Save the gorillas and save the Democratic Republic of Congo, urges “Virunga,” a new documentary from Netflix and enviro-mensches Leonardo DiCaprio and Howard Buffett. The film chronicles the machinations of British oil firm Soco International’s exploratory venture in Congo’s Virunga National Park, while park rangers struggle to thwart them.
The film is pitched as an exposé of Soco collusion with rebel group M23 to seize control of the park, which is one of two remaining sanctuaries for the 800 mountain gorillas left on the planet. The investigation drives the film’s narrative, whose most controversial footage claims to show Soco affiliates conspiring with a militia accused of war crimes by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.
Tension peaks as the camera on park ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo’s shirt is momentarily obscured by a stack of cash proffered by an M23 conduit who believes he’s just bought Soco a double agent.
Soco, whose operations manager for east Congo has since been fired, denies any involvement with M23. But the film’s portrayal of the measures taken by Soco to defend its Congo project underlines the extent to which the world’s private energy firms are willing to go to find new reserves.
Virunga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protected from drilling under international law. It has been the site of international and civil conflict for 20 years. The film posits that greed explains Soco’s willingness to confront such risks. Footage of an alleged Soco subcontractor saying Congo’s only hope is recolonization suggests as much. But the lengths to which global companies now go to replenish oil supplies imply its animus is desperation.
It’s an old chestnut, rehashed in this film, to note that one of the poorest countries in the world is also one of the most resource-rich. Wild political instability and foreign meddling have inhibited the development of robust state institutions following independence from Belgium in 1960 (an historical montage reminds the audience of the CIA’s role in the execution of Congo’s first democratically elected president.)
As such, the only real beneficiaries of Congo’s immense natural wealth have been foreigners, and militias. As “Virunga” tries to show, the former may need to depend on the latter to access that wealth.
“Virunga” is an unalloyed advocacy documentary. The pitch: Virunga National Park can promise sustainable development for east Congo if the rangers can keep Soco out. An alternative conservation project could yield tourism revenue and thousands of jobs, as Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has done. This case is convincing, as Virunga supports one of the most diverse biospheres on earth. Further, the lake Soco wants to explore is the primary water source for surrounding communities.
The film has been launched alongside a reinvigoration of a campaign to pressure Soco shareholders to divest, started by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in 2013. However, the filmmakers acknowledge that many companies on the target list are passive investors like pension funds and global banks which cannot threaten divestment, even if they take sustainability issues seriously. The film’s bigger aim, it seems, is to draw attention to the relationship between resource extraction in Congo and human rights abuses.
A campaign by non-profits like Enough Project fomented sufficient concern that American businesses were financing warlords to warrant a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act requiring public companies to disclose their use of minerals from Congo and other African nations.
The de facto boycott produced by the provision has meant financial devastation for workers for whom there are no other jobs. It has also failed to stem the flow of capital to militias. While data from Enough Project documenting their impact show that mining profits overall have decreased, there has been an increase in the percentage of those profits going to illegal miners.
Along with other divestment projects, “Virguna” could serve to expand the U.S. boycott overseas and further Congo’s economic isolation. Boycotting conflict minerals and safeguarding a national park won’t dismantle the structural barriers to peace and stability. Unethical exploitation is symptomatic of a nation whose institutions are too weak to assure the stability needed to nurture economic progress. By overstating the responsibility of Soco for these problems, “Virunga” lays power for change in the hands of foreign companies, rather than of the Congolese people.