An illegal charcoal cartel is helping to finance one of the most prominent militias in central Africa and destroying parts of Africa’s oldest national park. Nursing alliances with Congolese army and police units and operating remote trafficking rings in the sanctuaries of Congo’s protected forests, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) is a kingpin in Africa’s Great Lakes region’s organized crime networks and a continuing threat to human security. For years, the group has helped sustain its activities by exploiting valuable natural resources, including minerals, ivory, fish, and marijuana. But one of the FDLR’s most successful revenue-generating businesses is the illicit charcoal trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cherished Virunga National Park.
Headquartered deep in the remote southwestern sector of Virunga, the illegal charcoal trade is lucrative. Some have estimated it has an annual value of up to $35 million. The FDLR and its collaborators have developed tremendous business acumen, increasingly motivated by profit incentives and enabled by high-level state cover. As one park ranger told Enough, “Armed groups have turned Virunga into their sanctuary.” The FDLR is under sanctions by both the United States and United Nations, and its charcoal-trafficking activities constitute ongoing violations of both sanctions regimes. In the regular course of business, the FDLR also commits a range of domestic and international crimes, including forced labor and illegal taxation. Yet, impunity for charcoal trafficking crimes remains absolute for high-level perpetrators. The FDLR’s business elements are distinct from its traditional combat structure and “have become the main modus operandi for FDLR survival,” according to a 2014 U.N. study. Even the most effective efforts to address the FDLR’s military and political interests will fail if its profit incentives are left untended.
Virunga faces a number of threats, including poaching and oil exploration, but the illegal charcoal trade is uniquely damaging. As far back as 2008, a U.S. Department of State cable described it as “the most important single threat to the park’s long-term sustainability.” Since then, demand for charcoal has only grown. The illegal charcoal trade is also a serious threat to regional human security. By providing funding to the FDLR and other armed groups, including Congolese state actors, it helps sustain patterns of corruption and violence. “It’s not just FDLR,” a source who requested to remain anonymous told Enough. “It’s police, politicians, and businessmen. It’s a big mafia.”
The success of the illegal charcoal trade relies on the widespread deforestation of parts of Virunga and the perpetration of human rights abuses, including reprisal murders and sexual slavery. These acts stoke one another and accelerate cycles of insecurity, poverty, fear, and environmental destruction. As activist Jeredy Kambale Malonga told Enough of the FDLR, “They use violence directly to make the [charcoal] business work.”