International Women’s Day – a Congolese climate activist speaks

A guest blog by Hazel Bober

Congolese activist Francine Fataki

Extinction Rebellion Sheffield is partnered with Extinction Rebellion Université de Goma near the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to enable the two organisations to support and learn from each other. As International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world, Hazel Bober spoke to activist Francine Fataki about being a female climate activist in the DRC.

Hi Francine! Can you start by telling us a bit about the Virunga National Park?

The Virunga National Park, in the DRC, was created in 1925, making it the oldest park in Africa. Covering an area of almost 8,000km2, its main objective when it was established was to protect the mountain gorillas.

The park contains a huge variety of ecosystems, stretching from the snow-capped summits of the Ruwenzori Mountains and the active volcanoes of the Virunga mountains to the swamps of Lake Edouard, the alpine forests and the savannah. Virunga is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet and is home to endangered mountain gorillas as well as okapi (also known as zebra giraffes) and elephants. 

The park is important for our community in that it provides food for the local population. On a national level, the park is of huge environmental and economic importance.

The park is under constant threat of oil exploitation by fossil fuel companies. What would the consequences be if proposals by this industry go ahead?

Oil exploitation could have negative consequences in 85 per cent of the total area of the National Park.

In terms of environmental impacts, there would be the destruction of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity and certain species would be forced to migrate.

From a socio-economic point of view, we would expect reduced tourism, affecting both the local population and the country as a whole. If drilling goes ahead in Lake Edouard, accidents could cause major pollution and oil spills, affecting the survival of more than 40,000 families living in and around the national park. During the activities carried out by the oil company SOCO we recorded multiple cases of human rights abuse. In short, there will be no positive socio-political outcomes for Congolese people from proposed oil exploitation projects.

Why did you join Extinction Rebellion? What is XR Université de Goma doing to protect the Virunga National Park?

I joined XR to play a part in bringing about positive change. I’m here to say no, loudly and clearly, which most Congolese people don’t get to say! No to oil exploitation in the Virunga National Park and no to the illegal exploitation of the park’s resources. I’m also here to help my community, to raise awareness of the dangers we are facing and to remind them of their rights as Congolese people and as people living near and in the national park. In summary, as activists of XR Université de Goma, we are fighting for the rights of our fellow citizens living in this area and to prevent activities that harm the environment. Here are some of the actions XR Université de Goma has carried out:

  • Actions on the street and to mobilise people in schools and universities, raising awareness at markets and using performing arts to communicate this cause
  • Our “Oil, no thank you” campaign in which we blocked roads to companies such as TOTAL, SOCO and EFORA who have been seeking to exploit oil in the Virunga National Park since 2005
  • Launching a campaign calling for community management of the national park

Tell us about your experiences as a female climate activist in the DRC

To start with, this is Africa where there are certain things women aren’t allowed to do. There’s an idea that activism isn’t for women. So it’s a struggle which is not easy for a woman because nobody understands you – people give you a funny look when you talk to them about environmental issues, given that the population has other pressing issues such as poverty, famine and a lack of drinking water.

Can you tell us about the lives of women in your region?

I live in a zone where there is daily armed conflict and killing, and where women are victims of sexual violence. Women are marginalised and considered objects. I’m telling you this with tears in my eyes – the life of a woman living in the east of this country is a nightmare – it’s hell on earth.

Are women more affected than men by climate change in your country?

I would say so. The majority of women in this region work in agriculture and climate change disrupts the seasons which impacts crop yields. Women are calling for equality but this hasn’t been achieved yet in our society. As a female activist of XR Université de Goma, I’m fighting with all my strength to show other Congolese women that we are capable of playing a role in protecting the environment, just as men are. It’s not easy to find a place in a male-dominated world, but we should never give up.

If you would like to support the efforts of inspiring climate activists like Francine in protecting the Virunga National Park, please consider a donation to XR Université de Goma: https://chuffed.org/project/help-xr-universite-de-goma-keep-virunga-fossil-fuel-free

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