Virunga Park: a tenuous but tenacious hope

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“UNDP – Anti-Poverty Unit, North Kivu Province. Poverty and living conditions of households, March 2009, p.6. ]. Then, the rate of deforestation in Virunga, estimated at 1% per year, is significantly higher than the world average, undermining an already strong biodiversity…”

Virunga National Park is undoubtedly the most endangered reserve in Africa. Defying oil interests and rebel groups, a handful of zealous activists are struggling to propose sustainable economic alternatives, and thus ensure the survival of this lung of the planet, an essential element of our global natural heritage. A daily effort which is starting to bear fruit and must be both supported and relayed in Belgium.

analysis_parc_des_virunga_un_spérance_tenu_mais_tenace_710x280.jpg A true jewel of the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Virunga national park, created in 1925 in the province of North Kivu, extends over an area of nearly 800,000 ha and could easily claim a place on the podium of the most beautiful protected areas on the African continent. The prestigious New York Times made no mistake in including it, in 2016, in its top 20 of the best tourist destinations in the world. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park, bordered to the east by Lake Edward, undoubtedly offers impressive geographical and biological diversity: a chain of volcanoes among the most active in Africa, breathtaking landscapes, from steppes to dense forests, from savannahs to high mountains, an abundant biodiversity of plant species and endemic fauna, including the highly endangered mountain gorillas. However, the reserve is most often talked about through its tragic news. In this region undermined by twenty years of conflicts and rebellions, the Virunga are still currently occupied by several armed groups , who take advantage of a space rich in resources in order to finance their activities. Clashes are frequent there; in March 2016, they again cost the lives of two guards of the park . But the greatest threat currently weighing on the park is linked to its geology. At the end of 2015, the results of a seismic study revealed the presence of significant quantities of oil underground. This oil did not fail to arouse the greed of Western multinationals, supported by certain local elites, endangering the very existence of the park. Since then, the plea for its preservation has evolved into a constant struggle, led on different fronts by its most ardent defenders. The stakes are high: develop economic potential from which millions of people could benefit sustainably, and thus make the park the engine of growth in North Kivu, ensure that the needs and demands of the populations are taken into account and make ensure that the ecological balance of the park is maintained. Oil in the DR. Congo, the worrying precedent of Moanda Oil activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo began at the end of the 1960s. Crude oil production there was 8,351,000 barrels in 2013 [[Federation of Congolese Enterprises, Synthesis of report of activities of the board of directors at the ordinary elective general meeting, Financial year 2013, April 2014, p.5.]] . If the country currently acts as a little thumb in the face of major world producers, recent prospections could considerably change the situation. In addition to the deposits located under the Virunga, a potential reserve of three billion barrels was discovered in 2014 in Lake Albert by a subsidiary of the Fleurette mining group, belonging to the sulfurous Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, several times accused of looting and of corruption by different NGOs, and recently cited in the affair of Panama Papers . A reservation of the same magnitude could exist on the Ugandan side, which has reignited tensions between the two riparian countries . In a report dated 2012, the NGO International Crisis Group analyzes that "instead of being an opportunity for development, the renewed interest in oil in Congo represents a real threat to the stability of a country post-conflict still fragile” [[International Crisis Group, Black gold in Congo: risk of instability or opportunity for development?, Africa Report n°188, July 11, 2012, p.3]]. The main economic operators in Congo are delighted with this enormous potential, which could considerably increase the country's GDP. The effects observed on the ground and relayed in particular by European civil society, however, call for greater restraint and nuance. Moanda, in the province of Bas-Congo, made famous by its sinister nickname of “the poorest oil city in the world”, is the best example, which should concern us in Europe. “Far from constituting a windfall for the socio-economic development of the area, oil extraction generates significant impacts: pollution of water, air, soil, destruction of food crops, scarcity of fish resources,” notes a report from CCFD-terre solidaire. “These impacts are not inevitable, but the result of the lack of preventive measures, both from the State and from the operating company, the Franco-British company Perenco. The involvement of these