The Challenge

Virunga National Park’s resources have enormous economic value. When these resources are poorly managed, they can lead to extreme cycles of violence. Cultivating peace and stability in the region is tied to the Park’s ability to harness the wealth of the Park to help build new jobs and opportunities for the local population.

Security Remains Volatile

The Park is located in a region best described as a low intensity conflict zone. Rangers are deployed throughout its territory, with the exception of its northern extremities, currently in the hands of the ADF-NALU militias, and the region of Masisi in the extreme South – a territory with a lower ecological value. The number of armed groups’ members is estimated at 1,500 and 3,000 individuals in and around the Park. These groups engage in criminal activities including trafficking of charcoal, illegal fishing, illegal agriculture, poaching for ivory and bush meat, kidnapping, and extortion (barriers and taxes).

Civilians are the first victims of armed groups, including through kidnappings and attacks. In a recent report, the Kivu Security Tracker estimates that 3,000 incidents claimed the lives of over 6,000 people between 2017 and 2019 in both South and North Kivu. Hundreds of kidnapping cases are also recorded each year. Human Right Watch published an in-depth investigation for the period 2017-2020 in the Rutshuru area specifically.

Armed groups are responsible for numerous violent deaths among civilians and the Park’s rangers. Over 200 rangers have been killed in the line of duty in the past 25 years.

Rampant Poverty

The region has one of the highest population densities in Africa with around 300 inhabitants/km2. Five million people live within a day’s walk of the Park boundaries, one of the highest rural population densities in Africa.

The socio-economic conditions for the Park’s adjacent populations are extremely precarious. Outside the cities, residents live mainly off subsistence agriculture, livestock and fishing. Land in the region is fertile but yields remain low because of land tenure problems, lack of access to credit, insecurity and poor agricultural practices. The transformation industry for agricultural produce is largely absent, and there are few jobs outside smallholder farming. The poor state of the roads further adds to the challenges.

In North Kivu, more than 90% of the population survive below the extreme poverty threshold defined by the World Bank at 1.9 USD per day per person. Destitution is such that many of the poorest are entirely excluded from the monetary economy and daily work is often paid for in food or agricultural products.

Natural Resource trafficking

The income generated from natural resource trafficking from the Park is estimated at 175 million USD per year. Over 100,000 people derive their direct livelihood from these illegal activities. About 50 million USD of this figure contributes to the wealth of irregular militia groups. The money they obtain from kidnappings, robberies and murders adds to their power. Tolls collected at informal road barriers also represent indirect revenues from the Park’s products.

International trafficking involves the removal of ivory and hardwoods. This international trafficking poses a serious risk, especially for elephants, but its impact remains low compared to local trafficking.

The clearance of forest to produce charcoal is a major threat. Charcoal, known locally as “makala” is massively consumed by the inhabitants of the cities of Goma, Beni and Butembo. To a lesser extent, wood is also used for carpentry and construction.

The degradation of natural habitats, particularly deforestation and illegal crop production, is another major problem, affecting one fifth of the park’s area. Armed groups extort “protection” payments from those cultivating crops within the Park boundaries.

The shores of Lake Edward attract armed groups. They extort money from legal fishermen, or fish themselves, using techniques that cause serious damage to the environment. At the same time, they slaughter hippos and other large mammals, either consuming or selling their meat.

The threat of oil exploitation, which was very present in 2015, has diminished temporarily, but remains real. The Park’s success in opposing illegal oil lies in the efforts of ICCN and its partners to uphold the rule of law. The very low price of a crude barrel also helps to ward off the threat.

Trafficking of the Park’s natural resources is intrinsically linked to the poverty and rule of law challenges in the region

The threats are multifold. For the most part, their roots lie in the poor livelihoods of the Park’s neighboring population. Armed groups act as predators who fuel an illegal and violent economy cycle.

