“You cannot put a price on this work. If death happens, it will have been worth dying for.”

These are the words of Olivier Bahemuke Ndoole, a Congolese environmental rights defender and lawyer from North Kivu, in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country embroiled in a decades-long conflict that has left approximately six million dead and almost seven million people internally displaced as of October last year, making it one of the deadliest crises since the second world war. 

Unsurprisingly, the huge number of displaced people brings with it a hunger crisis and has also triggered a cholera outbreak – with more than 41,000 cases and 300 deaths – according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The latest UN projection indicated that nearly 26 million Congolese people faced starvation in 2023 because of violence.

Neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, Ndoole’s native province of North Kivu is home to volcanoes, lakes, savanna elephants, mountain gorillas, gold, cobalt, and the oldest and best protected area in Africa Virunga National Park — a single 20-kilometer stretch of which contains more species than all those found in continental Europe. It has also been one of the flashpoints of the illicit exploitation of natural resources and the military conflict in the region. It’s also home to millions of people living in extreme poverty.

The ​​Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), an armed group that eyewitnesses say receives general military supplies from the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) and from Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF), is one of the most notorious in the region for killing and maiming, sexual violence, abduction, illegally exploiting and trafficking natural resources, and forced displacement. Other armed groups like Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the Islamist rebel group Allied Democratic Forces from Uganda and local armed groups also relentlessly attack the local population and environmental defenders.  

Growing up, Ndoole remembers: “All conflict which we had in that rural area was about land. Local communities were forced out by politicians and armed rebels. They couldn't get enough to eat. Their homes had been burnt down. Some were killed. Some lost body parts. But it was always the poorest people — widows, orphans — who suffered the most.”

Driven to action by their plight, Ndoole found himself studying law to secure justice for the victims of land and environmental injustices in the DRC as has come to be known as the “Green Lawyer’’ for his work in defense of Virunga Park, its workers, and people. The communities he represents face economic expropriation and exploitation of their land and resources, issues that have predominantly affected women and children – many women have lost their husbands in the conflict and are left vulnerable. They are then driven off their land, which plunges them into grave insecurity. Ndoole ensures that they are not forgotten.

In 2008, Ndoole co-founded an NGO, Alerte Congolaise pour l’Environnement et les Droits de l’Homme (Congolese Alert for the Environment and Human Rights). The non-profit provides legal advice and support to communities caught up in the overlapping currents of commerce, armed conflict, and conservation.

One case he has been working on since 2012 involves a land dispute between former workers for the now defunct Belgian-owned SICIA tea plantation and older members rom the rebel movement Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma).

During colonial rule, SICIA operated tea plantations in the Congo but following the country’s independence in 1960, the company’s owners left but SICIA’s workers remained on the land, growing crops mostly for their own consumption.

In 2002, the former plantation land was allocated to RCD-Goma, a pro-Rwandan armed group, and 36,000 farmers and their families were to be expelled.

In 2015, Ndoole and other activists took the issue to court and other public institutions. “We wanted to support the community leaders who were being harassed by the opposing side. But most of the former owners, the former rebels, were close to [then Congolese president] Kabila’s corrupt regime. In the middle of the night, unidentified armed people presumed to be from the intelligence service came to my house beat me seriously. With full impunity. I was bleeding. I was hospitalized for 12 days after that.”

Due to the nature of his work, Ndoole is no stranger to persecution and death threats. He has been severely beaten and tortured to the point of hospitalization. After one particularly serious assassination was made, he fled the country and went into exile for his own protection until 2017.

Despite these harrowing circumstances, he says he cannot stop his work.

“As a defender of the law, I cannot abandon them. And it wouldn't be fair or responsible to see people destroying the environment and nature. Because if nature disappears, we condemn ourselves to disappear. We cannot stay quiet in the face of injustice. We have to leave the next generation with something that is livable,” he says.

Olivier Ndoole is one of this year’s Global Citizen Prize winners which celebrates remarkable changemakers who are taking exceptional actions in the fight to end extreme poverty, demand equity, and protect the planet. As a Global Citizen Prize Award winner, Ndoole will receive a year-long program of support from Global Citizen, as well as financial support to his organization.

Global Citizen Asks

Demand Equity

Meet the “Green Lawyer” Risking His Life Fighting for Human & Environmental Rights in the Congo

By Tess Lowery