Interview with Cody Pope, AC4 Fellow, 2011 Cohort

Cody Pope, one the 2011 AC4 Graduate Fellows, works on political risk, policy analysis and sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa. He completed his Masters in International Security Policy and Conflict Resolution at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. As an AC4 fellow, he focused on foreign investment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly in the mining regions in the east and south-east, and today continues to focus on the nexus of development, conflict and conservation.


Photo of Cody Pope and a pangolin rescued from illegal animal traders in Pemba, Mozambique, before being released into the wild.

Photo: Cody Pope and a pangolin rescued from illegal animal traders in Pemba, Mozambique, before being released into the wild.

The Origins of My Interest in AC4

In my first post-undergraduate life, I was originally and briefly a mountain gorilla researcher. I worked with mountain gorillas in southwest Uganda near to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s border (DRC) in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This is the story I always tell, and that I actually told to get into Columbia, about how I became interested in conflict and conflict resolution. When I was there in 2007, several mountain gorillas were killed, culminating with a massacre of four animals in July. In total, seven animals were killed in Virunga National Park in about two months; the park straddles the boards of Uganda, DRC, and Rwanda.

A mountain gorilla eating dead wood for nutrients in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. Photo by Cody Pope.

Photo: A mountain gorilla eating dead wood for nutrients in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. Photo by Cody Pope.

The incidents happened on the DRC side and it occurred when many of the world’s Mountain Gorilla researchers were near the parks for several meetings. It also happened only a few weeks after actress Natalie Portman had just finished filming a documentary on the Virunga Mountain Gorillas. All these events were somewhat unrelated, but helped amplify the newsworthiness of slaughter, bringing it to a worldwide audience. It made the cover of Newsweek in early August, into section A of the New York Times a few days after it happened, and was featured on the cover of National Geographic on the one-year anniversary of the slaughter. All this coverage happened in part, because there was so much attention on the area in the weeks leading up to the slaughter.

The Virunga Mountains, as seen from Uganda. Photo by Cody Pope.

Photo: The Virunga Mountains, as seen from Uganda. Photo by Cody Pope.

Long story long: the whole reason that the gorillas were killed, or at least one of the main reasons, was economics. At its heart, it was an extractive materials conflict centered on wood and charcoal, exacerbated by ethnic and regional tensions. At the time, there was charcoal wood going illegally into both Rwanda and Uganda to be burned for cooking. Rwanda and Uganda were rather complicit in this trade because they were actively protecting their national parks for tourism, so they don’t want to disrupt them.

I, as a researcher, used charcoal nearly everyday to cook and to boil clean water for drinking. Some of this charcoal came from very local sources, but most had been sourced from the DRC. And so the charcoal that I was using, in terms of trading hands, had been cut by someone working directly for the rebels that had killed the mountain gorillas, then given to a women who crossed the boarder into Uganda, then bought by someone locally and then used by me. So in terms of the line of consumerism, the link between the charcoal, the death of the gorillas, and me was very obvious. So I became interested in the idea of conflict, conservation and the extractive sector because of that.

Political Risk Consulting in Africa

Now, I work in political risk, as a consultant for a couple of different companies, and I focus on the DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, and the politics and policies that are going on in the larger region know as the Great Lakes. I look at how political risks affect investors and NGOs that are operating in the field. It’s not pure physical security and it’s not pure economic quantitative analysis. It’s rather a qualitative analysis of the politics of the regions, with elements of the two other topics—working to understand who the big players are, what motivates them, and what policies and behavior you can expect from them.

On patrol in the Salonga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the ICCN. Photo by Cody Pope.

Photo: On patrol in the Salonga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the ICCN. Photo by Cody Pope.

I work a lot with a company in New York City called Horizon Client Access, which is a smaller firm. They focus on the oil and gas sector. There are also networks of security and risk people for NGOs, not just the private sector. Counter-intuitively, I’ve worked for and continue to work for both the extractives sector and for the conservation sector. I try to stay pretty neutral, and hold myself up to what I would consider to be journalistic standards of neutrality when advising either. When I talk to oil and gas companies, for example, I can tell them honestly what is going on with conservation in the areas they want to work in. It is important for them to know how that works, as it helps conservation efforts in the long run.

