Plans to save Virunga National Park in DRC | Africa | DW | 10.07.2015
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Plans to save Virunga National Park in DRC

A Belgian prince and an American billionaire have teamed up to save one of Africa's oldest natural reserves. Plans to create jobs for people living in the area and former rebels could also strengthen stability in DRC.

Virunga National Park in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) stands out in many ways. One of Africa's oldest natural reserves is also home to the world's endangered mountain gorillas. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The park is situated in a densely populated area. Around four million people live along the DRC's eastern borders with Uganda and Rwanda. They use up every spot of land on the slopes of the hills cultivating beans, onions and cauliflower.

The earth is fertile thanks to the country's volcanoes. Beyond the fields looms a wall topped with barbed wire. A sign warns people to go no further.

Virunga National Park Director Emmanuel de Merode

Park director Emmanuel de Merode

Conflicting interests

The park was founded in 1925 when the Congo was still under Belgian colonial rule. The idea was to preserve the rare diversity of its flora and fauna for humanity, says park director Emmanuel de Merode.

The 46-year-old is a real prince. He is a member of the same Belgian dynasty that laid the park's foundations. By profession, Merode is an anthropologist - employed by the Congolese government to perform the tricky feat of protecting both man and nature.

"The reality of it is that it's the local population that pays the price of the national park", admits Merode. A price that can be quantified, he says.

"You've got at least a million acres (4,000 square kilometers) of extremely fertile agricultural land. A Congolese agricultural family can generate 600 dollars (541 euros) an acre in benefits. So we're talking about at least 600 million dollars that is being withheld from one of the most impoverished communities on earth."

Gorilla in Congo's Virunga National Park

Endangered species: The mountain gorillas

A case of extreme injustice, says Merode. But when it comes to preserving nature, the director of the Virunga also has a very tough job. Five million US dollars flow into the park every year. Only five per cent is state money. The rest comes from donations.

Merode has plans how to change this. By boosting tourism, he hopes to create numerous jobs. He finds inspiration in other countries of the region. "In 2009 Kenya from its tourism sector generated 3.5 billion dollars contribution to the national economy. That's a hundred million more than the Congolese national budget that same year."

If Congo's tourism sector is developed well, it could equal Kenya's, Merode says.

Conserving nature - a dangerous undertaking

Merode wears a uniform - the same worn by the 500 park rangers under his command. Their responsibilities are comparable to those of the national army. Virunga, it seems, is at war.

It is a war about natural resources as well. When British company SOCO discovered oil beneath the reserve, the Congolese government agreed to its request to do some experimental drilling. But that violates the law for the preservation of nature. Merode chose to challenge this contradiction and nearly paid with his life when unknown gunmen fired at him in April 2014. He was seriously wounded.

Fisherman on Lake Edouard in eastern DRC

The population depends on the park's natural resources

Merode travels a lot, meeting up with conservationists around the globe. A London-based production company recently conmpleted a film on the Virunga national park that made it to the final selection for the Oscars.

The remains of tanks line the street that leads to the national park's headquarters, situated 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) to the north of Goma. Just eighteen months ago Virunga was a real battleground. Rebel group M23 had put up its own headquarters right next to it.. In the evenings they would drink their whiskey in the park station's five-star-lodge.

Meanwhile, the oil-drilling company SOCO prepared to drill the first boreholes. Then Merode came up with a plan.

Jobs for rebels - powered by water

Two rivers spring from the volcanic hills. Their power is enough to produce electricity - a precious commodity for private households and industry. According to a study Merode commissioned, each megawatt of electricity could bring 1,000 jobs to the war-torn region. He plans to set up a power plant that will produce 50 megawatts by the end of this year. "The dividends are split: 50 percent on conservation and 50 percent on community development," he says.

The idea is simple: Up to 8,000 rebels will need jobs to provide them with an alternative income. Hence, creating jobs will be a major step towards stabilising eastern DRC.

Lake Edouard in Virunga National Park

The Virunga's water system can be put to good use, say Merode and Buffet

But who would invest in a country at war? American billionaire Howard Buffet says he will. His father Graham got rich from investing in the Coca Cola company. The son, a passionate agronomist, visited the park station in 2012, when it was under siege.

Buffet remembers one evening he spent with Merode in the park station. They were discussing their plans for a 20-million dollar hydroelectric plant. "We had invested 10 million dollars in it and he had two other donors," says Buffet. "I remember him leaning back and he said that he was so disappointed because the other donors were not going to come through with the money."

Buffet then decided to provide the complete funding. "We knew it would have a significant impact on the region."

Inside the park, an overcrowded island

The tropical rainforest starts right inside the confines of the park. Further down the road, visitors see fields of maize, wooden huts and women carrying firewood. The district of Rutshuru is situated like an island inside the park.

The population was lower when the park was founded 90 years ago, says Leonard Nyarubwa, professor for geography at Rutshuru's university. When the boundaries were drawn up, the colonial authorities agreed with the local population on specified hunting grounds within the confines of the park.

But in past decades the population has grown enormously. People have begun cutting trees and growing their crops on park territory. The park authorities agreed to give half of the hunting grounds to villagers but the situation is still tense.

Street in Rutshuru

Rutshuru is situated in the midst of the park

At first glance, Rutshuru looks calm. But until November 2013, this was rebel territory. Police now patrol the area. "Even if the war is over, we're not at complete peace," says Innocent Gasigwa, spokesperson of a human rights organization in Rutshuru. "All around this island there are militia groups hiding in the park." Kidnapping and rape have become daily occurrences, making cultivation of the fields and trade dangerous undertakings.

The people in Rutshuru are asking questions. They want to know how it is possible for the international community to provide funding for the protection of nature and wildlife while human lives are in danger. Merode and Buffet are looking for answers to this dilemma. But creating peace is not just about providing money.

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