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’s borders. Dense and slow-burning, it sells for roughly 60 percent more than common charcoal made from young eucalyptus trees. The government has done little to stop the trade; stationed all along the supply route, from the park to the cities and export checkpoints, army officials and police invent taxes on charcoal and extort money from civilian porters.

Because Virunga has protected status as both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though, ndobo is patently illegal. And yet, in eastern Congo, the black featherweight contraband seems to be everywhere. “The best way to be successful in trafficking is to traffic something everyone will buy,” Ruiz said. By some estimates, four million people in eastern Congo depend on park charcoal for cooking fuel. And, according to Ruiz, “FDLR knows every kitchen in the region.” 

The FDLR presence and rampant poaching has turned Virunga into one of the most dangerous national parks in the world. Over 150 Virunga rangers have been killed in the past ten years by poachers and militia occupying resource-rich territories. With at least four million people living within a day’s walk from the reserve, it is also vulnerable to illegal farming and fishing by impoverished civilians. The park’s previous director was transferred from his position after allegations that he was involved in the mysterious killings of seven mountain gorillas in 2007.

In 2008, Virunga got a new director: Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian prince and career conservationist. De Merode’s first priority was to overhaul the ranger forces. Once untrained and riddled with corruption, the force is now professionalized and adept at protecting Virunga’s eastern strip from violent intruders. There, tourists can still see rare birds and mountain gorillas. But Virunga’s southwestern sector is still largely lawless, and FDLR rebels are free to run their charcoal trade. The only law enforcement agents operating in the area are national police and army soldiers, who are widely accused of complicity in the rebels’ exploits.


Sitting with me in his office in Goma, leading Congolese conservationist Bantu Lukambo wore a camouflage t-shirt with “U.S. Army” labeled across the breast pocket and an American flag on the sleeve. Lukambo grew up in Virunga on the edge of Lake Edward, so he has been at the frontlines of the FDLR’s resource war since he was a child. “We grew up thinking anyone who threatened the park was a criminal,” he told me. “We were taught that protecting the planet was part of life.” A bumper sticker flattened to the wall behind him read, “A better world through kindness to animals.” According to Lukambo, the Congolese army, vulnerable civilians, and the FDLR form a dangerous conspiracy that enables Virunga’s charcoal trade to boom. 

Packed in eight-foot long tarp sacks, park charcoal is transported out of Virunga on foot or motorbike, often fastened to the back of a teenager by a strip of fabric pulled taut against his sweating forehead. Sometimes, it goes out to the world in trucks with 200 bags piled high as the vehicle trundles around hairpin turns during its descent down the mountains.

When I asked him where all the charcoal goes, Lukambo pulled a blank page from his notebook and began sketching out maps of the trading routes. There are two main roads, One, from the Congolese town of Kitshanga, goes east to Uganda across the southern sector of the park. The other road snakes down the western edge of the park, south to the town Sake, then east to the Rwanda border. Lukambo marked Xs in pockets of the park where FDLR factions operate charcoal markets. Across the southwestern section of Virunga, the markets hug those main roads. 

Driving along the barren southwestern border of the park toward one of those Xs, you would never know Virunga is the single most biodiverse preserve in Africa. I was following the only major road to the park’s central charcoal transit point. When approaching the FDLR-held mountains, the climate suddenly gets drier. Smoldering ground fires and dust are everywhere. We whisked past bicycles every few minutes, wobbling under their load of four 60-pound sacks.

Then, from around a bend in the road, the vast gaping wound of Virunga’s deforested southwest came into full view. Giant smoke plumes curled from the cracked ground, filling an already hazy sky. The cleared, cut earth stretched out for miles.

It was dry season, which meant there were more armed groups in this area, Juan Moreni warned me. Moreni is the head of the UN base in Kitshanga, on the southwestern border of Virunga: FDLR territory. “Militias come to build their charcoal reserves before the rain starts again in October,” he told me at his encampment on a hill overlooking the town. “Here, charcoal is a big business.”

