On the southwestern flank of Virunga, a protected national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was once a thick rainforest. Today it looks like the surface of the moon, barren and smoking. A resident in the area told me that ten years ago he could walk up the road and see elephants. Now the elephants are gone. In their place are violent militias operating an illegal charcoal trade, cutting and burning Virunga’s rare forests to the ground.
The charcoal cartel is run by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, Congo’s most prominent nonstate armed group, which is known for its links to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It is responsible for brutal attacks in remote areas of Congo’s dense jungle. Uniforms in tatters, its soldiers are seemingly penniless. But that picture is incomplete.
Although the FDLR survives on a range of illicit livelihoods—gold mining, kidnapping for ransoms, and the looting of villages—these days, according to locals and UN peacekeeping officials, charcoal is one of the FDLR’s most lucrative pursuits. It is worth an estimated $35 million a year. But the costs to nature and human life are immeasurable.
During Congo’s civil war, which began in the late-1990s, military action against the FDLR focused on populated areas. The FDLR factions that settled in the forests of Virunga were thus left alone to build their empire.
Teams of rebel soldiers worked together to produce charcoal: felling trees and digging pits of roughly eight feet in diameter to bury and burn the wood underground. Some civilians joined willingly; others by force. And the business grew. “It was an easy way to make money,” Daniel Ruiz, a senior UN official, told me at the peacekeeping mission’s base in eastern Congo’s provincial capital of Goma, 30 miles south of the park’s main entrance.
Locals call charcoal from Virunga ndobo, which is made from towering old-growth trees mostly extinct outside the park’