KIBATI, DR Congo // A lorry brimming with sacks of produce, chickens and people stopped at a roadblock in this tiny village. Three wildlife rangers in green fatigues climbed into the back and began inspecting. Within minutes they found what they were looking for: large plastic sacks the size of oil drums, packed full of charcoal. As the rangers hauled the sacks off the lorry, the owner of the charcoal argued. The charcoal is from the village, he said, not from the surrounding national park.
The rangers tore into one of the sacks and inspected the dark, sooty lumps. They could tell from the bark that the batch was made from old-growth rainforest trees found only in the protected park. Despite protests from the owner, the rangers added the contraband to a pile of about 100 confiscated charcoal sacks and waved the lorry on its way. Nobody likes the rangers from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). Their job is to break up the multimillion-dollar illegal charcoal racket, which is run by the Congolese army and rebel militias and feeds local villagers.
"Everyone is our enemy because we are forbidding them to make charcoal," said Kayenga Kalemo, the head of the ranger unit that mans this checkpoint. "It's not an easy task. Every day we take people's charcoal and we are insulted. People shout at us." Every sack of charcoal from the park that slips past the guards takes with it another piece of the Virunga forest, home to hundreds of species of animals and one of only two habitats for the rare mountain gorillas.
The Virunga National Park, founded in 1925, is Africa's oldest wildlife preserve. The 810,000 hectares of lush rainforest on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is home to nearly half of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas. The other half live in Uganda. But deforestation for charcoal and the presence of rebel groups living in the park have made the Unesco World Heritage site an endangered and dangerous place.
"Charcoal making is a big industry," said Norbert Mushenzi, director of the conservation institute. "It's an activity that makes the rebel groups a lot of money." Eastern Congo has been embroiled in a 10-year civil war. Despite numerous peace deals, armed groups remain. The two largest groups control large swathes of the southern end of the park. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia made up of perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, control the west, where much of the charcoal making takes place. Forces loyal to Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi rebel and former Congolese general who is fighting the FDLR, control the gorilla habitat to the east, making it impossible for conservationists to monitor the gorillas.
Conservation efforts are risky in this war zone. Last month, rebels attacked a World Wildlife Fund vehicle in the park. Two people were killed. Officials attributed the attack to a local militia called the Mai Mai. Last year, seven gorillas were killed execution-style inside the park. Poachers would have taken the gorillas' hands or heads to sell, but these gorillas were found in one piece. Officials suspected that it was the work of charcoal makers trying to send a message to the rangers that they own the forest.
A few dozen kilometres down the road from the ranger checkpoint, villagers make charcoal in a large earthen kiln. They put the hard, wet wood inside the kiln on top of burning soft wood. As the soft wood burns, it dries the hard wood, turning it into charcoal. Charcoal making is legal if the villagers use trees from outside the park. But rebels living in the forest make charcoal from park trees and bring it into the village where it is mixed with other charcoal to fool the rangers.
The charcoal is taken to Goma, the provincial capital, and exported to Rwanda, which has outlawed all charcoal making. A bag of charcoal worth US$30 (Dh113) can last a family about a month. With about 100,000 families living in the densely populated area, the charcoal trade amounts to more than $30 million a year. The villagers said making charcoal is their only way of earning a living. They cannot go to the fields and farm because rebels occupy their land.
"The only way we can get something to eat is by making charcoal," Jean Sergendo said. "The authorities are considering the wildlife more than they are considering the people in the villages. It's like they condemn us to death." To stem the flow of illegal charcoal, the conservation community in eastern DR Congo is working on projects such as promoting agriculture and giving micro-loans to villagers to improve their livelihoods so they will not need to make charcoal. But there is still a high demand for the cheap fuel source. Most eastern Congolese have no electricity or gas, and charcoal is their only way to cook and heat their homes.
"We do what we can to reduce charcoal making, and we hope the government will push gas and electricity to reduce the demand," said Urbain Ngobobo of the Frankfurt Zoological Society's office in Goma. The World Wildlife Fund has planted more than 10 million trees in the region outside the park to provide villagers with wood for charcoal. Mr Kalemo and his rangers are doing their small part to remove the illegal charcoal from the supply chain. Each day, rangers seize five to 10 bags at the checkpoint; a drop in the bucket but a step in the right direction.
"It is a serious problem," Mr Kalemo said. "There is a conflict between us and the charcoal makers. People are taking part of the park." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org