Moreni wore rubber flip-flops. We conversed in Spanish, drinking watery orange juice made with powder. He was posted from Uruguay, which supplies troops to the UN peacekeeping presence in Congo, the largest in any country in the world. Despite its massive scale, the peacekeeping mission in Congo struggles to prevent the armed groups that move freely in and around Virunga from wreaking havoc. “APCLS, FDLR, Nyatura,” said Moreni, ticking off the names of armed groups. “This place is a field trip for all of them.” 

The day I visited the charcoal trading posts, the roads were unseasonably muddy with rain. Villagers walked to church under colorful oversized umbrellas. Despite the weather, the charcoal trade was in full swing. I saw trucks piled high with the crude fuel, and tall bags of it outside mud huts, waiting for pickup by the FDLR’s civilian porters. 

The burning fields of Karenga, a production hub for the FDLR's charcoal cartel.
Holly Dranginis

Park rangers haven’t been dispatched to this area in years. On our way here, we had stopped to talk to the police commissioner in Sake, the last major town before the road veers to the charcoal hubs. I had asked him if he ever sees rangers patrolling the area. “Rangers,” he said. “We haven’t seen a ranger here since the 1990s.” 

Locals who live deeper in the park agreed. To them, rangers were a thing of the east, posted only to protect the gorillas and scarcely a match for the FDLR and its hired guns. To protect Virunga’s burned-out southwestern sector, the same force would need to act more like a counterinsurgency team, and that’s just not its core mandate. 

In other parts of the park, rangers do encounter rebels, including the FDLR. Balemba Balagizi, park warden of Virunga’s central sector, wrote to me about the dangers of interdicting the FDLR’s charcoal-loaded vehicles on transit roads. “When we try to engage loaded trucks, we face death threats,” he said. 

Virunga’s head of security, Gilbert Dilis, who was in Kitshanga for the first time on a scoping mission to assess whether to dispatch rangers to the area, told me, “But the FDLR knows this part of the park better than the rangers. And the rebels are far in the forest. It’s a big risk.”


Where does the illegal charcoal trade’s estimated $35 million in annual revenues go? Outside the cartel itself, the movement of its profits is today largely a mystery. “The supply chain for charcoal is smaller [than for minerals], but the profits go somewhere—laundered through companies in Goma and out [of the country],” Daniel Ruiz, the UN official, told me. 

But even if the illegal charcoal trade in Virunga is purely business, it is a bloody one. In a cramped hotel in Goma, Congolese activist Jeredy Kambale Malonga told me about the horror. We paced around the premises for 15 minutes while he looked for a place we could talk out of earshot. 

“If you want to produce charcoal on your own, you need the FDLR’s permission,” Malonga said. “But sometimes people make their way into Virunga and set up production sites out of view of the FDLR.” They bury freshly chopped wood underground and light it on fire, he said, creating a smoldering surface the size of a plastic kiddie pool. 

“If the FDLR finds you producing without permission, they throw you into the burning pit,” he said. “They might hold you up against the heat while you burn, and let you walk away with the wounds.” These act as a ghastly reminder of the FDLR’s power wherever you go.

Malonga and his colleagues have investigated forced labor schemes and reprisal killings against civilian porters who ran off with the FDLR’s charcoal. The FDLR also kidnap women from outside the park. They force them to produce charcoal and to “marry” rebel soldiers. “We call that sexual enslavement,” he said flatly. 

The FDLR has spies along the charcoal trade routes, especially in urban areas. “If civilian facilitators complain about the terms of their agreement with the FDLR, they’re killed,” another local activist told me.

Numerous UN annual reports say that the FDLR is responsible for raping women, abducting children, and burning villages. The group’s high commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on numerous war crimes charges. The FDLR is the target of UN sanctions and considered a terrorist organization by the United States. The success of its charcoal enterprise relies on its ability to act like one. As Malonga put it, “They use violence directly to make the business work.” 

But for the ndobo kingpins of Virunga, impunity abounds—as does corruption. “The majority of [charcoal trafficking] cases are brought against civilians, because they’re easier to arrest,” a lawyer told me one evening in her home in eastern Congo. It was growing dark. The power had gone out in town, so she stood up to light a candle. “We have untouchable people—the big fish.”

