Article Review: LWEN about ICCN


by Barry King

The acronyms mean: Liberal White European Nonsense about the Institute Congolais pour le Conservation de la Nature.

Here I sit in Uganda, just back from a visit to the Virunga National Park in Congo. After reading this article in Foreign Affairs  I have figurative steam rising from my ears, like the volcanic smoke from Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. I'd like to offer my observations about it. Disclosure: I advise and assist ICCN with the operation and maintenance of their airplanes, so I may have a bias in favor of the work they are doing with those planes. I'll insert my own comments between quotes from the article, which is a critique of the recent Oscar-nominated film "Virunga", and implicitly, of ICCN.

".. 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."

It's hard to take seriously a paragraph that condemns moral righteousness while exuding moral righteousness, but I'll try: Seriously: what do the violent colonial origins of the Virunga Park (or for that matter, of North America's Yellowstone Park) have to do with park policy in 2015? Also: the voices of the people who live in and around Virunga Park do not speak with unanimity. Some of them want to kill and eat the wild animals, cut down the trees to make charcoal, and allow SOCO to drill for oil in the hope of creating some local oil-company jobs. Others are opposed to some or all of those proposals. This story is no different at Virunga than at any other national park anywhere in world; nevertheless if a park's host country, and the world as a whole, collectively agrees on protection, then the protection should be enforced, local opposition notwithstanding.  Although racism may have had a role in the founding of Yellowstone and of Virunga (a dubious claim, in both cases), this is not now a racist policy, although it may serve poachers for them to claim that it is. It's just a political conflict about resource management. Telling a story about an important part of a complex situation is not an "oversimplification", it's just a part of the story. When the situation is so complex, the allegation of failure to address every possible nuance in a time-limited film is spurious. A more valid criticism would be if the article authors could show that the film contains factual errors, but I note that they have not attempted to do that.

"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."

The same might be said of any National Park or World Heritage Site anywhere in the world. Those who want to develop and use the land for their own benefit are overruled by the majority who prefer conservation of wilderness area ecosystems for the wildlife and their habitat, so that a priceless heritage for the world as a whole might be preserved for future generations. So what? Conflicts like that are also a feature of other resource management policies, such as Canadian Fisheries severely limiting the cod harvest on the Grand Banks far too late, after the cod were almost entirely depleted. Canadian families of all races who had been fishing for generations went bankrupt. That was tragic, but it was not a policy mistake. If anything, the real mistake was, doing too little and doing it too late – even from the point of view of the fishermen's own long-term interests. Are these authors saying that it's OK to regulate the land and resource use of white people in the interests of conservation, but somehow not OK to do so for black Africans? If so, that itself is a racist proposal, and there are others like it elsewhere in the world. In Alaska, Native Americans, selected by race, are allowed to kill walruses and whales, while others are denied that "privilege". With apologies to my Inuit friends: I really don't think that's a wise and sustainable policy, either from the whales' point of view or among humans. Sooner or later it will have to be abandoned in favor of color-blind, non-racist policies, arguments about "traditional use" notwithstanding. The fact that Elizabeth Warren (for example) is allegedly 1/32 "Native American" should have no 21st-century relevance whatsoever. Sorry, but that's how I see it. We should all have to follow the same rules, regardless of race. Also: in the early years, under Belgian rule in Virunga, the applications for permits to kill or capture gorillas, which Belgian Authorities refused, all came from other Europeans, not from Africans.

"(The Virunga movie) 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."

Not true: the creation of the Virunga Park was not an example of the awful Belgian plundering of Congo. Instead, it was a happy exception to that dreadful pattern. It amount to the Belgians saying, OK we're going to plunder all the rest of Congo, but we will preserve and protect this one small corner. And they did. For that, at least, they should be applauded, while we vehemently condemn them for all the rest.  Anyway, while the borders of National Parks, and of whole African countries, were indeed set by Europeans, for more than 50 years now the question of whether to leave those borders as they were, or change them, has been in the hands of independent African governments. That fact makes it kind of pointless to complain now about the current positions of those boundaries as though Belgians are to blame for it now. It also makes it silly for the authors of this article to criticize the makers of this film for "failing to note" something that seems important to them.

"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."

