(GIN) – As a child soldier at the age of 14, Rodrigue Katembo learned his survival skills in dangerous times. Belgium had granted independence to the Congo but it was little more than a piece of paper after years of colonial rule.
After a U.S.-led coup in 1961 that removed legally-elected Patrice Lumumba, the nation’s prime minister, years of repression would follow under the dictator Joseph Mobutu. Foreign companies quickly moved in to exploit the Congo’s rich natural resources.
Despite the destructive actions of poachers and oil drillers, the nature sanctuary known as Virunga National Park continued to be a refuge to invaluable biodiversity and rare animals such as the legendary and critically endangered mountain gorillas. Africa’s oldest national park and the crown jewel of Congo’s ecotourism, Virunga was named a World Heritage Site in 1979. And as fate would have it, a former soldier, Rodrigue Katembo, would become its protector.
Rescued from war, Katembo returned to school, studied biology and soon became warden of Virunga’s central sector—an area of interest to oil explorers. A British company Soco had already begun seismic testing in the area by the time Katembo arrived. Refusing their bribes, Katembo instead gathered video footage of their actions – a dangerous task – that was later compiled into the Academy Award-nominated Netflix doc ‘Virunga’.
Amid growing public outrage by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, citizen petition drives, UNESCO, among many others, Soco gave up its oil license in Block V. Declining populations of hippos and elephants have stabilized. Civilians are free to access water and fish at Lake Edwards. And Katembo continues to protect the park.
Katembo paid an enormous price for his activism, however. In 2013, he was arrested and tortured for 17 days. He returned to duty immediately after his release.
Now the 41 year old warden’s good deeds will be rewarded. This month he was named one of six winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists.
In addition to a monetary prize, Goldman Prize winners each receive a bronze sculpture called the Ouroboros. Common to many cultures around the world, the Ouroboros, which depicts a serpent biting its tail, is a symbol of nature’s power of renewal.
More information about the prize and this year’s winners can be found on the website www.goldmanprize.org