The Endangered Asian Century
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It is easy to see why the Oscar-nominated film Virunga has received such widespread acclaim. Shot in the majestic Virunga National Park, an endangered World Heritage site situated in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the film draws attention to the threats posed to the park’s wildlife by both the British oil exploration company SOCO International and rebel groups. Consequently, appreciation for the film becomes confounded with support for the noble cause of saving Virunga. But the resulting sense of moral righteousness obscures several serious problems with the documentary: it omits crucial aspects of the violent colonial origins of Virunga, and it marginalizes the voices of the people who live in and around the park. As a result, the film perpetuates racial stereotypes and oversimplifies politics and conflict in Congo.
Virunga was created in 1925 and christened Albert National Park after King Albert I of Belgium. The land that was incorporated into the park, which was gradually extended up to two million acres, contained entire villages, farmland, grazing and hunting grounds, fishing areas, zones for the collection of wood and natural medicine, and places of worship and rituals. The park’s founders favored the so-called fortress approach to conservation, which restricts human presence within the park, so local inhabitants were banned from their lands. These forced evictions intensified land conflicts caused by the Europeans’ creation of large-scale plantations in portions of the park.
Up to this day, the people living near Virunga are ambivalent about the park. Many feel that they have been pushed off their ancestral lands, according to research conducted by Congo scholar Paul Katembo Vikanza. As farmers living around Virunga repeatedly explained, the park’s colonial origins elicit the feeling that the park was “created by the Muzungu [white person], for the Muzungu.”This unsavory aspect of the park’s beginnings is ignored in the film, which instead offers a highly selective overview of Congo’s history framed around the idea of the resource curse. It highlights how resource-hungry external forces (“the West”) have time and again plundered Congo for its rich natural resources, leaving the population dispossessed and impoverished. Ironically, the film fails to note that Virunga was created through these very same processes and that the people within its lands suffered a similar fate.
The film also fails to include the voices of the local people—there are four million Congolese living in or near Virunga. Although it focuses in part on the work of the park rangers, their points of view are subordinate to those of Western figures such as Belgian Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode. Like a missionary, de Merode emerges as a leader, teacher, and father figure who guides the Congolese park guards and instills in them the ethics of conservation. Furthermore, the movie features endless footage of a park guard hugging and playing with the gorillas, evoking the notion of the “noble savage” who is close to nature, honest and naive, and dependent on the white man for his salvation. Rarely do we see the Congolese exercising political agency, even though there are numerous civil society activists in the region, often working at great personal risk. From the very start, SOCO’s actions—its efforts to corrupt local leaders and the military—have been scrutinized and documented by local environmental nongovernmental organizations. Yet instead of depicting these grass-roots efforts, the film only shows the work of French journalist Mélanie Gouby, turning her into a heroine who fights SOCO. Virunga, like many of the Western-led activist campaigns before it, obscures the work done by Congolese civil society and perpetuates the stereotype that Africans cannot save themselves.
The documentary’s depiction of the Virunga park guards as “true African heroes” is likewise problematic. Although the current guards generally behave better than those who, at the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s presidency, cruelly exploited their positions, locals still regard them with much suspicion and even animosity. They have received paramilitary training from private security companies and take an armed approach to conservation. The Congolese journalist Eric Mwamba has described them as “machine guns in the mist,” protecting wildlife at the expense of the people who once made their livelihood hunting and fishing in the park.
Whitewashing history and perpetuating racial stereotypes are unfortunately not the film’s only faults. Like the simplification of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the controversial “Kony 2012” campaign, the film relies heavily on one-dimensional stories with easily identifiable victims and villains, which distorts a complex situation. In an effort to underscore its message about Congo’s resource curse, the film suggests that the now defunct M23 rebellion had supported itself primarily by exploiting these resources. However, according to a United Nations report, this rebellion was funded mostly by roadblock taxes and the rebels’ control over the Bunagana border post. By juxtaposing images of the rebels and of SOCO, the film draws a highly misleading parallel between the two. This radically simplified breakdown of the political economy of violent conflict in Congo is not unlike dominant narratives on conflict minerals, which also posit that the abundance of natural resources is the sole cause of violence in eastern Congo.
Virunga’s deficienciesstem from its use as a campaign tool, aimed at raising awareness and engagement among a Western audience. In fact, although the documentary is currently shown in more than 50 countries, it has not yet been made available in Congo. Consequently, the very people whose lives are affected by what happens in Virunga are left out. The documentary has lost an opportunity to break with an alarming trend of depoliticizing conflicts and the issue of conservation in Africa, reducing them to problems that the West can solve through one film or campaign alone.