In this area of the Virunga National Park, where tens of thousands of Congolese have fled hostilities between rebels and the military, more than 200 hectares (500 acres) of forest have been reduced to stumps in less than two months.
In order to survive, many have turned to felling trees for fuel and charcoal, frequently paying militia groups a charge to get entry to Africa’s oldest national park, which is home to amazing wildlife species like mountain gorillas.
“We’ve got deforestation in the Nyiragongo volcano zone since the arrival of the displaced; it’s quite concerning,” park official Methode Uhoze said.
The new arrivals were forced from homes farther north by the advancing M23 militia, which resumed fighting in November 2021 after accusing the Congolese government of failing to honour an agreement to incorporate its fighters into the army.
Fabrice, 15, said he fled fighting in his village of Rugari, around 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the provincial capital of Goma, along the border with Rwanda.
He leaves each morning for the park to make the charcoal, called “makala,” which he then sells with two brothers on the side of a road.
“It’s to make a living,” he told AFP.
A woman at a clandestine makala market on the main road to Goma, who asked that her name not be used, said people who cut down trees had to pay taxes to militias, including the FDLR — a descendant of Rwandan Hutu extremist groups that carried out the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
But another seller pointed to a Congolese soldier carrying a sack of makala. “Look, even the soldiers here are making charcoal!” she said.
Higher up on the slopes of the volcano, soldiers and militiamen jointly organised the trafficking operation in the park, each crossing paths and even rival roadblocks with ease, as an AFP team watched.
Just a few months ago, the area was still under the authority of Virunga park officials.
But these days, rangers call the various militias first to alert them before venturing out, a bid to avoid harassment or worse.
In December, two rangers were killed and another wounded by suspected militiamen.
“FDLR fighters have even auctioned land parcels, declaring that “this is the end for the park,” claimed Mugisha, a young guy who fled the M23 in Rugari and now makes charcoal to feed his family.
Another young man carrying a bundle of wood on his back as he went back down from the volcano stated, “We know the problems of cutting down trees in the park but we do it because we’re hungry.”
We want to go home and stop interacting with the park, he remarked.