Post Ebola and Covid-19 Crisis

With the second largest outbreak in history, the effects of Ebola have been particularly harmful to the already vulnerable communities of Eastern DRC. Not only have tourism and market access been severely disrupted but political instability has also been exacerbated. The long-term effects of the Covid-19 crisis are still to be understood. It forced the Park to suspend tourism, depriving it of important tourism revenues. Additional measures were taken to protect staff, local communities, the Gorillas & other primates that are believed to be extremely susceptible to the virus.

 

Virunga’s Context at a Glance
  • Poverty Index

    72%

    People in Congo are living below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 per person per day (2018)

  • Population

    6.7M

    Individuals currently living in North Kivu – five million live within a day’s walk of the Park.

  • Population Growth Rate

    3.2%

    Annual population growth rate for the Democratic Republic of Congo (2018).

  • Economic Growth Rate

    4.4%

    Economic growth rate for the Democratic Republic of Congo (2019).

  • Number of Armed Groups

    1500/3000

    Number of armed groups members in/around the Park (mid-2020)

  • Security Incidents

    51 / 700

    Number of security incidents targeting civilians in/around/the Park (2019):

Virunga Alliance

Born out of the Congolese commitment to protect Virunga National Park and the five million people who live within a day’s walk of the Park’s borders, the Virunga Alliance aims to foster peace and prosperity through the responsible economic development of natural resources.

What is the Virunga Alliance?

In 2013, the Park launched the Virunga Alliance which brings together North Kivu’s public authorities, civil society and the private sector around a shared vision of sustainable development. Together, they pursue three objectives: the conservation of the Park’s natural resources, the reduction of poverty and the promotion of peace. They are interdependent and of equal importance because the success of one ultimately determines the success of the others.

Park rangers are employees and representatives of the State and are responsible for upholding the law within the Park area, and with certain restrictions, also in its periphery. Their tasks include patrolling the Park, the seizure of illegal shipments, arresting suspects and transferring them to the judicial system. Beyond the protection of fauna and flora, rangers make a significant contribution to the stabilization of the entire region.

In addition to its sovereign missions, the Park is also a major economic player in the province. Its development agenda is focused on three pillars: tourism, energy and agriculture.

Institutional Setup

Virunga National Park is part of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) which is an institution of the Democratic Republic of Congo, (DRC), responsible for the protection of nature. The Virunga Foundation (VF) is a charitable organization under British law, whose mission is to contribute to the protection and development of the park.

In 2015, the ICCN and the Virunga Foundation entered into a cooperation agreement – a public-private partnership – running until 2040. While the organisations are separate, in the field, ICCN staff and Virunga Foundation employees work under the authority of a single management.

Several legal entities support the implementation of Virunga’s activities. They were established to contribute to the well-being of communities neighbouring the Park and to ensure its financial autonomy through the creation of new revenue streams. All entities are limited liability companies with a social purpose.

Goals

    01
    Conservation

    Virunga was awe-inspiring at the end of the 1980s. The two Congo wars, from 1996 to 1997 and from 1998 to 2003, almost caused its destruction.

    Yes, ICCN rangers have never given up on their mission to protect the Park, even during the war years, and sometimes without being paid for long periods. Thanks to their dedication, Virunga’s flora and fauna are now in the process of recovery.

  • 01
    Conservation

    To remove Virunga National Park from the List of World Heritage in Danger for its 100th anniversary (1925-2025).

  • 02
    Poverty

    The Virunga Alliance pursues an economic transformation agenda. It aims to create the conditions that will allow the creation of jobs and increasing income. The supply of energy, access to credit for entrepreneurs, roads construction, support to the agricultural sector and strengthening good governance are the main instruments.

    Ultimately, the Virunga Alliance plans to generate 1 billion USD in economic activity and create 100,000 jobs – figures that would make the park profitable for the local population who, so far, bears alone the cost of conserving the Park.

  • 02
    Poverty

    To create 1 billion USD in sustainable and shared economic activity.