For example, there is an oil and gas company called SOCO, which functions in eastern DRC. I was never involved with them directly. But, they were going to do seismic testing in the Virunga Mountains to test the viability of doing oil and gas drilling there. We know that there is probably oil and gas there. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and a couple other organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), ran campaigns against them in London. They effectively tarnished their reputation as an oil and gas company, which is what we in the sector call a “reputational risk.”

From that perspective, I can then say to some of the oil and gas majors looking to invest in these regions, “Look, you want to go into the Congo here, but look at what happened to SOCO. You as a company have to commit right of the bat, and promise you’re not going to enter into national parks and that you’re going to respect UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are real reputational risks for going into those areas, and you have to take the conservation issues seriously.”

At times I do feel some internal conflict working with the extractive industries like this, but a lot depends on who they are, and what they’re going to do where. It’s a necessary evil to a certain extent. The economies of the world function off energy, i.e. oil and gas. That is going to be a slow-changing thing, but it will change. You can see that from inside the oil and gas companies themselves: oil and gas companies don’t call themselves oil and gas companies anymore. They’ve rebranded. They are energy companies now. This isn’t just superficial either; they are actively investing in renewable resources, because they know that eventually oil and gas will run out, or that countries will force them not to extract it in ways that don’t turn a profit, or it won’t be used by consumers in the way that it once was.

That being said, the conflicts between the two sectors, especially with large-scale conservation projects, can be very hopeless. It is hard to do pure conservation work for more than a few years, because there are some dire situations out there. A lot of it is linked to the oil and gas sectors, but they are not the main culprits destroying ecosystems right now in the areas where I focus in particular. They have been and in certain regions are. In the Niger Delta, for example, they were certainly one of the main contributors to that ecosystem’s destruction. But many of the companies I am working with are offshore, and their impact is very small unless something really bad happens.

But even then, if we think about BP and Deep Horizon in the Gulf, which was one of the biggest offshore oil spills ever, the impact was less than expected in terms of the total Gulf ecosystem versus say the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. The Exxon Valdez spill took longer to clean up and was worse from an ecosystem standpoint because of the type of oil and particularities of the cold-water region. There are microbes that decompose oil and those microbes are more present in the Gulf, so they were able to consume the oil faster there. The oil and gas released were also of a different weight and quality, and therefore dispersed more readily. That’s one way to say, “yeah, okay, it won’t be so bad,” but then if you look at the Niger Delta or Valdez and it’s horrible. My point being, that there is always context in the interplay between the two sectors that needs to be kept in mind.

Conservation in Africa, My Work with the WWF and Others

My work in conservation has also focused on anti-poaching, anti-ivory trade and anti-rhino horn trade. For example, in the DRC, I worked for the WWF for nearly two years. These are really dire situations, and I’ve become very pessimistic. If you talked to me four or five years ago, I would be more ready to give you a positive message. Now, I would say that if you want to go see rhinos in the wild in Africa, besides maybe a few reserves in South Africa, you have to do it now. They’re going to be gone from the wild in maybe five years- completely gone.


“They’ll keep stockpiling ivory until the price rises again, so even if you stop international demand in China, they’re going to keep killing elephants in Africa.”


The interplay between demands, supply and consumer behavior is more complicated than a simple surface analysis would make it seem. Even if you could change the consumer outlooks in Asia, you’ve still got an enforcement problem in Africa. Everyone always says too that, when you destroy the demand, then the supply will respond in kind. But, it hasn’t happened in the past and it doesn’t always work, especially with high value items like ivory and rhino horn. There is a speculative market that remains, both within Africa and within China. These are durable goods after all.

Photo of Rhino horn, ground and snorted as a cure-all, is worth more per ounce than gold or cocaine on the streets of Vietnam.

Photo: Rhino horn, ground and snorted as a cure-all, is worth more per ounce than gold or cocaine on the streets of Vietnam. Photo by Cody Pope.

The large-scale “head” poachers know that the demand for ivory ebbs and flows, so they create stockpiles, so that they are ready for a new cycle of demand. Some of the ivory carvers and traders have been in the business for 30-40 odd years, so they’re used to the market fluctuations. They’ll keep stockpiling ivory until the price rises again, so even if you stop international demand in China, they’re going to keep killing elephants in Africa. Ultimately, it makes less of a difference then you’d expect.

What really is going to stop it is, I think, a multi-pronged approach. Yes: the continued pressure on China and other Asian nations to cut demand, but there also needs to be a lot more investment in national parks and ecotourism, in particular Africa. Enforcement can only go so far, due to the limited ways it can be funded by aid organizations.

