Virunga

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I don't watch the news much, for a lot of reasons, but there's two main ones: they aren't telling the truth, and the things I really care about aren't on their winnowed-out list.  Then there's the drug ads, with happy people floating around a meadow or a beach, impossibly blissed out on the latest product from Big Pharma, or those old standbys Viagra and Cialis, people sitting in bathtubs in front of a lake getting wrinkled waiting for the right moment. For all of them the auctioneer-fast list of side effects (anal bleeding, shortness of breath, heart attack, stroke and death are usually on the list) never fails to creep me out. Anyway, explaining any of this to the under ten crowd who tend to be watching in the early evening, begs the patience of a saint.  So, I missed any mention of Virunga, assuming there might have been one. I did not, however, miss the movie, and just in case you haven't heard about it, I want to be sure you do. Virunga National Park is a protected World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa,  a beautiful refuge and home to the last of the mountain gorillas, as well as many other endangered animals. It has its own park Rangers, who protect the animals from poachers and threats, which is a dangerous and daunting job.

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The Congo has been torn apart by civil wars in the last decades, many brought on by outside interests greedy for natural resources, but there was a pause to all this for a brief time, until SOCO International, an English oil exploration firm, took an interest in a prospective oil field that happens to be within the park itself.  The fragile peace was broken once again, ostensibly fueled by SOCO money (they deny it, of course) who encouraged the M23 rebels and paid off many local people to further their pursuit of oil on a site the government and world have declared to be off limits.  How do these kinds of things happen? When there's enough money and enough bullets, they happen all the time. Western corporate interests in Africa have been responsible for brutalities and massacres that rival the Crusades for decades, but you aren't likely to hear about it on the nightly news, whose sponsors may very well be those companies, or banks who invest in them.

This time, however, a filmmaker named Orlando von Einsiedel arrived in early 2012 to film a documentary about the park and its rangers, depicting the healing progress made with the park and the Congo itself. By April 2012, the rebels and the government were at war, with SOCO on the sidelines, and the region descended into violent turmoil once again. Working with the park officials and French journalist Melanie Gouby, Von Einsiedal expanded his focus to include the conflict and document SOCO's role in it.

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The film also spotlights four key people: brave head park ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, compassionate gorilla caregiver Andre Bauma, dedicated park director Emmanuel de Merode, and Gouby, whose interviews and taped conversations with locals and SOCO mercenary contractors were revealing, to say the least.

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On September 19, 2013, Katembo, having received death threats, was arrested and tortured by army troops when he attempted to stop them from building an antenna illegally with park boundaries. Human Rights Watch has documented many other threats and harrassments on anyone in disagreement with SOCO and their activities.

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On April 15, 2014, Director de Merode, driving alone in the park, was attacked, shot four times by unknown assailants, but he recovered and by May 22 was back at Virunga, resuming his duties among the gorillas they have all sworn to protect with their lives.

Under intense international scrutiny and pressure, in June 2014, SOCO and the WWF issued a statement, "not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status", however they have not relinquished their permits nor withdrawn, and in March 2015 the BBC reported that the government was considering redrawing the boundaries of Virunga National Park to permit oil exploration. And so it goes.

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We live in a world where money, influence and power take the driver's seat, ahead of human and animal needs and the importance of compassion and conservation. How we've gotten to a place like this is a subject for a much longer series of essays than this, but knowledge is power as well. Watch "Virunga" and make your own determination. As they say, once you know, you cannot close your eyes anymore.  There is work to be done.

Raven