Belgian Prince, dedicated Director of DRC’s Virunga National Park – epitomising hope in Africa

An interview between Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode and Alec Hogg at the World Economic Forum quintessentially sums up the spirit of Davos and exactly what the forum is trying to achieve. Prince Emmanuel’s tale pulls at the heart-strings for many reasons as it informs us about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the tireless fight of those who believe in the future of the Virunga National Park – which is often the centre of the war-zone. Director of the park, Prince Emmanuel has a fascinating story to tell, encouraging a future of peace and tourism for the DRC. – LF

ALEC HOGG:  I’ve been in a number of engagements with people, where it is the bubbling under area.  Over the years that I’ve been here, social media, which I knew nothing about when the WEF were already talking about it, has come to the fore.  Climate change as well has been something that was discovered for the conversation, if you like, here long before it became ubiquitous and now it’s all about inequality.  It’s all about income distribution, so it is a major issue but let’s talk to someone who’s a most unlikely person to be here, on CNBC Africa, being a business channel.  First of all, he’s a Prince from Belgium and secondly, he runs a national park in the most unlikely place in the world, in the DRC.

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Yes, that’s right.  I work for the National Park Service in Congo, in a national park called Virunga National Park, where I’ve been working as a Director for the past seven years.

ALEC HOGG:  Now we do know that Belgium has a historic relationship with the DRC but you wouldn’t expect someone like you to be a) living there and b) to be running a national park.  You must have a story.

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Well, my story has always been very much tied to the Continent.  I was born in North Africa.  I grew up in Kenya and then I spent most of my professional life in the Congo.  I arrived there in 1993, working with the National Park Service and I’ve been there ever since.

ALEC HOGG:  Why were you drawn to that in particular because there was an assassination attempt on your life, according to Wikipedia about a year ago?

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Well I was drawn to Virunga because I’ve been a conservationist for as far back as I can remember, and Virunga is the oldest national park on the African Continent.  It is also its richest, in terms of its biological value and it has more species of reptiles, mammals, and birds than any other park in the world, and of course, there are the mountain gorillas that are such an attraction.  What really kept me in Virunga for all those years is the incredible commitment of the Congolese and particularly the Congolese rangers, who’ve been struggling to keep this park alive.  They’ve been very successful in doing so, against incredible odds, with facing such threats to the park but also to their own security.

ALEC HOGG:  But your security, they’re there, they are part of the country.  You have options, clearly.  Why would people want to attack you in that way?

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Well, in 2008, I was appointed as their Commanding Officer, so I became part of the…  I became a public servant in the Congolese Administration, working for the Congolese Government, and so I have to share the risks that they take.  That’s the decision you make, when you join public service (when you become a service member as it were) and, of course, what happened to me has to be seen in context.  A 140 of our staff have been killed since the beginning of the war, in 1996.  Many, many more have been…I was injured, I survived.  The decision to stay is a decision you make when you sign up and, of course, when the people who are working with you make that commitment it is very motivating, and so you keep going.

ALEC HOGG:  Do you get support by the people that you’re meeting here, in Davos?  The story you are telling now is one that is not universally known, but amongst the elites that you would be bumping into here, do they hear your story and say ‘we’d like to help Virunga’?

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Yes, we live in the real world and Virunga has been drawn in to a much wider context.  It’s been pulled into this terrible war that’s been affecting Eastern Congo that has led to the death of over six million Congolese, and we’re right at the centre of that.  Every war, since 1996 has started either within the national park or immediately around it, and so we’re drawn into one of the biggest regional conflicts in Africa, one of the most tragic wars since the Second World War.  Also, we are affected with these economic realities.  One of the great confrontations that we’re facing at the moment is the issue of illegal oil in the national park, which is, in this case, a British oil company.  It is something that the law enforcement authorities that we are, as the National Park Service, have to confront, and it is extremely difficult and we can’t do it on our own.

We’re completely disempowered if we tackle it in isolation, so we have to come to these kinds of forums to draw the world’s attention on these issues and try and make progress.

ALEC HOGG:  Do they get it though, and I ask this in the context of the tragedy in Paris, a couple of weeks ago, Charlie Hebdo and the point you’ve just made now that 140 of your people, who are just trying to protect a game reserve.  Who have lost their lives in service and pretty much no one knows about it?

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Well, of course the world’s attention is always drawn to Western Capitals, when tragedies happen there and the horrors that are happening, and particularly in Africa are so often forgotten.  We have to remember that we live more and more in a world where everything is interlinked and we’re also living in a world, which is becoming increasingly violent.  It becomes very important now to try and really put the effort into understanding the root causes of that violence.  Often it is related to resource extraction.  There has been a lot of work to try and understand the horrors that have been happening in Eastern Congo.  We’re beginning to realise that these wars, this incredible level of violence is tied to the illegal extraction of natural resources in Eastern Congo, so it becomes very important to try and examine this and to share this in this kind of forum.

ALEC HOGG:  On a brighter note, how do I come and visit you?  How do tourists, from South Africa, in fact from the whole of Africa, come and visit Virunga?  Is it safe?

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Well, of course there is a brighter side to all of this, and we wouldn’t carry on if we didn’t have enormous hope that we can turn the situation around.  Of course, a big part of that is tourism.  Tourism is a transformational industry that can create an enormous amount of employment, around the national park and it’s by creating employment that you can move out of this chronic state of civil war.  It is possible to visit Virunga because the park staff (the rangers) have worked incredibly hard to stabilise certain parts of the park, like where the Mountain Gorillas are, and this incredible volcano, an active volcano that people come and visit.   Actually, more than 6.000 people have come to visit it, in the last few years, and they’ve all enjoyed the experience tremendously and have been able to go there safely, and enjoy the best that Congo has to offer.

ALEC HOGG:  The dividends of peace must be huge.  We were talking yesterday with a Turkish Prime Minister, who said they have 35.million tourists a year.  Virunga gets 6000, so I guess the upside…

PRINCE EMMANUEL DE MERODE:  Yes, but it is growing very fast, you know, when you start from zero your growth is impressive and so we do expect it to grow very fast, in the next few years and that’s where our hope lies.

ALEC HOGG:  Our thanks to Prince Emmanuel De Merode, who is the Head of the National Park of Virunga in the DRC.  Fascinating people that one meets in Davos, stories that should be better told and often this is the place that we get to tell them.  Lindsay, it’s been good chatting with you again, and I hope the weather is a lot more pleasant where you are; well it has to be, than where we a

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