The Virunga Mountains make up a volcanic chain that runs along the borders of Uganda and Rwanda with Democratic Republic of the Congo. This region contains a wide range of geographic and biological landscapes, and thus contains the greatest diversity of species in Africa — and perhaps the entire world. The park iteself was named a UNESCO World Heritage Center, because of this uniqueness and richness. Made famous in the west because of the mountain gorillas who live there, Virunga National Park is home to one third of all the mountain gorillas in the world.
What are the immediate threats to the park?
War, and a broken economy.
Mining was once an established industry in the region, but armed groups now control a lot of the mines around Virunga National Park. They raise revenue to support their military operations by forcing slaves to work the mines and by taxing independent, artisanal miners who sustain a small economy in the area. Artisans work the mines, and pay tariffs to the militias and to the corrupt merchants who buy and sell the ores.
Armed groups who don’t control mines raise money by plundering resources in the park. One of the more destructive practices is making charcoal. Several armed groups make charcoal illegally inside the park. This trade is highly organized, involves several militia groups, and raises some $35 million per year.
How can the park build a local economy?
In 2006, Democratic Republic of the Congo passed a post-war constitution. This document was written by Congolese people and mentored by the American Bar Association. In it the people have strong civil rights, including voting rights and rights to participate in governance. DR Congo’s people are now in the long process of learning the about the law and how to enforce it.
Virunga National Park can bring a renewable economy that is sustainable for years to come. Tourism has the potential to bring in more than $1 billion in revenue per year. Rwanda currently exceeds $400 million in revenue per year from their gorilla tourism sector. The park contributes 30% of its tourism revenue to local communities for schools, roads, and rebuilding after many years of war. This brings jobs to many sectors in nearby cities as well as to the park itself.
Hydroelectric and solar power programs have the potential to bring electricity to the area. Electricity means jobs in the tourism sector and beyond. It also means that fewer people depend on charcoal.
The positive trends in Virunga National Park will affect conservation policy in DR Congo generally. Good conservation policy in DR Congo is critical for implementing sustainable economies all over Africa. The Congo River alone has the potential to provide hydroelectric power to the entire continent.
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