“The Kivu Dynamic”
Outlook and Opportunities at the heart of the Virunga National Park
-François-Xavier de Donnea,
Minister of State, President of the Foundation Virunga Belgium,
Member of the Board of Directors of the Virunga Foundation (UK) and Virunga Fund Inc
– Bernard de Gerlache, Past President and Head of section DRC – CBL-ACP
– Thierry Claeys Bouuaert, Vice Chairman CBL-ACP.
Interview by Alexis Biton, Research Assistant CBL-ACP.
Democratic Republic of Congo, North Kivu region is often synonymous with war or poverty. However, many initiatives exist to give hope to people but also to help and preserve one of the the most fascinating territories of the continent.
Virunga National Park, managed on behalf of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) by the Virunga Foundation, under the direction of Emmanuel de Merode, fucuses on a main objective: to protect the unique local biodiversity. The park covers 790,000 hectares and has an incomparable diversity of ecosystems, ranging from swamps and steppes to the snowfields of Rwenzori at over 5000 m above sea level, going through the lava plains to the savannahs on the slopes of volcanoes.
There are two targets aimed by the Virunga Foundation : protecting the environment and involving the approximately 4 million inhabitants by stimulating economic development of the region, which remains among one of the poorest in the country. The environmental goal will only be achieved if local people support the project. The Virunga Foundation understood this perfectly:
the richness of the park should also be enhanced by the construction of numerous local infrastructure. The most emblematic of these are the many projects of hydroelectric plants along the water (running through penstock), funded by the Howard Buffet Foundation, the European Development Fund, the British CDC and BTC. Their management is entrusted to a Congolese subsidiary of the Virunga Foundation, Virunga SARL. Two plants have yet emerged and two others are being planned. With an output of 13.6 MW, the Matebe power plant in Rutshuru embodies the hope for a population that was previously restricted to the use of “makala” (charcoal) which is much more expensive and causes deforestation.
Congolese technicians and workers deserve respect for having worked on this project despite the danger and the instability of the region.
Exactly 24 months after the start of the work under the guidance of highly experienced Belgian engineer, Michel Verleyen, the inauguration ceremony of the plant took place (December 2015).
Michel Verleyen has been transferred to the Virunga Foundation by the EU on behalf of which he also oversees all its funded and achieved projects in the eastern part of the DRC.
Since the opening of the plant, the living conditions of the population have improved significantly. The electricity is largely cheaper than other fossil fuels (4 to 5 times cheaper), access is therefore easy and households can now benefit from an advantageous prepayment system set up by Virunga SARL . Mr François-Xavier de Donnea added proudly that public infrastructures can benefit from preferential tariffs and that Mutwanga hospital managed to save more than 60,000 dollars compared with the preexisting situation.
A part of the area has now the electricity that is necessary to accommodate the many companies that will take advantage of the many assets that owns the territory. Many Congolese entrepreneurs are therefore no more reluctant to embark on the adventure. This tendance is emphasized the electrification of the region, again under the leadership of the park. Agricultural feeder roads as well as schools and water supply systems were renovated. The renovation of roads facilitates agricultural production area in opening up the region.
The local economy gradually recovers after difficult years of civil war, the expectations are more and more exciting.
With this renewal, the region also hopes to encourage the installation of foreign companies. Two particular sectors are privileged: agribusiness and tourism. The territory has indeed many arable land suitable for diversified agriculture and open to local productions transformation initiatives.
In the city of Mutwanga, a soap factory, the SICOVIR, has been created. It will employ 400 people at full capacity and provide for palm oil produced locally. 10,000 local small producers of palm oil will find better opportunities for their production. Supporting papain sector is also a priority, giving the opportunity for local farmers to sell their products more easily. Plans are underway for the production of coffee, cocoa. Studies on vegetable options in the region reveals an interesting potential. A feasibility study is underway with the Agricultural Faculty of Gembloux.
We must also mention the significant investment – more than 125 million USD – directed by the Castel Group, creating a big ultra-modern brewery in the city of Beni, with a capacity of 500,000 hl / year. Inaugurated in 2012, this production unit is also surfing on the development potential of Kivu and its population dynamics.
The tourism sector is also booming. Many tourists are likely to be attracted by the exceptional landscapes offered by the park. Mr de Donnea stated that the park was registered in 2015 over 5000 nights, unthinkable 3-4 years ago. The main assets of the reserve lies in the possibility of observing mountain gorillas, symbol of the entire region, as well as the fabulous local ecosystem. But the most famous place of the territory remains the Nyiragongo volcano and its lava lake, which is quite the most important in the world.
The region undoubtedly has enormous comparative advantages in comparison to other parks in Africa, particularly on prices remaining largely below those prevailing in Rwanda and Uganda or in other countries of the Great Lakes Region .
Tourism remains the sector in which the park hopes to create more jobs. For this reason, the safety of tourists remains the highest priority of the authorities of the park, especially because many tensions remain in some areas.
The stability of the region is the main condition that can ensure sustainable development. Six hundred guards (120 in training) are so far used by the park to fight against poaching, fishing and coal production of illegal timber by militias. It also aims to protect the populations, victim of all kinds of abuses . Rangers are given special forces training. They are led by the director of the park, Emmanuel de Merode. “These men are the keystones of the system, which would not work without them,” confirms Mr de Donnea. Unfortunately, the price is very high. Each year, many guards die in their war against poachers and other militias that threaten the park.
North Kivu once ravaged by conflict, can now look up to a better future. However, it is only through strong initiatives such as the one led by the Virunga Foundation that a region full of advantages can be rescued out of the problems caused by the war. The aim of preserving the environment can be completed only by a true development policy led in conjunction with public, private institutions and – finally- the civil society that guarantees the richness of its environment.
We thank François-Xavier de Donnea to the stimulating interview.
Virunga Foundation Belgium asbl
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