Endangered gorillas threatened by charcoal trade

The Times of London
Rumangabo, DR Congo

Wisps of smoke rise from the dense forest between Rumangabo and the distant crater of the Nyiragongo volcano. The beautiful vapour trails are not a natural phenomenon; they are evidence of Man’s destruction of the forests to manufacture charcoal — a trade that fuels civil war and is driving gorillas to the edge of extinction.

Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest nature reserve, stretches across 3,000sq miles (8,000sq km) of forest, mountain, river and volcano in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s most volatile regions. It is also home to around 200 mountain gorillas, more than a quarter of the world population. They have survived eastern Congo’s cycles of violence, but it is the destruction of their habitat that poses the greatest threat. In thousands of rough kilns hidden in the park, the production and trade of charcoal, or makala, is ruining gorillas’ habitat.

Rangers are trying to protect them, but it is deadly work: in the past decade 150 rangers from the Congolese national wildlife service have been killed in eastern Congo’s five reserves. This year the rangers have taken the fight to the charcoal barons. In August and September, 150 rangers with automatic weapons raided the charcoal furnaces and forest encampments at dawn. Three rangers were wounded in gun battles, but the operation destroyed 1,000 kilns — piles of earth and wood as tall as a man in which branches are burnt for days at high heat and pressure to make charcoal. The charcoal produced by each kiln is worth about £600.

The human suffering in eastern Congo makes it hard to believe that a nature reserve warrants such attention, but everything in this conflict is connected. Refugees end up in camps encircling the regional capital Goma, on the edge of Virunga. They need to cook food and boil water to avoid cholera, so they buy sacks of charcoal made from the nearby forest. But the very armed groups that force people from their homes in the first place also control the charcoal trade. Profits are spent on sustaining their war. “What we’re fighting is the looting of natural resources, and the failure to uphold the law. These are the root causes of the conflict in the region,” said Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga’s chief warden.

The local trade in charcoal is estimated to bring in at least £18million every year — which buys a lot of guns and bullets for rebels such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who roam the slopes of the 3470m ( 11,400ft) Nyiragongo. In May, UN investigators noted the “intense charcoal production controlled by FDLR” in the national park. Jean Bosco Bichamakara, a ranger, is charged with trying to persuade people to switch from charcoal to fuel briquettes made from sawdust, rice husks, leaf mulch and other organic waste. The wildlife service has paid for the distribution of £180 kits that include presses to make the briquettes, shaped like fat discs. The rangers buy any surplus and sell them in Goma’s busy markets for £7 a sack, roughly a third the price of charcoal.

“There are 550 presses being used now,” said Mr Bichamakara. “Our objective is to have 1,000 by the end of the year and 6,000 by the end of 2011, all to diminish the threat to our environment.” In Kibumba village Charlotte Bosimba, 53, and five family members are using a press to make briquettes to use and sell. She said: “The briquettes cook faster than makala so now we never use it.”