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Virunga National Park Offers Economic Boost to Eastern Congo

Emmanuel de Merode runs Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest wildlife park, which has been closed to tourists for more than a year due to eastern Congo’s civil war. Photo taken August 11, 2012.
The Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, announced it has a 10-year plan to re-invigorate the local economy and create tens of thousands of new jobs.

The plan, called “The Virunga Alliance,” is a partnership with other groups including the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. It’s providing early technical and financial support for the project, including a network of off-grid hydro-electric plants along the banks of the Rutshuru River.

Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, emphasized the importance of providing sustainable development in North Kivu province which has seen over 20 years of armed conflict.

“It’s an area that has been affected by a very violent civil war, a war that is considered to have caused the death of over five million people. Because of that, the infrastructure and the economy have collapsed [and] …we are now in a cycle of violence,” explained de Merode. He said what’s needed is peace, which can only be built once the economy is again developed.

“What we’re trying to do is draw on Virunga National Park as a resource in order to boost the economy, create jobs, and enable the local community to improve their livelihood,” said de Merode.

The national park director said investing in a network of off-grid hydro-electric power plants generates electricity to power rural industry.

“If you look at many of the studies that have been done in extremely poor communities around the world, nearly all of them point towards rural electrification as the highest return on investment if what you are trying to do is alleviate poverty,” de Merode explained.

The electrification effort began three years ago as a pilot project. It included a power plant at the base of the foothills of the 17,000 foot high snow-capped Ruwenzori Mountains in the northern part of the park.

“That small hydro-plant [is] only half a megawatt, and that’s the equivalent of about 40,000 light bulbs. [It’s] now responsible …for the creation of two small industries. One is the creation of a soap factory, and the other is a substance called papaya enzyme. It’s an organic substance produced in North Kivu. And both of those products can only be produced if there’s electricity. It’s only thanks to the national park that there is electricity,” said de Merode.

Another aspect of the park is that it is home to mountain gorillas, an endangered species with only 820 remaining in the world. De Merode said it has been an overwhelming struggle trying to protect the park and the communities surrounding it. He pointed out that over 130 park rangers have been killed since the beginning of civil war in the D-R-C.

The conservationist director emphasized that the future of the park and the gorillas will not be ensured until the fundamental issues of conflict and poverty are addressed.