Like the endangered wildlife he helps protect, Congolese environmentalist Bantu Lukambo is being hunted. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, conservation is dangerous work because it threatens the interests of powerful groups. Several of Congo’s national parks – including Africa’s oldest, Virunga – are under siege. Armed groups and poachers have used these remote areas as sanctuaries and business headquarters, trafficking in ivory, minerals, and charcoal made from old-growth forest. Government officials are also involved in these lucrative transnational crimes, including army officials and politicians. Lukambo conducts investigations, seeking to defend Virunga from its range of assailants. He has been exiled three times for it.

Lukambo and his colleagues are enemies of a corrupt, sophisticated state, and they deserve protection. As Congo’s president Joseph Kabila holds tight to power ahead of his potential third term, the government is sharpening its tools of repression, targeting anyone threatening its interests. The US Congress can help safeguard space for civic action and promote accountability by passing the Global Magnitsky Act. The Act would create a process for the US to sanction individuals targeting whistleblowers for exposing illegal state activity. This bi-partisan bill passed in the Senate last December and moved out of committee in the House this week. House leadership should quickly bring it to the floor for a vote.

ADVERTISEMENT
In its most recent report, the UN Group of Experts on Congo said army officers “remain involved in the exploitation and trade of natural resources” and in 2014, Global Witness reported that intelligence officers were involved in bribery related to oil drilling in Virunga. In arecent Enough Project investigation into a multi-million-dollar illegal charcoal cartel in Congo, witnesses testified to rampant illegal taxation by army officials and the military’s collusion with rebels to clear-cut Virunga’s forests for charcoal production. 

These state actors operate in a climate of impunity. When concerned citizens investigate their crimes, they are often silenced. “Anyone speaking out about protecting the environment is very threatened,” Lukambo told me in Goma. When he first established his conservation organization, there were so many threats, it had to operate underground. A prosecutor in eastern Congo said cases against charcoal traffickers often fail for lack of evidence because “people are afraid to speak out.” And there is evidence that attacks against environmental activists in Congo are state-sponsored

Lukambo cares deeply about nature’s inherent value. But conservation in repressive societies is as much about ending corruption and organized violence as it is about saving endangered species. Destruction in Congo’s forests is spurred by illegal taxation and high-level bribery, and a direct manifestation of kleptocracy and grand corruption. “It’s a question of state monopolization of violence,” one source told me of Congo’s illegal charcoal trade. 

Environmental activism in Congo also supports tourism revenues, rule of law, and climate security.

The Global Magnitsky Act would authorize the US to create greater costs for those undermining this essential work. Being a conservationist often means uncovering the crimes of one’s own government. The Act would allow the US to impose targeted sanctions –banking freezes, travel bans – on anyone who attacks individuals exposing illegal state activity.

Passing the Act would be one step forward for work like Lukambo’s everywhere. Of course, threats against whistleblowers defending the environment are not unique to Congo. Two activists in Honduras were killed in March after years of opposing a mega-dam project, including Berta Caceres, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. In fact, worldwide, an estimated two forest defenders are killed every week.

Several actions have been taken to stem repression and natural resource trafficking in Congo. Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Budowsky: Dems madder than hell Tillerson: 'My view didn’t change' on Paris climate agreement MORE and U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region Tom Perriello have met with civil society and called for President Kabila to leave office and support free and fair elections on time. Pressure is mounting for sanctions against Kabila’s inner circle if he doesn’t. But crackdowns on activists are ongoing, and few mechanisms are in place specifically to protect them.

Whistleblowers like Lukambo are the lifeblood of what remains of Congo’s democracy in a fragile, turbulent region of the world. They risk their lives to protect invaluable natural treasures that benefit us all. Congress should pass the Global Magnitsky Act to help support them.


Holly Dranginis is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project.