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Rangers Rout Illegal Charcoal Operations in Africa’s Gorilla Park

Hundreds of illegal charcoal kilns have been destroyed in dawn raids by armed rangers deep in the forests of Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo in recent days, according to a news statement released by park authorities today.

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Ranger on guard in front of a charcoal kiln.

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Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to 200 of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas and a small population of eastern lowland gorillas.

The park has been caught up in the region’s swirling conflict for many years. There have been periods when rangers were forced to flee the park, including the gorilla areas. Many rangers have been killed in conflict.

“The Congolese National Park Authorities have sent the biggest ever deployment of armed rangers to strike at charcoal-making operations run by armed groups,” the park said in today’s statement.

“The move, undertaken in collaboration with the UN peace-keeping forces MONUC, follows a report by the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo identifying charcoal from Virunga National Park as a major source of revenue for illegal armed groups. These include the FDLR, the Rwandan militia whose members are held responsible for the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.”

Five specially-trained platoons of 30 Rangers have been conducting dawn raids in the forests on the flanks of the Virunga volcanoes, the park said.

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“In the past week 252 charcoal kilns have been destroyed, at an estimated commercial value of U.S. $378,000, and 57 arrests made, including a militia officer.

“The rangers have engaged in three armed contacts with the FDLR and three rangers have so far been evacuated with gunshot injuries.

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“On the evening of the 28th July a patrol post was partially burned down during a retaliatory attack by the FDLR.”

The goal of this offensive is to inflict maximum possible damage to the trafficking of illegal charcoal, estimated at over U.S. $30 million a year, much of which is benefiting the militias,” says Virunga Park Director Emmanuel de Merode.

“The trafficking of natural resources such as charcoal is an underlying cause of instability in Eastern Congo. This operation is a first step towards re-establishing the rule of law, a condition for bringing peace to the region.”

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The park authorities with support from the European Union and other donors have also launched a major initiative to provide energy alternatives to charcoal for the local population.

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“These include the local production of combustible briquettes produced from grass, leaves and agricultural waste, as well as establishing plantation forest. The program is on track to create 34,000 employments in briquette production and provide a viable substitute to charcoal by 2011,” according to the news statement.

Formerly known as Albert National Park, Virunga lies in eastern DR Congo and covers 3,000 square miles (7,800 square kilometers). The park is managed by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). See the park’s Web site for more information.