Ultimately, the local people around the park have to be deriving a benefit from the park and if they’re not, then they will have no incentive to protect it. That’s very hard in a place like the DRC, where there is almost no tourism at all, outside of small gorilla tour operations in the east. Even in Kenya—which has a huge established tourism industry and therefore larger elephant populations—political instability makes tourists nervous about going, and, when tourists stop coming, elephants start dying again.

When you start thinking about how aid works, how conservation works and all the support the international community provides and what they think is good, you start running into counterintuitive stories like this: as part of reconciliation efforts in post-Apartheid South Africa (SA), an International Peace Park was created linking Zimbabwe and Mozambique with SA’s national parks. It’s called the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. As part of the efforts to reestablish animal migration corridors, improve international relations, and help alleviate animal population pressures in Kruger in SA, the electric fences between the Kruger side and the Mozambique side, were lowered. Now all these things are great; I mean they all seem very positive from a conflict resolution prospective and from conservation prospective.

However, Mozambique isn’t great at protecting its wildlife, and now poachers have much easier access to Kruger. The rhinoceros being killed at Kruger are being killed by poachers coming from Mozambique, or being killed in Mozambique after migrating back into the country. An effort to help heal divisions and save wildlife created this unforeseen effect. This is why greater understanding by all the actors operating in the region is needed, and why holistic approaches that include value-added tourism for local populations are needed, especially when dealing with transnational conservation issues.

Photo: A bull elephant lies dead in the forest. The animal was killed two weeks earlier, when a team of poachers entered the Quirimbas National Park in Mozambique and killed four elephants in two days. Photo by Cody Pope.

Photo: A bull elephant lies dead in the forest. The animal was killed two weeks earlier, when a team of poachers entered the Quirimbas National Park in Mozambique and killed four elephants in two days. Photo by Cody Pope.

Future Projects

As for what’s next, the journalistic non-profit Circle of Blue, which focuses on issues relating to world water risks, is in the process of creating a new consulting branch separate from itself, focusing on advising NGOs, governments, and the private sector on water risk related issues. It’ll be a risk assessment company and a solution-providing company, around water resource risk and water resource conflict. I am helping build up the backend of the company now, and hopefully we’ll be up and running soon. We’ll work with governments and companies and even other consulting agencies on taking a macro look at water and water conflict, to see what the risks are and what the opportunities are. I will be focused on Africa and the Middle East, primarily, but we’ll cover all regions affected by water-related risk.

My AC4 Project

In terms of AC4, my project was on the extractive sector and the conflict between the extractive sector and rural populations in southeastern Congo. This is essentially what I have gone on to do as a career. I have done it for both the conservation side and the extractive’s side. The AC4 experience transferred relatively directly into my career. It also gave me a lot of opportunities to network both during Columbia and through the project. At the time, Jean-Marie Guéhenno was the head of the conflict resolution specialization. He is also the former Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, so he had connections in the Congo that we used to start our project. Those became connections that I used later on in my work. I still talk with some of the people that I worked with during by AC4-sponsored field visit, such as Francesca Bomboko, who is very active in peace and reconciliation issues in DRC. These types of connections can open doors and help you understand your region of specialization in a new way.

Photo: A local worker at the Kamoto mines extracts copper post electrolysis in Katanga Province, DRC. Taken as part of original AC4 research. Photo by Cody Pope.

Photo: A local worker at the Kamoto mines extracts copper post electrolysis in Katanga Province, DRC. Taken as part of original AC4 research. Photo by Cody Pope.

Words of Advice

Words of advice to upcoming or potential AC4 scholars: I think it’s a great program. Obviously, I focused a lot on the conflict element of the 4 c’s – conflict is complex. It is a great opportunity to do independent research. The way that it was structured made it fairly liberal in how you could use your funds, which was very effective in giving you control on how to plan your trip. So, I was able to spend two weeks in the Congo, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I was able to combine my AC4 fellowship with several other different courses offered by SIPA, such as Conflict Assessment and Applied Peacebuilding. When you are applying for the fellowship, make sure that you have a good plan. Remember, it’s a good networking opportunity. Also, if you think you want to work with a company or organization in the future, then it’s a good way to know what they’re like and if they fit with your style of working.


Interview conducted by AC4 Research Assistant, Alex James. 

Images: All photos and captions provided by Cody Pope.

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