The very law enforcement officials who are responsible for cracking down on the illegal trade, instead, take part. During one conversation with a group of local police officers who worked along the border areas of Virunga, the men insisted to me that they don’t even know where the park’s boundaries are located. Consequently, as one policeman noted, “How can we be expected to avoid committing these crimes?” It is true that the park’s borders aren’t marked everywhere and that producing charcoal outside the park can be perfectly legal. Still, these official know that cutting trees and producing charcoal inside the park is clearly forbidden.


In 2013, Congo hosted a historic peacekeeping experiment. A subset of its peacekeeping mission called the Force Intervention Brigade was given authorization to act offensively. Whereas traditionally, peacekeepers can only fire in self-defense or to protect civilians, this brigade was tasked with carrying out targeted operations—a first for any peacekeeping operation in the world. After successful joint operations with the Congolese army against Congo’s now-defunct M23 rebels, the brigade’s momentum slowed. In February 2015, UN concerns over the abysmal human rights records of two high-level army commanders paused joint operations, and Congo’s army launched counter-FDLR operations alone.

But, as one policy expert in Goma told me about the operations near Virunga, “the army was shadow-boxing with the FDLR.” After only a temporary shakeup, the FDLR moved back into many of its strongholds in eastern Congo, according to a UN report, because the national army “lacked the troop strength to sustain the operations.” 

“These are business people,” Ruiz said of the FDLR. “They know how to hide charcoal, how to turn charcoal into money, how to move it across borders. Disappearance of the FDLR is a necessary way to solve the problem.”

But like many people I spoke to, he said the demand for charcoal must be addressed first. Defeat the FDLR in the park, cut off the supply of ndobo charcoal, and a local energy crisis would ensue, he cautioned.

Charcoal in a storehouse in Goma, waiting to be sold in the city's markets.
Holly Dranginis

Alternative energy would be a potent tonic against the FDLR’s cartel, and allow for aggressive counter-FDLR action. “If there was electricity, then a repression approach against the traffickers could be much harsher,” Ruiz said. “You wouldn’t have the humanitarian concern so you could go no holds barred.”

In fact, alternative energy initiatives are under way. Virunga’s director, de Merode, is at the forefront of this strategy. With charitable support, over the past six years, his team has launched a series of small hydroelectric dams in the park. These dams could produce 80 megawatts of electricity by 2020 to power homes around the park, but they need more support. “De Merode’s plan is a stride forward,” Bantu Lukambo said. “Lack of energy alternatives is used as an excuse to allow illegal charcoal.”


Last fall, after an exhaustive assessment, de Merode and his team decided not to dispatch rangers to the southwestern sector of Virunga. For now, the FDLR’s charcoal strongholds will remain ungoverned. 

When de Merode told me this, he spoke quietly. FDLR activity is devastating the southwestern sector of Virunga, and the park is entrusted to his care. But so, too, is the safety of the park’s protectors, the men and women who patrol Virunga and offer its greatest hope for survival. 

“The main challenge is to put an end to the FDLR,” de Merode said. “To remind people that the rule of law…is essentially sacred.” In the southwest, he said, “It’s extremely difficult to get control. We had to decide if we wanted to invest heavily, including significant loss of life. So we made a call.” 

De Merode has lost many of his rangers to rebel fire—three in mid-March. Deliberately dispatching part of his team to perform counterinsurgency would be a bridge too far. That is a job for the army, law enforcement, and for peacekeepers. 

As I left the park, ambling down in the four-by-four from high up in the FDLR-held mountains, I caught glimpses of what remained of the rainforest: an old-growth tree, wet with moss, towering alone above a flat, ravaged landscape. It was a reminder of what was once plentiful and what could soon be lost completely. The children who live on the southwestern side of Virunga now have to learn about elephants from textbooks and old stories. They have never seen a real one and perhaps never will.

Conservation at Virunga means changing the calculus for heavily armed criminals that today make millions by literally burning away a rare natural treasure. This is a place worth saving, and there is still time. 

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