  • 03
    Contribution to Peace

    The reasons for individuals joining an armed group are multiple and complex. They include the protection of the family and the community from threats, access to food and alcohol, the desire for a better income, political indoctrination and forced recruitment. To discourage young men from the grip of militias, the Virunga Alliance establishes the pre-conditions that allow their members to make a choice: remain in the armed group or leave and lay down their weapons to start a new life with a legal job.

    The Virunga Alliance does not target armed groups as such – to avoid encouraging participation – but creates an environment that benefits the entire community in which members of armed groups plan to resettle.

  • 03
    Contribution to Peace

    To restore the rule of law and create 100,000 jobs to offer an alternative for members of armed groups.

Building a Solution

The Virunga Alliance was founded on the principle that the Park’s survival depends on its ability to act as an asset for its surrounding communities. Through the responsible and sustainable development of the Park’s key assets – tourism, clean energy, and sustainable agriculture – the Virunga Alliance is working to kick-start a green economy in eastern Congo, for the benefit of its neighbouring communities.

    04
    Eco-Tourism

    From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, Virunga National Park was the francophone equivalent of the Serengeti as a world class destination, but conflicts caused a decline in Tourism. On top of giving a positive image of North-Kivu to the rest of the world, nature-based tourism is a sector with among the largest multipliers for the local economy. Tourism is a labor-intensive sector. Large amounts of money are spent on purchases that directly benefit the poorest inhabitants.

    Through massive efforts, tourism was relaunched in 2014. Since that time, there have been over 15,000 visitors to the Park.

  • 04
    Eco-Tourism

    Tourism in Virunga National Park holds massive potential for eastern Congo and is a clear growth industry for the entire region. The creation of highly skilled and profitable employment that is also sustainable has the potential to generate billions of dollars in revenue for the country.

  • 05
    Clean Energy

    Virunga National Park’s hydroelectric potential is estimated at 105MW. Four hydroelectric stations are currently operational.

    Two small stations (0.35 MW and 1.4 MW) are in operation in Mutwanga, north of Lake Edward. They supply a distribution network of around 40,000 direct and indirect users.
    The Rushuru I station (13MW), located in Matebe, supplies the Rutshuru Province, along with an extension of the line as far as Goma. Its distribution network supplies 300,000 direct and indirect users (by end of 2019).

    The Luviro station (14.6 MW) will be put into operation at the beginning of 2020. The same size as Rutshuru I, it will supply Lubero Province and hopefully the town of Butembo. Its network will benefit 250,000 direct and indirect users.

    The Virunga Alliance is aimed at stimulating economic growth and its activities are targeted at small and medium businesses. Their development is unfeasible without access to electricity as alternative energy sources (for example, solar power) do not meet their needs. Generators, beyond their environmental impact, are prohibitively expensive.

    A system is in place to allow them to access financial resources which banks generally refuse to grant them. The beneficiaries can take out a loan which they repay at each purchase of electricity, which will have an average increase on the regular kWh price . They are therefore not obliged to pay a fixed sum at the end of the month and can repay their loan when they make a profit. By the end of 2019, 131 local entrepreneurs had taken advantage of the scheme. They have used the loans to finance mills, dryers, fridges, incubators, ovens, carpentry tools, welding units, oil presses, cement blocks and electrical equipment to name but a few. These businesses also invest in infrastructure projects.

    Three industrial parks are currently being considered close to the hydroelectric stations. They will offer businesses an ideal environment for their development: a secure area with easy access to electricity and water along with setup infrastructure to help establish their business. Training and financial advice will also be offered to all businesses established in the industrial park.

    Domestic connections are available to all households that request them. Electricity purchases are made on a prepaid meter, which encourages saving electricity. Electricity is however not a substitute for charcoal consumption during meal preparation. Solving the complex issue of the “Makala” will only be feasible through a range of measures: Changes in cooking habits, production of “eco-charcoal”, access to gas, improved hearths etc.

    All inhabitants of supplied villages and neighbourhoods benefit from street lighting. Its impact is profound: social life in the evenings is extended and most importantly, security improves. This has particularly been relayed back by women, who are the main targets of kidnappings and rapes.

