The Mafia in the Park: A charcoal syndicate is threatening Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park
An illegal charcoal cartel is helping to finance one of the most prominent militias in central Africa and destroying parts of Africa’s oldest national park. Nursing alliances with Congolese army and police units and operating remote trafficking rings in the sanctuaries of Congo’s protected forests, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) is a kingpin in Africa’s Great Lakes region’s organized crime networks and a continuing threat to human security.
An illegal charcoal cartel is helping to finance one of the most prominent militias in central Africa and destroying parts of Africa’s oldest national park. Nursing alliances with Congolese army and police units and operating remote trafficking rings in the sanctuaries of Congo’s protected forests, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) is a kingpin in Africa’s Great Lakes region’s organized crime networks and a continuing threat to human security. For years, the group has helped sustain its activities by exploiting valuable natural resources, including minerals, ivory, fish, and marijuana. But one of the FDLR’s most successful revenue-generating businesses is the illicit charcoal trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cherished Virunga National Park.
Headquartered deep in the remote southwestern sector of Virunga, the illegal charcoal trade is lucrative. Some have estimated it has an annual value of up to $35 million. The FDLR and its collaborators have developed tremendous business acumen, increasingly motivated by profit incentives and enabled by high-level state cover. As one park ranger told Enough, “Armed groups have turned Virunga into their sanctuary.” The FDLR is under sanctions by both the United States and United Nations, and its charcoal-trafficking activities constitute ongoing violations of both sanctions regimes. In the regular course of business, the FDLR also commits a range of domestic and international crimes, including forced labor and illegal taxation. Yet, impunity for charcoal trafficking crimes remains absolute for high-level perpetrators. The FDLR’s business elements are distinct from its traditional combat structure and “have become the main modus operandi for FDLR survival,” according to a 2014 U.N. study. Even the most effective efforts to address the FDLR’s military and political interests will fail if its profit incentives are left untended.
Virunga faces a number of threats, including poaching and oil exploration, but the illegal charcoal trade is uniquely damaging. As far back as 2008, a U.S. Department of State cable described it as “the most important single threat to the park’s long-term sustainability.” Since then, demand for charcoal has only grown. The illegal charcoal trade is also a serious threat to regional human security. By providing funding to the FDLR and other armed groups, including Congolese state actors, it helps sustain patterns of corruption and violence. “It’s not just FDLR,” a source who requested to remain anonymous told Enough. “It’s police, politicians, and businessmen. It’s a big mafia.”
The success of the illegal charcoal trade relies on the widespread deforestation of parts of Virunga and the perpetration of human rights abuses, including reprisal murders and sexual slavery. These acts stoke one another and accelerate cycles of insecurity, poverty, fear, and environmental destruction. As activist Jeredy Kambale Malonga told Enough of the FDLR, “They use violence directly to make the [charcoal] business work.”
Charcoal made from the park is particularly valuable—rare higher-density wood yields longer-burning, higher quality charcoal, and can sell for over 60 percent more than lower-quality charcoal. An estimated 92 percent of charcoal used in North Kivu comes from Virunga. The trees are cut and turned to cooking fuel inside or near the parks, then transported to markets in nearby communities or larger cities. While demand for Virunga’s charcoal is concentrated in Congo, the business is also regional, with smugglers transporting illegal charcoal from Virunga into both Uganda and Rwanda, where old growth forests have nearly disappeared.
The FDLR does not work alone. Some Congolese national police and military commanders are involved in the illegal charcoal trade. They draw significant revenues from profit-sharing with the FDLR, as well as their own production, trafficking, and taxation of illegal charcoal. Some state officials also provide critical protection to the FDLR’s commanders and officers in Virunga. These activities illustrate Congo’s broader violent kleptocratic regime, involving the state’s manipulation of proxy groups, valuable natural resources, force, and licit state authority in service to the accrual of personal wealth through parallel state systems. Civilians are also a critical component of the illegal charcoal trade, with the FDLR recruiting local people by force or through economic pressure to help produce, guard, transport, and sell charcoal from Virunga.
Charcoal trafficking is part of the FDLR’s broader network of criminal activity including kidnapping, minerals smuggling, and elephant poaching. While much more is needed to curb the group’s other sources of conflict financing, a number of policy responses—especially aimed at mining and poaching—are in motion. Meanwhile, the charcoal trade goes virtually unnoticed, and largely uninhibited by law enforcement or policy interventions.
Virunga’s governing body, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), and its park rangers have effectively protected some parts of Virunga from deforestation and armed group takeover. However, they are outmatched militarily by the FDLR in direct combat scenarios, and rangers are not currently dispatched to patrol Virunga’s southwestern sector where charcoal production is rampant. As long as the FDLR is sustained and emboldened by lucrative business operations like the charcoal trade, peacebuilding in eastern Congo will falter.
Given these dynamics, it is time for a policy shift related to counter-FDLR operations and the protection of Virunga National Park. Policymakers should view the FDLR not as a strictly military, political, or ideological threat; it is also a profit-seeking organized crime network with state and civilian collaborators. In order to counter Congo’s charcoal mafia, high-ranking FDLR commanders and their partners within the Congolese army should be targeted for sanctions and prosecuted for their roles in the illegal trade. Authorities should improve sustainable defection opportunities for low-ranking soldiers within the FDLR in Virunga, to deprive the illegal trade of essential manpower. Perhaps most importantly, given widespread dependence on charcoal as a primary source of fuel among households across the region, coercive efforts to end the charcoal trade such as military operations and targeted arrests must be accompanied by alternative fuel initiatives to prevent a sudden deficit of cooking fuel among millions of people in the region.