European companies therefore closely links us to this situation. Thus, the cumulative impacts of pollution (crude spills and leaks, burning of associated gases, poor treatment of waste) undermine the rights of populations, particularly in terms of the right to health, food and means of subsistence. . Furthermore, the benefits of this activity escape local populations (in terms of jobs and tax revenue). […] Oil also generates social tensions among populations who feel “besieged” by a foreign company which acts on their territory in an irresponsible manner. Each time they expressed their legitimate discontent, their action was subject to repression by local authorities, more inclined to defend the interests of the company than the rights of the population. In fact, in Moanda, black gold is the lever of “poor development”, symptomatic of an oil activity which, if not regulated, can become a scourge for communities and territories. who welcome him » . Who would still dare to claim that the fears displayed by the protectors of Virunga are unfounded? More info: The study of environmental impacts in DR Congo was the subject of a previous analysis : Oil exploitation in Virunga: update on the situation In 2007, the Congolese government granted exploration permits to oil companies. These “blocks” encompass Lake Edward and cover nearly 85% of the Virunga surface area, despite clear legislation prohibiting any extraction within national parks. Following international pressure, several of them promised not to invest in the reserve. Despite everything, a much less scrupulous English company, SOCO International, continues its activities. Determined to fight against this infiltration, park officials began to collect documents [[These operations will be recounted in the documentary by director Orlando VON EINSIEDEL, Virunga, in 2014.]] revealing corrupt practices on the part of the agents of SOCO . At the same time, a complaint was filed by WWF against the company. The two parties finally agreed to an agreement in June 2014, and SOCO undertook not to carry out any drilling in the park once its prospecting activities were completed. analysis_parc_des_virunga_un_spérance_tenu_mais_tenace_h400.jpg However, in Goma, a city located in the east of the DRC, on the Rwandan border (see map) these supposed guarantees have not allayed the concerns of environmental defenders and spokespersons for populations living on the periphery. of the park. Met in April 2016 in the capital of the North Kivu province, Bantu Lukambo, founder of the NGO “Innovation for development and environmental protection” has good reasons to remain skeptical. The activist, who was recently awarded the Alexandre Soros Prize in recognition of his commitment to the environment and human rights, has been the target of numerous attempts of intimidation and knows SOCO well having dealt with their shenanigans himself. Bantu was offered twenty thousand dollars, as well as various advantages, in exchange for ceasing his militant activity, and pleading in favor of oil exploitation to the very dynamic civil society of Vitshumbi [[Interview conducted in April 2016. The inhabitants of Vitshumbi mainly depend on fishing, and are therefore particularly concerned by the protection of the lake. These last years, the fishermen of Vitshumbi, like those from Nyakakoma, the village near which SOCO established its base in 2011, took the lead in demonstrations against oil exploitation in the park, and denounced the reprisals of which they were victims. According to Human Rights Watch, two of them were murdered by Congolese soldiers linked to the security of SOCO.]] , his native village, located on the south shore of Lake Edouard (see map). According to him, the media campaign which followed the release of the Virunga documentary significantly weakened SOCO. The current fall in oil prices is undoubtedly also not unrelated to the group's withdrawal. The latter, however, have not said their last word, and are still present in Goma. A basic prefab, on Boulevard Kanyamuhanga, would also house their offices. SOCO would readjust its strategy and wait for the right moment to get back into the race. Rumors report a meeting a few days earlier in Uganda, during which a partnership with a Chinese company was discussed. If material evidence is currently difficult to gather, this information is also reported to us by Alexis Muhima, of the Congolese Civil Society Observatory for Peace Minerals. On the side of the park authorities, the compromise made by WWF did not reassure either. Emmanuel de Mérode, usually imperturbable, is still furious today; he believes that the terms of the agreement open a breach for the Congolese government, likely to redraw the limits of Virunga to facilitate prospecting oil . The signal sent by civil society, whose role in this affair was important, should have been stronger... In June 2015, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo also confirmed the existence of talks with UNESCO in this subject . However, the world heritage status granted to the park in 1979 by the institution now seems to be the last legal guarantee of its preservation. More info: 2014, Justice and Peace, Analysis Virunga