  • 05
    Clean Energy

    The Virunga Alliance is working to tackle energy poverty by harnessing the enormous hydrological resources of the Park to create sustainable electricity for local communities and businesses.

  • 06
    Sustainable Agriculture

    The Virunga Alliance promotes the sustainable exploitation of agricultural production by working on the value chain: production by small-scale farmers and fishermen, agro-industrial processing to add value to produce, and distribution to local, national, and international markets.

    Access to electricity has allowed for the establishment of a network of 30 cold-rooms which supports the fishing and vegetable cultivation industries. It makes it possible to store fresh produce and release it into the urban market outwith the harvest periods. This system increases the sale price for small producers and provides a higher quality produce to consumers, often replacing imported produce.

    The renown of Virunga National Park is used to help promote local produce. Patents are in place to protect the logo, which is then made available to cooperatives that seek to ensure the reputation of their products. Several Virunga Alliance businesses are already in operation.

    Sicovir, a soap factory, employs 100 staff, generates revenue for 3500 small scale palm tree owners and provides 10 tonnes of soap to local markets daily.
    Virunga Enzymes uses papaya to produce papain, a high-quality enzyme for use by the pharmaceutical industry in Europe, and provides 15 full time jobs, as well as supporting 300 papaya growers.

    A chocolate factory will be opened in the first quarter of 2020, which will allow for the production of chocolate bars in DRC for export to European and North American markets.

    Virunga Alliance’s initiatives should prove worthy of emulation. They demonstrate that agricultural development to a larger scale is viable in the province. This is particularly noticeable in the milling industry – for wheat, maize, and cassava flour – which is experiencing a veritable boom. This new and intensified economic dynamism is having a profound impact in the rural areas where it is taking place.

  • 06
    Sustainable Agriculture

    Electricity provided by the Virunga Alliance’s clean energy program allows businesses to expand. Life is breathing again in the private sector,  especially agri-business processing.

Strengthening Infrastructure

Eastern Congo suffers from two key structural problems that hamper its economic development: inadequate roads and a very adverse business climate. As part of the three pillars of the Virunga Alliance, there is a commitment to improving local infrastructure and governance.

Transport is key to sustainable development and a thriving agricultural business. In the absence of quality feeder roads, small farmers cannot reach urban markets and sell their produce, or can only reach markets after excessive delay and difficulty with produce whose quality has deteriorated. Instead, intermediaries buy the harvest at a very low price and keep the profit margins. Many products that could be produced within the DRC are imported and sold at much higher prices.

Legal insecurity and excessive taxation are another obstacle to small and medium-size entrepreneurship. Many growing businesses struggle with challenges, such as corruption, which can serve as serious impediments to business growth.

The Virunga Alliance is working to tackle these issues through the construction and the maintenance of 1000 km of feeder roads. It will also consolidate the rule of law by leveraging the judicial authority enshrined in the statute of its Rangers and providing legal and fiscal advice to local entrepreneurs. By working on these two “enabling” factors, the Park will unlock the economic potential that hydroelectricity brings to the region.

Governance of the Virunga Alliance

The Virunga Alliance is the result of the collaboration of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the Virunga Foundation, and 127 local institutions from the private sector, civil society and government agencies.

The program is being implemented by an experienced team of Congolese and international experts, with a long track record of delivering effective results in the region. The team operates through Virunga Energies, a DRC subsidiary of the Virunga Foundation, structured to ensure good corporate governance and to promote institutional sustainability.

The Public-Private Partnership agreement established in 2011 gives the Virunga Foundation an official mandate and the management freedom needed to rapidly and efficiently implement a conservation focussed peace-building program. It also keeps the Virunga Foundation accountable to the State.

All external and internal resources are deployed within a transparent framework, designed in consultation with the Park’s neighboring communities, and managed in terms of best practice corporate governance.