Some initiatives have begun to address the charcoal trade, but they are insufficient to either curb the growing regional demand for illegal charcoal or dismantle the FDLR’s deadly networks. Some Congolese community-based organizations investigate economic and environmental crimes, but face debilitating threats. Recent Congolese army operations against the FDLR have disrupted some FDLR strongholds, but they have been largely piecemeal and under-resourced. Alternative energy initiatives like microhydro power and legal charcoal plantations need more support to scale up and reach more end-users. Training for justice officials on prosecuting environmental crimes has begun, but more domestic political pressure and international investment is needed for capacity-building efforts to translate into action.
In order to help end the FDLR’s threat, restore accountability, and protect Virunga, Congolese government and military institutions, foreign governments, finance institutions, and the United Nations should take steps to halt the illegal charcoal trade. To this end, the Enough Project recommends the following:
- Alternative Energy: Impact investors and financial institutions like the United Kingdom’s development finance institution CDC Group plc, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) should invest in Virunga Alliance’s microhydro power projects to improve local access to clean, alternative, sustainable energy and livelihoods. The Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) should ensure that its $200 million grant to the Congolese government to address deforestation supports microhydro power. These investors and donors should also support the rapid expansion of shorter-term, legal alternative energy initiatives starting with comprehensive market assessments and collaboration with local organizations. These alternatives include legal charcoal plantations and the use of alternative biomass briquettes and fuel-efficient cookstoves, like those led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Rwanda-based Inyenyeri. Finally, the World Bank should evaluate the potential for supporting the development of an electrical grid for the city of Goma, to distribute power from Virunga’s microhydroelectric projects to illegal charcoal’s primary end-users.
- Law Enforcement: Virunga Alliance donors, the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) should support the improvement of intelligence gathering related to charcoal activities in Virunga. In particular, the ICCN should receive financial and logistical support to reestablish legal checkpoints on the park’s major access roads to gather data and interdict major charcoal shipments coming from southwestern Virunga. The ICCN should continue its scoping missions in southwestern Virunga and eventually dispatch ranger forces there with the support of MONUSCO troops. The U.S. Congress should pass H.R. 2494 - Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016 - to support the professionalization of wildlife conservation law enforcement agents to better address charcoal trafficking in Virunga. The Presidential Task Force on Combating Wildlife Trafficking should also support training by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. State Department on charcoal trade interdiction as part of its efforts to improve upstream law enforcement related to wildlife trafficking.
- Protection for defenders: MONUSCO justice and human rights units should increase protective monitoring and support to conservation activists who are targeted for defending Congo’s national parks and investigating environmental crimes, and refer cases of abuse to justice officials for investigation. The U.S. Congress should pass S.284 - Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which would give the United States authority to impose sanctions on anyone committing abuses against individuals seeking to expose illegal government activity. It should also pass the aforementioned anti-wildlife trafficking legislation, H.R. 2494, which would authorize technical assistance for protecting rangers and improving legal responses to attacks on forest defenders.
- Domestic Criminal Accountability: U.N. and U.S. Special Envoys to the Great Lakes Region, Said Djinnit and Tom Perriello, should increase pressure on the Congolese government to establish an internationalized justice mechanism to investigate and prosecute grave international crimes. In the meantime, Congo’s military court prosecutors should pursue economic crimes including the pillage of natural resources and extortion in eastern Congo, especially those related to FDLR and Congolese army units in Virunga. They should prioritize the arrest of high-level perpetrators and seizure of their assets, and interview low-level perpetrators to gather intelligence and evidence rather than fining or imprisoning them. The United States Institute of Peace should continue its initiative providing capacity-building for jurists on the prosecution of economic crimes, emphasizing improved intelligence-gathering strategies, high-level investigations, and applying the war crime of pillage legal framework. In its consultations with justice officials in Congo, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice should emphasize the importance of investigating and prosecuting economic crimes alongside atrocity crimes.
- International justice: As part of its ongoing case against the FDLR’s top military commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) should investigate Mudacumura’s command and control over FDLR business operations—especially charcoal cartels—and pursue charges of natural resource pillage if sufficient evidence arises. The court should also use its Article 77 authority to pursue defendants’ assets if they are the proceeds of crimes charged, including forced labor and murder perpetrated in tandem with the exploitation of forests and mines in eastern Congo.
- Military Interventions: As plans for joint Congolese army-MONUSCO operations advance, Special Envoys Djinnit and Perriello should encourage selective joint operations against FDLR strongholds in Virunga, incorporating MONUSCO’s plan to target charcoal hubs and apprehend key FDLR commanders there. MONUSCO along with the U.N. and U.S. special envoys should encourage the Congolese army to vet its commanders stationed in Virunga, and suspend and prosecute those complicit in the charcoal trade. MONUSCO bases near charcoal-trafficking hubs should monitor counter-FDLR operations for civilian reprisal risk, and shore up civilian protection units in communities vulnerable to attack.
- Demobilization Efforts: As MONUSCO considers reestablishing joint counter-FDLR operations with the Congolese army, it should improve its disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration, and resettlement (DDR/RR) efforts for FDLR combatants in Virunga. It should launch a revitalized defection campaign in Virunga, and provide opportunities for repatriation, third country asylum, and sustainable livelihoods in Congo for defectors coming out of FDLR business-oriented strongholds in Virunga. Special Envoys Perriello and Djinnit should continue to encourage the governments of Rwanda and DRC to increase support for repatriation and third country asylum for FDLR defectors, with particular attention to the combatants who are part of the FDLR’s business operations in North Kivu.