Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is biologically Africa’s most important protected area. It has more mammal, reptile and bird species than any other park on the continent and is the only park in the world to have three taxa of great apes, including an important population of mountain gorillas. Virunga has managed to implement an effective security sector reform program and on the basis of that is in a position to initiate effective peace building and post-conflict reconstruction programs around the national park. This has the potential to bring lasting stability and peace to a critically important area at the heart of the Great Lakes regional conflict.
3W first partnered with Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden, in 2013 with financial support for the commercialization of the Mutwanga Hydro-Electric Plant, a 0.4 megawatt pilot. The project was a huge success and was the proof-of-concept needed to secure funding for the larger plants. The Rutshuru plant, a 13 megawatt hydroelectric facility, is now up and running, and construction is commencing on new sites to bring the Park’s total energy production to over 50 megawatts. We are committed to working closely with de Merode to support his ambitious plan to use the park’s natural resources for sustainable socio-economic development to secure its future and enhance peace and stability in the region.
Rural Electrification and Conservation — at first glance, the two may seem contradictory. But in The Virunga National Park, hydroelectric plants (run of river — free flow) can utilize the Park’s natural resources in a positive way, providing needed electricity to the surrounding communities, generating sustainable income for the Park, and helping to build peace through public works. 3W was proud to fund the commercialization of the first of such plants.
More than 4 million people live within a day’s walk of Virunga National Park’s boundary. Most of these populations live in extreme poverty from years of conflict and state collapse. There is considerable pressure to generate revenue in the short term through the unsustainable and destructive use of the park’s resources (poaching and over-fishing, forest depletion for charcoal and habitat conversion to agricultural land). The park’s survival will therefore depend on the park management’s ability to provide more attractive economic alternatives through the sustainable use of the park’s resources. Water is one such resource which, if well managed, can provide large scale employment through the creation of an appropriate agricultural transformation industry, and consequently the intensification and optimization of land use outside the park. Multiple lines of research have all indicated that rural electrification offers one of the highest returns on investment when poverty reduction is the desired result.
This past January, we finally had the opportunity to see the Park and the tremendous work of de Merode. We were blown away. What de Merode and his team have created is actually indescribable – the first 15MW of hydro-power of the planned 100MW; the beginnings of a world class energy company with high voltage distribution; thriving businesses on the Park’s modern grid; and low voltage, last-mile hook up to households with smart meters. In addition, we stayed in a beautiful, top-class lodge. Overall, we saw that de Merode’s ambitious plan is being achieved.
So what is the plan? It is a three-pronged approach to support the Park in perpetuity – Electricity, Tourism, and Private Sector Development through SME/Ag (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and Agriculture). Rarely in development and conservation are expectations and plans “over-delivered” upon – but that is exactly what de Merode has accomplished.
We also saw the many challenges: Emmanuel has a full-on military presence; some lodges could not be used due to rebel activity; the charcoal production smoke-stacks could be seen as the rebel militia continued the very destructive, lucrative and illegal practice which fuels the constant civil unrest; etc. The Rangers and Emmanuel risk their lives protecting the park; over 150 rangers have died in the fight and Emmanuel himself was seriously injured in a shooting in 2014.
We do not want to sugarcoat the risks, but we must emphasize the reward. This Park is like no other on earth. It has savannahs with roaming elephant herds, an abundance of hippos, antelope and buffalo, and not to forget, it is home to the largest population of mountain gorillas, as well as lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. Nowhere else on earth do you find mountain gorillas and savannah wildlife – and active lava flows from the beautiful Virunga Volcanoes (an easy climb to the top where you can sleep at the edge of a lava lake!). To be scientific, The Park is the most important park in Africa in regard to bio-diversity. It is worth saving; it has to be saved; and with de Merode at the helm, there is a good chance it will be saved.
Emmanuel de Merode, Director of Virunga National Park, is featured in a great article by Nadia Dyberg in Dagens Nyheter (November 22, 2014), as well as in two National Geographic reportages (The Battle for Africa’s Oldest National Park and Inside the Fight to Save One of the World’s Most Dangerous Parks) . In addition, “Virunga – The Movie” is available on NetFlix. Also, there is a Nat Geo documentary from 2009, made by Stefan Lövgren, Return to Virunga: The battle to Save the Mountain Gorilla*.
*Interestingly, this film was made in 2010. At that time de Merode was testing a white briquettes project to stem the use of charcoal. This idea failed, but it was the catalyst for bigger thinking — Hydro-power: a much more impactful and scalable idea which could insure the park’s sustainability for perpetuity.