Again, the people of Congo who live in or around the Virunga Park are not of one mind about this. Some of them are cheering for the poachers and the oil company. Others are cheering for Emmanuel and his Rangers. Anyway: who appointed the European authors of this silly article as the authentic representatives of "the voices of the local people", with standing to criticize the Virunga filmmakers for allegedly not having such an appointment? Personally I doubt that the European writers of this article can even speak decent Swahili. The article was written in Europe by Europeans for a European audience, and appeared there before having a couple of token African authors' names added, in order to give the thing a patina of  Authentic Black African Wisdom (ABAW) to mask what it really is, which is Liberal White European Nonsense (LWEN) which unfortunately happens to have a small audience in Africa. While condemning moral righteousness, they exude moral righteousness, and while condemning European arrogance, they exude European arrogance. A clue about the premises and intended audience of the authors can be seen in their use of the phrase "like a missionary" as an insult. It is in fact an insult in English or French, in Europe, but it is not an insult in Swahili, in Congo, Barbara Kingsolver's opinions notwithstanding. Emmanuel does not see himself as a "white savior" of Africa, but the tone of this article makes it look like the authors of the article may see themselves as such. In Virunga, some of the Congolese do indeed hate Emmanuel and his rangers, and are doing their best to kill them. On the other hand, a significant number of them do see Emmanuel as a heroic ally. If that segment in fact sees him as a good leader, teacher, "father figure", and I might add, "peacekeeper", why is that a problem? And what does Emmanuel's race have to do with it? His predecessors as caretakers of Virunga may have been more authentically African, but they were spectacularly unsuccessful. Indeed, they were probably corrupt collaborators in the poaching of elephants and gorillas, including the killing of the 600-pound silverback Senkwekwe in 2008, see the photo. That's why the government of Congo looked to Emmanuel for help. They think he has integrity and immunity from the corruption that is such a plague in Congo, and they are probably right about that. That was not a racist decision on the government's part. Emmanuel is the only white person who is an administrator in the entire government of Congo. Other countries in the region have only a few white people on their payrolls, but they all have more than one, which suggests that if Congo is practicing racism in their hiring policies, that racism is anti-white, not anti-black. If anyone wants to hear the authentic voices of the people of Virunga concerning Virunga: let's go there and listen to them ourselves, and I suggest we do our listening in Swahili rather than in French or English.

"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."

OK, being done with cheap shots at Emmanuel, let's take a few at Melanie. SOCO is a powerful western oil company. The fight against them, even if it has authentic Congolese grass roots, needs recognizable western allies if it is to have any hope of success. Congolese conservationists are glad for Melanie's help. When a movie is made for western audiences, it makes sense for it to focus on the role of western participants. During both World Wars, Americans were hungry for news about American soldiers, more than for news about their allies. And it was probably true in both of those wars that the European allies could not have saved themselves. So what? The work Melanie has done in Congo, and apparently in the Virunga movie, does not come anywhere near obscuring the work done by her Congolese allies, or to perpetuating a racist "stereotype that Africans cannot save themselves." Maybe what's going on here is that the authors of the article themselves believe something like that but are in denial about it, and are projecting it onto Melanie.

"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."

One person's terrorist might be another person's freedom fighter or heroic protector. Leaving the past behind, the important question is, what are those guys doing now? My answer: they are doing their best to protect the Virunga Park, its ecosystem, and its wildlife. When elephants are being killed with Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGS, just last week), there is no possible approach to conservation besides an "armed" approach. The Virunga Rangers will indeed kill, and they will indeed die. They are combatants in a war. They will indeed be hated by their enemies, who are the enemies of the Park. So, your point about that is..?

"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."

OK, being done with cheap shots at Emmanuel and at Melanie, let's take a few at poor Andre. His facebook page:  The article authors quote Rousseau without attribution. Rousseau did in fact believe in the "noble savage". He indeed thought him, perhaps honestly and naively, to be honest and naive, but he never suggested that he was "dependent on the white man for salvation". Quite the opposite, in fact. There are all kinds of interdependencies going on at Virunga: the gorilla orphans depend on Andre for their care and he depends on them for his job. (they also love each other, but I don't think the article writers are interested in that). Emmanuel depends on Andre for taking care of those gorillas, and Andre depends on Emmanuel to see that his salary is paid. All of them depend on ICCN and the Congo government for their right and authority to be there and to do what they're doing, and the government and the whole world depend on them to protect the priceless treasure that is Virunga. Film producer Leonardo DiCaprio got a chance to make a successful movie, and Andre got a trip to the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood out of it. Where in any of that do the writers of the article find their grounds for making snide and snarky remarks about Andre or any of his friends?

My own prayer: may Emmanuel, Melanie, Andre, the Gorillas, and the rest of the ICCN team at Rumangabo of all races and species, live long and prosper, and may the purveyors of LWEN see an early and well-deserved extinction of their views and attitudes.

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