Background

Last July we published this frontlines piece about an important campaign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), fought by a group of passionate and dedicated students from Extinction Rebellion (XR) Université de Goma who are working tirelessly in a high risk area to keep oil exploration out of Virunga National Park and fight for a better life for local communities. 

We interviewed Pascal Mirindi from the group to learn more about the campaign and actions of the group. Six months later, we have caught up again with Pascal to find out about the progress that the group have made and their next plans!

Virunga National Park – located in eastern DRC – is a UNESCO World Heritage, a Ramsar Site and the oldest national park in Africa. The park has incredible universal value for biodiversity and natural beauty, and is home to one of the planet’s last surviving populations of mountain gorillas.

Virunga also sits on vast quantities of natural resources including untapped oil, which could bring the DRC up to being the second highest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa. The area has also been subject to a painful history, largely inflicted by European colonisation and ongoing conflicts and civil wars – making protection of the park both challenging and dangerous, with the DRC suffering the highest number of environmental activist killings in Africa in 2020. 

After we last spoke to Pascal, XR Universite de Goma formed a partnership with XR Sheffield, a climate activist group from the UK. They crowdfunded nearly £5000, which was used for the group to travel around the National Park speaking to local communities about the the issues they faced due to the management of the park. After producing a full report of the findings, Pascal traveled to the capital Kinshasa to speak with officials.

The group still has a lot of work on their hands and now plan to work towards tripartite management of the park, which would benefit locals as well as the astounding ecology in the area. Not only this but they wish to create a whole new generation of environmentalists by working with the youth of the city of Goma. Here is the interview with Pascal:

Since the last article, we understand that you travelled around Virunga National Park to speak to local communities about the problems they are facing. How were you received by these communities and what issues did you find they were experiencing?

We were able to make our second tour of the riparian areas of the Virunga National Park where we met the population last year. The population welcomed us very well and were ready to listen to and exchange with us. 

Many problems around the park were revealed to us once again, an example being the bad management of the Matebe hydroelectric power station which was financed by the European Union at an amount of 14.5 million Euros, with a significant amount coming from the foundation of the American billionaire Howard Buffett. The power station was intended to provide electricity to the communities of Bwisha, which would finally mean the community didn’t rely on deforestation in Virunga national park for firewood. However, today the power station is operational but only a part of the community has access to electricity. Instead, the electricity is sold in Goma (the capital of the province of North Kivu), which is not a riparian area to the same degree as the other communities who do not have electricity. This means that the population here still need to cut down trees in Virunga to have braised wood, either to use in their households or to sell in Goma.

What do you think needs to change regarding the management of the park to benefit both the local people and the environment? 

There is a lack of participatory management within Virunga National Park. All decisions are taken without the participation of the local communities. There are land conflicts between the population and the park managers which are badly managed and lack of reparations when animals attack the farmers. All this causes multiple uprisings of the population.

We need to put in place participatory management which involves dialogues with the communities, where we will give space to all the people of Virunga National Park to have a voice so that we can manage this issue.

We are advocating for the creation of a tripartite dialogue between the community representatives, the Virunga Foundation who represent the Congolese Institute of Conservation of the National Park (ICCN) and the Congolese government, in order to find a compromise for the problems between the population and the park.

What are the next plans for XR Université de Goma?

We intend to organise a tripartite dialogue between the local communities, the park manager (i.e. Virunga Foundation) and the Congolese leaders, to offer the population the space to give all their demands to the park manager. This will involve a wider tour of the park to further engage with local communities. 

Alongside that, we would like to create environmental clubs in schools in the city of Goma and along the Virunga park’s riparian zones. We will create spaces for exchange and training where we will discuss environmental problems and how this generation will be able to fight this, our target will be young people from 12 to 18 years.

We will provide each school with a mini tree nursery so that every week each child plants a tree by the roadside. The activity of planting trees will help us not only in the animation of our school groups but also to respond to the urgency of afforestation. We have also chosen children to reassure us that we are creating a new generation that will care about environmental issues.

We have already contacted 18 schools in the city of Goma – one school per district. Each school will train 45 young people, which means that each school will plant 45 trees per week, for an average of 810 trees per week, an average of 3240 trees per month and 38,880 trees per year!

If we can have the resources and finance to start this project, we plan to launch the same project in the communities around Virunga National Park.

Do you believe that there is still a threat of oil exploitation within the park?

Yes, there is still an oil threat, especially as the other side of Lake Albert in Virunga National Park is in Uganda. Oil exploration licences in Uganda cover part of Lake Albert and Queen Elizabeth Park, just over the border from Virunga. Also, the fact that the DRC has signed up to the East Africa Community means that Virunga National Park is in danger.

What can activists and environmentalists in Global North countries do to assist your campaign? 

Firstly, we would like to thank all the activists in the Global North for their valuable contributions to the campaign. We expect them to help us raise our voices once again so that we can put pressure on the system that keeps our world unchanged by imposing a harmful capitalist system upon us.

We also ask you to help us share our fundraiser so that we can carry out our future tours in order to organise our tripartite dialogue and help these communities to become empowered and have a real voice.

Be curious!

What can I do to help?

About Pascal:

Pascal Mirindi is a 22 year old Law student from the University of Goma, and one of the founders of XR Université de Goma. This is his story about becoming an environmental campaigner:

In 2016 when I was 17 years old, the DRC was going through a crisis. President Kabila had just come to power once again because he did not want to organise elections. Multiple popular uprisings were organised and at that time there was terror in Beni in the province of North Kivu. Massacres saw the light of day and a group of so-called ADF-NALU (Allied democratic forces) extremists were killing the population with machetes. Unable to remain silent in the face of such injustice and endless suffering I joined the LUCHA (struggle for change), a non-violent, non-partisan movement of Congolese citizens who believe that in order to change the Congo, the population must be demanding of its leaders – because each population deserves a good leader.

The LUCHA movement chose non-violence after having understood that violence is only an endless circle, violence only gives violence especially in a country where everything is managed by violence.

This movement was my very first school in citizenship and thanks to it I discovered the reason for my coming on earth which is the protection of the ecosystem. This ecosystem needs us to make it the best of us, to protect it, to conserve it, to love it, to cherish it because it is the sine qua non of our life.

This struggle over the environment is multi-dimensional because even the existence of our children is tied to this struggle, and there are times when I think that if one day we have to leave something of paramount importance to our children, the first would be this healthy ecosystem.”