Groundbreaking Enough Project report exposes “mafia-like” operations of Congolese rebel group; brutal murders, spy networks, complicity of police and officials in illegal, cross-border charcoal trade as old-growth forests are destroyed
A groundbreaking new report by the Enough Project, an atrocity prevention policy group, reveals wide swathes of ancient forest in Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, are being destroyed by a violent “mafia-like” operation profiting from an illegal, multi-million dollar charcoal business.
The in-depth report “The Mafia in the Park: A charcoal syndicate is threatening Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park,” by Holly Dranginis, Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project, documents the rise in the park of a criminal business run by the FDLR, an armed rebel group with ties to the Rwandan genocide. Brutal murders, spy networks, and trans-border trafficking mark the operations, which the report reveals are linked to the complicity of corrupted police, army, and government officials.
Holly Dranginis, report author and Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project, said: “Peacebuilding in Congo will be a losing game without addressing the complex business networks operating in the east. Charcoal trafficking is one of many, but it provides significant funding to the FDLR, reflects rampant impunity among state officials involved in criminal activity, and involves mafia-like secrecy and violence reminiscent of the worst Latin American drug cartels.”
John Prendergast, Founding Director at the Enough Project, said: “The illegal charcoal trade and its violent kingpins are symptoms of a broader system of theft, corruption, and exploitation that has become systematic in Congo. This trade is not an isolated case, but it is uniquely damaging – not only to one of the world’s most biodiverse places, but to human security and the rule of law. Policy interventions must be swift, forward-thinking, and inclusive of those individuals and organizations on the frontlines of the crisis. Better understanding the links between state and non-state actors that propel this trade could help spur more effective interventions to counter wider criminal networks throughout the region.”
Ndobo, as the valuable charcoal from Virunga is called, is produced by cutting down and burning old-forest trees in the park. As the report documents, the destruction of these forests has come with devastating consequences for park rangers, local communities and extinction-facing wildlife like gorillas and elephants.
Dranginis added: “The criminal charcoal business in Virunga is leveling whole sections of rare and ancient tropical forest that is critical to climate security and endangered species in this region. Some heroic work is already underway to help protect Virunga. But time is running out to address the charcoal trade, which has operated for years with few successful interventions.”
Covering roughly 3,000 square miles in northeastern Congo, Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Virunga’s biodiversity is unmatched by any other protected place in Africa, and includes rare bird species, some of the last mountain gorillas on earth, and endangered forest elephants. The park gained recent attention as the subject of the 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, “Virunga.”
Selected report highlights:
- The armed rebel group known as 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. As one park ranger told Enough, “Armed groups have turned Virunga into their sanctuary.”
- “It’s not just FDLR,” describes a source, “It’s police, politicians, and businessmen. It’s a big mafia.” 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.
- The prevalence of cross-border illegal charcoal trafficking from Virunga: Many have thought illegal charcoal is a purely Congolese affair, but testimonies revealed that Virunga’s charcoal is trafficked at least as far as into Uganda and Rwanda as well.
- The direct use of human rights violations in the regular course of business within illegal charcoal cartels includes reprisal murders, sexual slavery, and extreme forms of forced labor.
Key report recommendations:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 anti-wildlife trafficking legislation, H.R. 2494, which would authorize technical assistance for protecting rangers and improving legal responses to attacks on forest defenders.
- The International Criminal Court (ICC) should investigate the FDLR’s top military commander Sylvestre Mudacumura’s command and control over FDLR business operations—especially charcoal cartels—and pursue charges of natural resource pillage if sufficient evidence arises.
- 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.
- 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.
About THE ENOUGH PROJECT
An atrocity prevention policy group, the Enough Project seeks to build leverage for peace and justice in Africa by helping to create real consequences for the perpetrators and facilitators of genocide and other mass atrocities. Enough aims to counter rights-abusing armed groups and violent kleptocratic regimes that are fueled by grand corruption, transnational crime and terror, and the pillaging and trafficking of minerals, ivory, diamonds, and other natural resources. Enough conducts field research in conflict zones, develops and advocates for policy recommendations, supports social movements in affected countries, and mobilizes public campaigns. Learn more – and join us – at www.EnoughProject.org