In the green heart of Africa, within the provinces of Kivu, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and just a few kilometres away from Rwanda and Uganda lies Virunga National Park. Within its 8 thousand square kilometres there are virgin forests, volcanoes, lakes, and savannah, all in a completely unique combination of natural habitats. The park contains many species of plants and animals, and is located in the only region in the world where mountain gorillas can be observed in nature. Having been founded in 1925 when Congo was under the colonial domination of Belgium, it is recognised as the oldest national park in Africa. The park is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and is part of the Congo Basin, which, like the Amazon and Borneo, hosts one of the largest rainforests in the world.
Virunga National Park is a delicate ecosystem, located within a very complex region. About 4 million people live along the park boundaries and in the neighbouring cities, such as Goma and Beni, and many of them live in poverty and are enduring a health crisis. The poverty is compounded by violence, with dozens of armed groups regularly attacking the region in a conflict that has been going on since 2004 and which, so far, has caused at least 12,000 victims, 1.4 million internally displaced refugees, and an uncommon increase of mortality among civilians due to indirect causes.
Every day over 700 rangers of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation work in this extremely difficult situation, risking their lives to monitor the park’s wellbeing and to prevent deforestation and poaching. The rangers also protect the mountain gorillas and the other endangered species, and escort and guide tourists visiting the park. This conservation effort has registered some success, with the mountain gorilla population recently having exceeded a thousand units.
Being a ranger in Virunga National Park is a dangerous job: since 2006, over 150 rangers have died while in service. In June 2020 a group of rebels ambushed a convoy near the village of Rumangabo, killing 12 rangers, a driver, and four civilians, in what was one of the most violent attacks in years. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project of the Congo Research Group and Human Rights Watch, between 2017 and 2021 more than 3,750 incidents were recorded in the region, including violent deaths, abductions, and kidnappings for ransom. Among them, in February 2021 the Italian Embassador in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Luca Attanasio, his body guard Vittorio Iacovacci and driver Mustapha Milambo got killed in an ambush on a convoy of the World Food Programme on the road that connects Goma to Rutshuru.
The park staff’s activities are not however limited to its protection, but also to the strengthening of the economic fabric of the communities living along the park’s boundaries. The basic idea is that strengthening the local economy will discourage illegal exploitation of the park’s resources, such as deforestation for agricultural purposes or for the production of coal, and will make the park more sustainable.
For the approximately 4 million inhabitants of the areas bordering the park, the lack of electricity is one of the main problems blocking the area’s sustainable development. Without electricity, food cannot be stored nor processed, businesses cannot be started, and key sectors such as health and education cannot be developed. Many inhabitants are forced to farm their land and to produce and sell coal for their own survival, sometimes being pressured to do so by the armed groups that proliferate in the region.
Poverty, war, and the lack of infrastructures are not the only problems the park’s provinces are facing. To these we must add illnesses, such as measles and Ebola. About 3,000 people died in the Kivu provinces between 2018 and 2020, in what has been called the second most critical Ebola outbreak ever recorded worldwide. The efforts of the Congolese authorities and of international organisations, with the collaboration of the Virunga National Park, managed to contain the epidemic, and as of June 2020 it has been declared to be over.
However, there was not much time for celebration: while the World Health Organization was confirming that the epidemic in Kivu had ended, the coronavirus pandemic was starting to spread across the world, in addition to a new Ebola epidemic in the Équateur province in the north-west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lasted until November 2020. As reported by the WHO, the Congolese health and logistics systems got under enormous pressure.
According to Global Forest Watch, an almost real-time world forest observatory created by the World Resource Institute, the loss of primary forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo is mainly due to small-scale agriculture, as the local population is burning portions of forest to free up arable land. To a lesser scale but still important, damage is also caused by new commercial initiatives linked to the agricultural and mining sector, which put natural habitats at risk.
To protect from this, the National Park has started a public-private partnership named Virunga Alliance. The plan, launched in 2013, aims to foster sustainable economic development in the region surrounding the park, creating jobs and producing clean energy for residential and commercial use. This is the only way, explains Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park since 2008, to promote peace and to guarantee the park’s protection.
“It’s not easy to set precise targets for 2030, due to unpredictable factors such as the coronavirus pandemic, which nobody could have predicted at the beginning of 2020”, de Merode explains. “However, we aim to create 100,000 new jobs over the next few years. Already at the end of 2019 we have witnessed the creation of about 900 small and medium-sized enterprises that operate thanks to the electricity supplied by the park’s hydroelectric power plants.”
So far, the population has not had the chance to profit economically from the conservation of the park, and the Virunga Alliance was originated with the intention of changing the course. “By creating jobs, we are taking recruits away from the armed groups. We have calculated that 11 percent of the jobs created by the national park are taken by former members of the local armed militias,” de Merode explains.
Other experts also share the same opinion. In the Virunga region, electricity would have “a substantial role in reducing poverty and developing public education and healthcare”, explain Mads Christensen and Jamal Jokar Arsanjani in a study published by the geoinformatics research group of Aalborg University in Copenhagen. Furthermore, according to the researchers, access to electricity would discourage the production of coal, which is one of the main drivers of the area’s deforestation, and would allow a development which is more compatible with the park’s conservation.
According to the Fao, from 1990 to 2020 our planet has lost about 178 million hectares of forest, an area roughly equivalent to the entire surface of Libya. According to the Global Forest Watch’s estimates, in 2019 every six seconds a forest the size of a football field has disappeared. And although the annual rate of deforestation has decreased considerably on a global level from 1990 to 2020, going from 7.8 million to 4.7 million hectares of forest lost every year, in Africa this trend is reversed: over the past decades the deforestation rate has increased, going from 3.3 million hectares of forest lost per year in 1990 to 3.9 million hectares lost in 2020.
The Congo forest is the second largest tropical forest in the world. It spans across six Central African countries and, with the Amazon and Borneo, it is considered one of the lungs of our planet. The Congo basin also contains the largest tropical peatland complex in the world. As explained by the CongoPeat project team led by Professor Simon Lewis of Leeds University, the Congo peatlands extend for 145,000 square kilometres, an area larger than England, and about 30 billion tons of carbon are retained within, the equivalent of three years of greenhouse gas emissions created worldwide by fossil fuel.
The Congo Basin plays a central role in the struggle against global warming. However, like other tropical forests, the Congo forest is also threatened by human activities, such as agriculture. According to a recent satellite study of the region, 165,000 hectares of forest have been lost between 2000 and 2014, an area equal to twice the size of Austria. The danger, say the researchers from Maryland University who led the study, is that without a reversal of this trend the Congo forest will cease existing by the year 2100.