Rodrigue Katembo, a former child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) now head of the country’s Upemba National Park, has been announced one of the winners of the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize.
The award is in recognition of his work in fending off the activities of mining firms who tried to start oil exploitation in the DRC’s Virunga National Park – the oldest national park on the continent and a World Heritage Site.
The 41-year-old who was forced into being a child soldier at the age of 14, until his mother helped him to escape. He returned to continue his education and eventually joined the Virunga National Park in 2003 as a ranger.
Katembo conducted these undercover investigations at a huge risk, knowing that corruption wasn’t limited to SOCO and its contractors. It likely extended into the ranks of Congolese military as well.
He is reputed with repelling overtures by multinational companies that sought to set up an oil exploration base by a river in the park.
He agreed to secretly record illegal deals with a British firm SOCO, the contents of his footage were later used in a documentary film.
“Katembo conducted these undercover investigations at a huge risk, knowing that corruption wasn’t limited to SOCO and its contractors. It likely extended into the ranks of Congolese military as well as executives at the national agency overseeing Congo’s protected areas.
‘‘Katembo and the footage he gathered during his undercover investigations were heavily featured in the documentary film Virunga. The film premiered in April 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival and gained a massive international audience through Netflix,’‘ the award website wrote about him.
Following the release of the film and the subsequent outrage over the activities of SOCO, the Church of England in July 2015 announced it would divest its $1.8 million holding in the company. Four months later, SOCO announced it was giving up its oil license in Block V.
Since their departure from Virunga, conservationists have reported that wildlife in the park is showing signs of recovery. Populations of hippos and elephants, which had been poached heavily as part of SOCO’s attempts to devalue the park, have also stabilized.
Virunga – a dangerous terrain for rangers
Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa and the crown jewel of Congo’s ecotourism. It is an area of extraordinary biodiversity and an important habitat for about a quarter of the world’s population of mountain gorillas.
The park’s protection also ensures surrounding communities’ access to water and food, as well as important economic opportunities for the 3,500 people employed by the park, ecotourism operators, and a small hydroelectric plant.
Despite its importance, Virunga—on Congo’s eastern border shared with Uganda and Rwanda—has been ground zero for the country’s military conflicts, making patrolling Virunga one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. More than 160 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 15 years, often at the hands of armed rebels and poachers.
The five other recipients of the award are:
Mark Lopez of the United States
Lopez persuaded the state of California to provide comprehensive lead testing and cleanup of East Los Angeles homes contaminated by a battery smelter that had polluted the community for over three decades.
Uros Marcel of Slovenia
The organic farmer from Slovenia successfully stopped a cement kiln from co-incinerating petcock with hazardous industrial waste by rallying legal support from fellow Eko Krog activists and leveraging his status as the only citizen allowed to challenge the plant’s permits.
Prafulla Samantara of India
An iconic leader of social justice movements in India, Prafulla Samantara led a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminum ore mine.
Wendy Bowman of Australia
Wendy Bowman stopped a powerful multinational mining company from taking her family farm and protected her community in Hunter Valley from further pollution and environmental destruction.
Rodrigo Tot of Guatemala
An indigenous leader in Guatemala’s Agua Caliente, Rodrigo Tot led his community to a landmark court decision that ordered the government to issue land titles to the Q’eqchi people and kept environmentally destructive nickel mining from expanding into his community.