said. “People are forced into the park to find work and Virunga arrests them. But they don’t have another activity to get money.”

Princess Esmeralda knows this issue well: Her grandfather created the park in 1925. “Our colonial past was absolutely horrendous,” she said. “When I go to Congo, I feel it strongly. Many N.G.O.s and organizations are making mistakes but I think Virunga is doing great work.”

Mr. De Merode is paid $800 a month in what’s essentially a contract appointment from the state. “They’re happy with me or they wouldn’t keep me,” he said. “This isn’t my park, and if and when they ask me to go, I’ll go.”

He sleeps in a tent, can’t remember the last time he took a day off, has survived countless close calls and buried many friends. Mr. de Merode has seen his daughters and wife, the Kenyan paleontologist Louise Leakey, a handful of times in as many years, “by far the hardest part of the job,” he said.

“This park is his life,” said Dirck Byler, the great ape conservation director for Re:Wild. “Emmanuel is very humble, very charming. One day he’s speaking to E.U. officials about the needs of the park, the next day he’s out in a middle of a fight with rangers.”

In our interview, Mr. de Merode said “the park ought to be managed by a Congolese national who gets the necessary support and training to do the job better so things can continually improve.” That will happen, he added, “in the not too distant future.”

It’s the right answer to a difficult question, and he shifted from seriousness to humor, hoping his successor “would feel comfortable enough to invite me back now and then.”

Nearly a decade after the Netflix documentary was first broadcast, one ranger is still killed on average every month. The threat of big oil is back and so are M23 rebels. There’s chatter they could take the park again.

It almost came to pass during my visit, as shelling from the Congolese Army against M23 would eventually force an evacuation of the park’s Rumangabo headquarters.

The pandemic shut down tourism for fear of infecting gorillas, and with income choked for two years — and the park’s worst attack ever — it’s a constant state of crisis management. “Managing a large team in a very dangerous environment, you have a responsibility to them not to flinch,” Mr. de Merode said about risk.

That’s why so much hinges on development, which came into focus at a chocolate factory in the territory of Beni, one of the most dangerous areas of Congo. The big danger here is ADF, a militia linked to ISIS, responsible for machete massacres.

But at Virunga Origins, everything was sparkling, machines purring, processing chocolate, bean to bar. Within a 10-mile radius of the factory, more than 200 civilians have been killed.

The facility opened in 2020 and includes a fermentation center. With 10 employees, including four ranger widows, it’s modest. But Congo’s cocoa production is among the world’s highest.

“The chocolate factory captures the idea that you can do something incredibly positive, create jobs, create revenue for farmers, while at the same time tackling violence,” Mr. de Merode said. “The ADF is killing people in their fields to take their chocolate, trafficking it into Uganda and selling it as Ugandan cocoa.”

The park’s chocolate industry gets cocoa legally out of the country at higher prices, he said. “Normally, farmers ferment chocolate in their fields and it takes two weeks. Those two weeks is when they’re vulnerable, people come and just steal it. Often they’ll inflict a massacre so everyone runs away.”

Down the road, I saw a building recently firebombed, riddled with bullet holes as wide as dinner plates. Can a business really operate here? I wondered. “The poor infrastructure you learn to live with, but the corruption, setbacks, ADF — I’m tired,” said Clemens Fehr, a German forest ecologist who went to Uganda in 1999 and started cocoa wholesaling in Congo in 2003.

You can see why at Virunga’s nearby northern headquarters, with its concertina wire, sand bags, guard towers. “We repelled an attack on New Year’s Eve,” a ranger said during a brief lunch.

On the last morning of my visit this spring, the sound of shelling woke Mr. de Merode at 3 in the morning. The artillery continued as he nursed a tea outside his tent. Days later, Rumangabo was evacuated and so was the park’s main hydroplant. Then a U.N. helicopter mysteriously crashed over rebel territory and the shelling could be heard over the mountains in Rwanda. The back-and-forth would continue for weeks.

All the while, Mr. de Merode and a skeleton team kept the house in order and focused on protecting the park’s 3,000 staff and their families.

When his rangers greet him they stand stick straight and salute. As the robin-chats chirped and baboons foraged nearby, the director explained the situation in French, then ended the briefing with the simple word everyone here uses in place of “adieu”: “Courage.”

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