The Times hails Belgian royal’s conservation of the Congo – a place ravaged by Belgian royals

The Times hails Belgian royal’s conservation of the Congo – a place ravaged by Belgian royals
“Why would a Belgian royal risk his life to save a Congolese wilderness?” reads a somehow unironic headline in the Times Magazine this weekend. The question is posed alongside an introduction to Belgium's Prince Emmanuel de Merode.

According to the profile, de Merode is “battling to preserve the Virunga National Park – and the people and animals who live there.” The story follows de Merode’s conservation efforts in the eastern Congo where the royal is leading the redevelopment of Virunga’s internal infrastructure, including the costly construction of a two-mile canal and a series of hydroelectric plants.

Referring to de Merode’s “staggering ambition” for the country’s power grid, the article reads: “For this plant alone has raised $22million, plus $12million for a 250-mile network to distribute its electricity to three towns on Virunga’s border.”

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The piece includes dazzling tales of de Merode evading machine gun fire while flying his Cessna jet over territories held by militiamen, his battle to defeat poachers targeting endangered animals and his “visionary” bid to remake the region.

But given the brutal history of the Belgian monarchy in the Congo, and the historic transfer of wealth out of the country to its rulers in Europe, some readers quickly declared the piece not only tone deaf, but also a stunning display of ignorance.

It is estimated that more 10 million people were killed during King Leopold II’s reign over the Congo, a country allocated to Belgium in 1884 during the Berlin Conference to regulate Europe’s colonization of West Africa.

Rising demand for rubber worldwide meant that land in the resource-rich Congo was divided up by the king and given to private mining companies in order to boost production. These companies were allowed to operate with impunity, forcing local Congolese into labor to collect the rubber cheaply.

The Force Publique, the 19,000-strong native paramilitary army set up to protect the interests of the mining firms, were notorious for cutting off the hands of workers who refused to collect rubber, or failed to meet their quotas. Soldiers also took women and family members hostage in order to force people into work.

For some, De Merode’s fundraising to build his hydroelectric dam might be more easily taken on its merits if his ancestors had not used profits from the Congo to fund large-scale urban renewal projects back in Belgium.

Leopold himself claimed he never profited personally from colonialism, but the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal has estimated that he drew around 220 million francs – more than $1billion in today’s money – from the Congo in his lifetime.

For his part, de Merode does acknowledge some of his country’s crimes, namely King Albert’s theft of two million acres worth of subsistence farms to create the national park in the first place.

“Enormous benefit was given to the whole of humanity, but the price is being paid by the local people who are among the poorest on earth,” he said. “You have an enormous case of social injustice... Local people are extremely hostile. Many of them are desperate, with no livelihood, no income and nowhere to go.”

One wonders if his concerns about social justice extend as far as reparations.