The Progress

Thanks to the commitment of the Virunga Rangers, Congolese government, and partners and supporters from around the world, the Park has seen a remarkable period of transformation since the creation of the Virunga Alliance.

  • 2008
    Development meets conservation
  • 2010
    Hydroelectric Potential
  • 2011
    Public-Private Partnership
  • 2012
    Community Development
  • 2013
    Mutwanga Hydroelectric Plant
  • 2014
    Tourism Relaunched
  • 2015
    Matebe Hydroelectric Plant
  • 2016
    Luviro Hydroelectric Plant
  • 2017
    Mutwanga II Construction Begins
  • 2017
    Smart Grid Technology
  • 2018
    Sustainable Agriculture is Accelerated
  • 2019
    Electricity Arrives in Goma
  • Photo credit: Caj Tjeenk Willink
    2008
    Development meets conservation
    With the appointment of a new Park Director, civil society, private sector and state institutions come together to work towards sustainable development goals in eastern Congo.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2010
    Hydroelectric Potential
    Virunga’s hydroelectric potential is identified as a key area for economic growth in the region. Construction for the pilot 400KW hydroelectric plant near Mutwanga, a rural village in Virunga's Northern Sector, begins.
  • Photo credit: LuAnne Cadd
    2011
    Public-Private Partnership
    The Virunga Foundation signs an innovative, 25 year co-management agreement with ICCN. The agreement brings together 127 local institutions from private, civil and government sectors – all committed to sustainably developing the Park’s resources.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2012
    Community Development
    The Rumangabo water supply network was built at the height of the war in April-August 2012 to reduce women and children’s exposure to the dangers of armed conflict by having to venture far from their homes to collect water during the fighting.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2013
    Mutwanga Hydroelectric Plant
    Mutwanga generates electricity for over a thousand homes and SMEs (instead of 600)
  • Photo credit: LuAnne Cadd
    2014
    Tourism Relaunched
    Tourism in the Park was relaunched in January 2014 after the Park was forced to close due to a resurgence of armed conflict in 2012.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2015
    Matebe Hydroelectric Plant
    The launch of the second hydroelectric plant, Matebe, with over 13MW capacity provides clean electricity to 5000 local homes and businesses.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2016
    Luviro Hydroelectric Plant
    Construction of the 14.5MW Luviro power plant begins. First connections are planned for 2020.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2017
    Mutwanga II Construction Begins
    Construction on Mutwanga II begins and is expected to drastically increase capacity of the hydro-electricity network by 2018.
  • Photo credit: Brent Stirton
    2017
    Smart Grid Technology
    The Virunga Alliance rolls out a new approach to reducing unemployment around the park by using smart grid technology and the Park’s electricity network to offer loans to approximately 10,000 small businesses in North Kivu. All loans are repaid through smart meters.
  • 2018
    Sustainable Agriculture is Accelerated
    Acceleration of the Agricultural program that supports small farmers in the coffee, cocoa, palm sector, market gardening and legal fishermen and women from Lake Edward.
  • 2019
    Electricity Arrives in Goma
    Clean, sustainable electricity arrives in the city of Goma, home to around 2 million inhabitants.
Our Progress
  • Free Public Lighting

    400,000

    Over 400,000 people in rural and urban areas benefit from free public lighting.

  • Access to Water

    900,000

    900,000 people have access to water from Park sources or powered by the Park’s electricity

  • Small Coffee Producers

    6,000

    6,000 small producers sell Virunga-branded coffee to Europe, Australia and the US.

  • Fish Value Chain Beneficiaries

    8,000

    Over 8000 fishermen, members of women cooperatives and local transporters live off the fish value chain from Lake Edward.

  • Tourists

    17000

    Tourists have visited Virunga

01
Virunga Rangers

Over 700 men and women standing fearlessly to protect Virunga

Learn more about Virunga's Rangers

Photo credit: Brent Stirton

Supporting the families left behind

Photo credit: Brent Stirton

Protecting Virunga's endangered species

Photo credit: LuAnne Cadd