Guns, Gorillas and Netflix: A Belgian Prince in Congo
RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of Congo — “Emmanuel was over at my house for dinner the other night,” Ben Affleck said in an interview, “and despite the fact that he’s spent most of his life in Virunga, he’s been shot, he’s seen people he’s loved killed, my 16-year-old daughter said: ‘Why is it appropriate you do this? You’re not Congolese.’”
“There were people there and I was trying to raise money, ‘Violet, what are you doing?’” Mr. Affleck continued, during the interview in Los Angeles. “But he answered calmly: ‘I’m here in all humility, trying to do my part.’”
“Emmanuel” is Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest protected area and in many ways the front line of human-wildlife conflict. And the source of Violet Affleck’s consternation isn’t so much Mr. de Merode’s mission to save Virunga’s mountain gorillas and use the park to help bring economic stability to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country plagued by violence and a persistent stripping of its rich natural resources. Instead, Violet was zeroing in on the fact that he’s a Belgian prince in a country with a violent colonial past.
If Violet’s teenage-abetted forthrightness surprised her father, he may want to get used to it. Mr. de Merode, who rose to fame in a 2014 Netflix documentary about the park, is increasingly the apple of a certain kind of celebrity’s eye — those who are committed to saving the planet, with a nose for a cinematic story along the way.
Many stars attach their names to causes and move on — remember Kony 2012? — but Mr. Affleck said the most important thing he’s done, “what I want to be remembered for,” is the Eastern Congo Initiative, which he started in 2010 and has linked thousands of Congolese cocoa and coffee farmers with big brands likeTheo Chocolate and Starbucks. Now he is teaming with Mr. de Merode, whose impact he calls “a real inspiration,” helping bring park-made chocolate to American supermarkets.
A Barry Jenkins-directed biopic is in the works and Mr. de Merode recently met with Leonardo DiCaprio’s team, who are producing the project. Mr. de Merode discussed the script, went to In-N-Out Burgerand updated Mr. DiCaprio on the situation back home.
Congo’s government recently approved auctioning oil leases in and around Virunga, which threatens to worsen climate problems globally and security locally. What’s more, a rebel group called the M23 is embedded in the park, fighting Congo’s army and threatening park staff, communities and the future of Virunga’s infrastructure projects. These are the very problems the park battled in the 2014 film.
“Today’s situation is almost an exact mirror of where we were back then,” Mr. de Merode said. “I can’t believe it really.”
A few weeks before the Affleck dinner, I had been with Mr. de Merode in Congo. “If anyone tells you to stop, keep going,” he had said as he passed a squad of Congolese troops at the entrance of Goma International Airport.
Congolese soldiers, in dark green uniforms and sunglasses and cradling Kalashnikov rifles, stared as Mr. de Merode strode by. Others chanted his name. He wore a satchel bag like a professor en route to class, along with leather boots, fatigues and a beret folded beneath a shirt epaulet — his uniform as director of the park.
As he checked the wings, tires and coolant of his Cessna 206, he also looked at the sky, where dark clouds were moving in fast.
I asked if it was safe to fly. “Not if we wait much longer,” he said. Soon after he started the plane, the control tower radioed that his paperwork, including the flight plan he was required to file, had been lost.
Minutes later, though, with rain pouring, the tower cleared us for takeoff and the Cessna taxied past United Nations jets and Congolese army helicopters before lifting into the air toward Virunga.
Congo is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world, crucial to our warming planet. It’s been ravaged by decades of civil and proxy wars among a bewildering number of militias and armies.
Violence and disaster displaced almost as many Congolese as Ukrainians in the last year, yet most outsiders remain unaware in part because this place is so difficult to sum up.
The narrative most people know belongs to the 1,000 mountain gorillas in this region, the only habitat for an endangered species that shares 98 percent of our DNA. More than one-third of these great apes live in Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Bordering Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga’s tropical highlands are a vital corridor for gorillas, along with dozens of rebel groups. Some are linked to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide or