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reality check

Green Blood

Dozens of rangers and environmental activists have been killed this year by poachers and miners. Battles over the environment have become increasingly militarized. How can peace be brought to the green frontlines?

By Chris Cummins

Reality Check Special
18.11.17 at 12 noon

According to Global Witness, over 160 environmental activists, rangers and journalists have been killed already in 2017 while trying to protect our forests and our wildlife. Rangers in particular tend to find themselves among the flying bullets in battles over precious wildlife and lucrative resources.

Last pictures by Lisa Dupoy

Lisa Dupoy

This summer Dutch journalist Lisa Dupuy was on assignment in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Ituri forest of Democratic Republic of Congo. The team of three western journalists and a Congolese fixer were filming in an abandoned artisanal goldmine when militants attacked. The journalists narrowly escaped but four Congolese rangers and a porter were killed.

A Deadly Attack

“All of us were at a temporary camp making lunch when the first shots were fired at us,” she told me.

160 rangers, activists and journalists have lost their lives this year while standing up for our environment. This Saturday’s Reality Check Special “Defenders of the Environment” honours them and looks for solutions.

If you miss the program, you can still stream it via the Reality Check podcast or at fm4.ORF.at/7tage.

At first Dupuy had the absurd idea that the pang-pang sounds of the bullets came from the beans they were cooking exploding like popcorn in the pot. Then she saw that the camp had been invaded by armed men who were screaming with aggression and firing towards them. Illicit gold miners had earlier been forced off the protected land by a team of rangers from the Okapi reserve; this seemed like a revenge attack.

Dupuy’s legs buckled with fear, but she did manage to sprint to safety. She was scrambling down the hill in totally unfamiliar territory when three rangers jumped behind her and grabbed her by the arm, saying they’d find a place to hide. “We were running through the forest with the rangers,” Dupuy told me “and one of them turned to me and said ‘welcome to our reality.’ This is what they have to deal with on a regular basis.”

A Massive Sacrifice

In blunt terms, the rangers had saved the lives of Dupoy and her three western journalist colleagues. It was only later in the day that Dupuy was told of the deaths of five members of the Congolese team.

All of those killed came from the same village and all were the major breadwinners for their families. The work of a ranger is arduous and dangerous but it is one of the few steady job opportunities in the region.

“People were losing a beloved member of their family and they were also losing their source of income,” says Dupoy.

There are few memorials to those killed in duty while protecting the natural world so it is important to me that I at least list their names here: Sudi Koko, Antopo Selemani , Patrick Kisembo, Léopold Gukiya Ngbekusa and porter Lokana Tingiti.

Last pictures by Lisa Dupoy

Lisa Dupoy

A store selling provisions for rangers

Dupuy had travelled to Congo to investigate how illicit artisanal gold mining was causing conflict between rangers, militias, the army, illegal miners and local communities. She says that the current policies to protect nature were proving counterproductive.

Less Guns, More Dialogue

“We’ve seen this trend to a more militarized style of wildlife conservation or conservation in general, but I think it might be good if NGOs started talking a little bit more to people in the area who have had a long standing relationship with the wildlife.”

Esther Marijnen has been studying the protection of the nearby Virunga National Park, perhaps the most prestigious national park in DR Congo, where, she says, the militarized response only “increases the resistance of the population against the park.” She says many local communities, feeling they have been forced off their traditional lands in the name of wildlife protection, are now joining local armed militia or asking for their protection so that they can have continued access to the park.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle; the rangers have to increase their armoury to protect themselves from the milita, but the more armed they are, the more they are seen less as referees and more as active players in battles over land-use.

“Increasingly they find themselves specifically targeted by armed groups,” says Marijnen. “Many rangers have told me this has become a major concern.”

This is a “tragedy”, says Julian Rademeyer from the anti-poaching group Traffic:

The rangers that I have dealt with are people who are incredibly passionate and very dedicated to what they do. Their jobs are not to be partcipants in a conflict. That’s not what they signed up to when they became rangers.

Last pictures by Lisa Dupoy

Lisa Dupoy

How to you de-escalate the situation? It is not an easy task. Clearly you can’t disarm the rangers and make them even more vulnerable. But Dupoy suggests a more thoughtful appreciation of the roots of the problem which, as so often in Africa, lie in the endemic poverty in the area.

“I got the sense that poor people are the group first and foremost attracted to mining,” says Dupoy of her trip to DR Congo. “Many are poor farmers who can’t get a job and are quite aware the the gold lies quite literally under their feet.”

A Destructive Industry

Clearly artisanal mining is not compatible with the protection of rainforests; the industry involves the clearing of trees, digging up of the ground.

“There’s no machinery involved,” says Dupuy, “but when you have 50 to 100 people tearing down the trees and all digging in one place it can have a massive impact on the local ecosystem.”

The artisanal mining, by bringing hungry people into the forest, even promotes the hunting of endangered species. According to a new study by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) poor miners in mining camps hunt chimps and even gorillas “mostly out of necessity in the absence of any alternative protein.”

These are ecological crimes, but the driving force is hunger and desperation.

You can’t simply chase communities away from the forests, says Esther Marijnen, you have to achieve an appreciation of the value of nature through consultation and through providing viable alternative sources of income. “In response to these fights and battles, there must be a dialogue between the different groups and the local leaders,” she says.

White Saviour Complex?

Western, often white-skinned, conservationists must also play a more subtle role, urges Marijnen. In post-colonial Africa, and in DR Congo in particular, it is impossible to paper over the historic scars of racism. The story of black and white does still matter. Therefore if local populations are to feel invested in the protection of their national parks, it is unhelpful if the driving force behind conservation is an overbearing foreigner with white skin.

Many conservationists have realized that, Marijnen says, and now play a more background role, concentrating on fundraising in Western capitals but Virunga and other parks are still sometimes plagued by the “White Saviour Complex.”

Lisa Dupuy says it is important to look at a multi-pronged way of getting locals invested in the protection of their local environment and biodiversity. Though it’s impact will never be a miracle cure, eco-tourism can play a role and so can listening to the concerns of local farmers about how to protect their crops from wildlife. Hungry people can’t afford to have their fields trampled on.
“Wildlife conservation, conflict and people’s need for stability; they all meet in those national parks,” says Dupuy: “It’s a complex interaction.”

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