Putting a National Park to Work
On the front lines of conservation, nature can be harnessed for peace or exploited for conflict
Achim Steiner, UN Environment Programme Executive Director
This weekend, I traveled to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a remarkable place in many ways, a landscape of extraordinary beauty and rare wildlife where people and nature are battling challenging odds. Equally impressive are the Park’s stories of survival. Against all likelihood, the Virunga’s famed mountain gorillas are making a comeback from the precipice of extinction. The population is now around 880, compared to only 380 in 2003.
The challenges the gorillas and their guardians have faced are formidable. Virunga is located in a region rife with conflict. During fighting, mountain gorillas have often been hunted by armed groups in the area. Gorillas are also killed by landmines embedded in forest paths.
When not under siege from fighting human factions, their habitat remains under threat from agricultural expansion and resource exploitation such as logging and oil extraction.
Communities that inhabit land in and around the park themselves face a struggle for survival. The recourse of exploiting the land or the animals for immediate short-term poverty relief is unsurprising. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2014 Human Development Index, the DRC ranked 186 out of 187 countries.
Yet the enormous responsibility to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat has been cast at the feet of these poverty-stricken communities. This is deeply unfair. The world must recognize that safeguarding this global treasure is a shared responsibility. Here in the DRC, local communities cannot and should not bear the cost alone.
While communities cannot afford to protect the park themselves, reliance on external financial support is not only unsustainable but a potential problem as well. Long-term conservation cannot be predicated on handouts.
The middle way is to put the Park to work for the local community, ensuring its survival goes hand-in-hand with the community’s development. This is the only real way to protect the Park from land grabbing, illegal logging, hunting, the charcoal trade and oil extraction.
Local institutions are already taking this tack. By utilizing the park’s assets — its ecosystem services, its capacity to draw tourism — the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the Virunga Foundation, led by Director Emmanuel de Merode, are working to create jobs, support livelihoods and build the local economy.
Core to their strategy is investing in opportunities for micro-hydro electric power, careers in tourism and jobs in sustainable agribusiness.
For example, in lieu of fighting the charcoal wars, Virunga Foundation & ICCN have built three run-of-river turbines to provide electricity to the local economy, aiming to eventually supply 100 MW to a region of some 4 million people.
In partnership with Stanford University, ICCN and the Virunga Foundation are building a business school to develop local business skills and incubate small- & medium-scale enterprises.
The snowball effect of these efforts is already tangible: In the town of Mutsora, a new soap factory supplies the entire eastern Congo region using local palm oil as a base ingredient. This would not have been possible without the revenues and regular electricity generated by the Park.
Despite such successes, the task before them remains Herculean. I stood in the middle of the forest watching hydropower turbines humming. Three years ago, rebels encroached on the site and unleashed a hail of bullets. The custodians had to flee on two occasions.
More recently and tragically, a Virunga Ranger, Sebinyenzi Bavukirahe Yacinth, died in the line of duty on January 23. Many more rangers have died protecting the park.
Heroes like Yacinth, the ICCN and the Virunga Foundation are on the frontline of conservation. In a region where nature can be harnessed for peace or exploited for conflict, it is critical to make nature work for the local community. 99% of the solutions for Virunga’s future are found outside the park in self-sustaining revenue generation.
When communities are invested in their natural surroundings, it is no longer a fight by a few, but a dependence of many that will ensure the long-term survival of these irreplaceable ecosystems.