National Park: windfall of gold against gorillas? Makala, deforestation and armed groups: dangerous connections Oil is, however, far from being the only danger facing the Virunga. In North Kivu, the demographic explosion [[With more than 6.5 million inhabitants in 2015, for an area of less than 60,000km2, North Kivu is the most densely populated province in the country, after city-province of Kinshasa.]] in recent years has multiplied energy needs. The extremely precarious electricity network leaves more than 95% of the population dependent on wood and “makala” (charcoal) for their daily energy consumption (mainly for preparing meals). The majority of these resources (80% according to WWF) available both in rural areas and in the city of Goma, come from the forests of Virunga National Park, where wood is cut illegally. The growing demand for wood has serious social and environmental consequences. First, households become poorer as prices increase, in a province where the incidence of poverty is already excessively high (72.9% in 2009 [[UNDP – Anti-Poverty Unit, North Kivu Province. Poverty and living conditions of households, March 2009, p.6. ] Then, the rate of deforestation in Virunga, estimated at 1% per year, is significantly higher than the world average, reaching a biodiversity already strongly affected by decades of fighting, and thus threatening the region's tourism ambitions. On the other hand, the numerous armed groups active in Kivu derive substantial income from the exploitation and marketing of this charcoal. Estimated at more than 30 million dollars per year, the trafficking of this resource therefore contributes to fueling conflicts in the east of the country. Virunga Alliance, proof that other development is possible The exploitation of natural resources such as oil and wood does not guarantee lasting development. Another model must therefore be favored. Many alternatives exist, and initiatives in this direction are well underway. In 2016, the consolidation phase of the “Virunga Alliance” projects began. Its instigator, Emmanuel de Mérode, intends to demonstrate, by combining the efforts of institutions, civil society and private investors, that the park constitutes a major asset for the communities living in its periphery. That's almost four million people. The keystone of the program lies in the development of an efficient energy network, stemming deforestation [[The fight against deforestation in Virunga is of particular concern to local environmental stakeholders and international donors. Other encouraging initiatives have taken place in the region in recent years. WWF, for example, initiated the EcoMakala project, the objective of which is to provide the populations of Goma with charcoal produced from fast-growing tree plantations, carried out by small farmers on land located not far from the Virunga Park. The first encouraging results decided the NGO to step up its efforts. To know more :]], allowing the relaunch of economic activity, benefiting households, and, indirectly, the central government. Indeed, as suggested by the President of COP21 and French Minister of the Environment, Ségolène Royal, during her visit to Kinshasa in March 2016, the DRC could obtain financial compensation as a reward for the efforts made to protect its its forests . The park's enormous water resources are now used within a major hydroelectric plan. In 2012, with the financial support of American billionaire Howard G. Buffet, a huge project began. Inaugurated three years later, in December 2015, by President Joseph Kabila himself, the Matebe power plant, located seventy kilometers north of Goma, will soon produce enough electricity to power more than one hundred thousand homes, schools and hospitals. An infrastructure of the same type had preceded it in Mutwanga, on the Béni side, further north of the park, and six additional power plants could see the light of day in the near future. The regular supply of energy is essential to the agri-food industry, an economic sector targeted by the Virunga Alliance, along with fishing and tourism. In Mutwanga, a palm oil processing factory has already seen the light of day. Hundreds of workers have since been hired, and farmers have seen their income increase significantly. The Alliance also provides technical support to Lake Edouard fishermen, with a view to guaranteeing the sustainable supply of fish, and increasing the commercial value of the commodity, in particular through developments in packaging. The profits thus generated will amount to several tens of millions of dollars each year. According to estimates, by attracting innovations and investments, Virunga Alliance projects will create nearly 100,000 jobs. Here lies the cement of lasting pacification, in a disaster-stricken region where, as Emmanuel de Mérode points out, “70% young people aged 18 to 30 are unemployed, which makes them sensitive to all the temptations » . By providing them with future prospects, the park authorities therefore hope to limit the influence of armed groups on the most idle, and many militiamen could even take advantage of this opportunity to leave the maquis. Once stability is regained, a renewed interest in the