Like many children, Pierre Kakuru grew up dreaming of being a veterinarian. Animals, he says, always played a central part to his life, from the domesticated dog that helped his father herding cattle, to the fabled gorillas living in the equatorial forest near his village in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. At university, Pierre feverishly studied biology, hoping one day to become a great scientist emulating the legendary Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. “My goal was to work for one of our national parks,” he recalls.
But dreams rarely come true in the DRC, and although Pierre did find a job as a civil servant tending to state-owned draft animals, sometime in 2010 the government stopped paying him his monthly $100 salary, no reason given. With four children to care for, the vet moved to Goma, the provincial capital, a boom town of 800,000 inhabitants, at once ravaged and made by eastern Congo’s protracted conflict.
This is where I met Pierre Kakuru in 2015, while investigating one of eastern Congo’s most important illegal trade. At the Alanine market in Goma, a small street lined with stalls made of sheet metal and wood planks, Pierre was now the boss of a charcoal enterprise, complete with a storefront, a hangar, and nearly fifteen employees. The revenue was enough to maintain his family’s modest lifestyle — including sending his children to school — but on wistful days, it wasn’t enough to make him feel good about himself.
“You think I don’t know why you’re here?,” he asked me, a little defiant, as I started asking him questions about his business. “You’re here because the charcoal trade is destroying the forest.”
Pierre’s candid statement was unusual for a charcoal trader and startled me, but of course he was spot on. In the last 20 years, Goma and its surroundings have seen a major influx of refugees, first as a result of Rwandans fleeing the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, then scores of Congolese displaced by the several wars that followed. Over the years, the camps have merged with the city outskirts into one sprawling mass of shanty towns. This unprecedented population growth has put an enormous strain on land access for farming, cattle herding, and in the absence of an alternative source of energy, the demand for charcoal has grown uncontrollably.
Around Goma, vast areas have been deforested, and the Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse, has been the target of an onslaught by networks of armed groups, traders and regular folks trying to turn its trees into brittle fossil fuel. As the park rangers have been struggling to enforce the law, tensions with the population have grown, and the money involved has fostered violence. In 2007, in order to scare rangers away from protecting Virunga, a mafia network involving corrupt officials massacred seven of the mountain gorillas Pierre Kakuru hoped to care for as a child.
The former vet knew this full well. “My charcoal does not come from the park,” he assured me. “I go in the field three times a week just to control the origin. I know this trade is still dirty for the environment, but this is just what happened to me. The state is to blame. Why did they stopped paying me? Our country is crumbling away, we just get by.”
On the rugged street floor, female vendors had laid out tarpaulin mats on which they displayed piles of pitch black chunks. The charcoal still showed the veins and shapes of the tree parts they used to be. The whole neighborhood comes here to stock up. “We don’t have electricity in our homes,” explained Mwamini, a young woman before heading back to cook her family’s dinner on a stove. “We don’t have a choice, that’s the only thing available to us.”
I have seen this countless times now, but too often, we forget that illegal activities, environmental destruction and poverty go hand in hand, and yet there are obvious solutions. In Virunga, the park authorities have began building a number of hydropower plants around the protected area, using the power of rivers flowing down steep mountains to remedy the issue of electricity for the population. The initiative, mostly funded by foreign donors, aims at alleviating pressure on the park by removing the need for people to use charcoal. But it is just a starter and more needs to be done by the government to address deep inequalities.
At twilight, Pierre began to pack away his bags into the storage room, and sadness crept on his face. There was little to say to him to make up for his crushed sense of purpose, except perhaps, that it wasn’t his fault.
Mélanie Gouby is a freelance journalist covering East and Central Africa. She is currently working on a book on poverty, corruption and conflict in eastern Congo.