very lucrative provincial tourism potential is expected. The Alliance also aspires to increase the number of visitors tenfold in the coming years, and plans to reinvest a good part of the profits to strengthen social infrastructure (access to drinking water, construction of roads, schools, and hospitals). Methane in Lake Kivu: a path to exploit From Goma, through the fog, we can see the hills of Gisenyi, the Rwandan border town located on the other side of the shore. In recent days, the waters of Lake Kivu have been tinged with turquoise [[The phenomenon was observed in April 2016. . The phenomenon, which further illuminates this magnificent panorama, is above all synonymous with anxiety for the Gomatracians.]] Rumors report a resumption of the volcanic activity of Nyiragongo. This would explain this strange coloring, as spectacular as it is sudden. Scientists for their part put forward the thesis of a seasonal episode, favoring a multiplication of greenish algae. The population, still deeply affected by the eruption of January 17, 2002, which caused lava flows which forced the displacement of half a million people and caused significant material damage, does not seem reassured. Although tension has subsided since a return to normal, Lake Kivu nonetheless remains the subject of serious concerns. It is one of the three lakes in the world that contain the highest concentrations of gases (carbon dioxide and methane). This gas could serve as a detonator for a limnic eruption, and become fatal for nearly two million local residents. . This contains a thousand times less gas than Lake Kivu.]] . The threat posed by the lake to the two provinces of Kivu and neighboring Rwanda is not its only particularity. It is the only one where gas can be exploited commercially and converted into electrical energy. If extracted, methane indeed becomes a quite efficient fuel. As a result, Rwanda inaugurated a floating power plant in May 2016 that transforms potentially deadly gas fumes into a clean, sustainable energy source. The country thus aims to provide electricity to more than 70% of its population by 2017, compared to only 18% currently. On the Congolese side, numerous NGOs regularly alert the authorities of the need to carry out extraction, and of the energy potential that Lake Kivu holds. CO2 degassing work began recently. However, no commercial exploitation of methane gas has so far been launched by the country. However, it would constitute an interesting avenue to compensate for the energy deficit in the large cities of Kivu, and thus obstruct the deforestation underway in Virunga. Provided that this exploitation does not ultimately prove harmful to the local population, which serious safeguards should prevent. A Congolese responsibility, but a role to play also in Belgium The ambitious projects initiated on the outskirts of Virunga, some completed, others still under construction, finally leave a real hope of peace and prosperity in a region which, except for brief lulls, has not known appeasement for more than two decades. They can also constitute an important argument in favor of the preservation of this fabulous nature reserve. It is now imperative that the Congolese government and the provincial institutions of North Kivu take stock of these advances, achieved until now mainly on the basis of personal initiatives and thanks to private investments. The implementation of these projects must at all costs be supported and supported by state authorities. A decisive step in this direction would consist of observing a firm position, cutting short local and foreign appetites for the natural resources of Virunga, which offer no guarantee of stability and sustainable development, quite the contrary. On the other hand, in a tense pre-electoral context, with uncertain deadlines, we can fear a withdrawal of international funding, as well as a renewed insecurity, which would jeopardize the continuation and sustainability of these actions. During the contacts of its parliamentarians and ministers with the Congolese government, Belgium therefore has a role to play in emphasizing and repeating the importance of both the preservation of this global natural heritage and the support of economic and social initiatives which can fuel a virtuous circle of peace. As Belgian citizens, it is important that we ensure that we continue to hear about the Virunga Park, its exceptional wealth, its tourism potential to be developed, the role of companies in feeding it rather than destroy it, etc. The long-term development process activated by the Virunga Alliance could be accompanied by other major undertakings, such as the exploitation of methane for energy purposes. Arrangements must be made to ensure everyone's benefit. The wood marketing chain, for example, could be seriously affected, and small distributors find themselves particularly harmed by seeing the income on which they depend slip away. These considerations must therefore be taken into account, by allowing them access to training and trying to integrate them into other economic activities. For further : The French-speaking Belgian Justice and Peace Commission



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