In the forested hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a Belgian conservationist is betting that a series of hydropower plants can save Africa’s oldest national park and bring economic development and stability to the impoverished, violent region.
In 2010, Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, carried out a survey that concluded the park could generate more than 100 megawatts of energy. That’s 25 times more power than the regional capital of 1.5 million people, Goma, currently receives, he says.
Since then, the park’s authorities have supported the development of a 0.4-megawatt micro plant at Mtwanga and a $19.7 million, 14-megawatt facility at Matebe. The former powers a soap factory that provides 400 jobs. The latter, funded by U.S. philanthropist Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren, may soon electrify Goma.
“Virunga is one of those parks that cannot be protected by conservationists,” De Merode said in an interview at its headquarters in March. “To survive we need an economic model that meets the needs of the population.”
The 7,800 square-kilometer (3,012 square-mile) reserve, the subject of a 2014, Oscar-nominated documentary, was founded in 1925 and is home to some of the last remaining 700 mountain gorillas in the world. It is also in a densely populated corner of the vast country of 75 million people, where economic opportunities are few and every inch of fertile land is coveted. Congo’s army has been battling dozens of local and foreign militias that operate in the region for the past two decades.
De Merode says his approach has made him unpopular with other conservationists, but insists that building a local economy is the only way to protect the Unesco World Heritage site in the long-term. Reserving the park’s 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares) of exploitable fertile land for conservation costs the local population more than $1 billion in lost farming revenue, according to estimates by the park’s management team.
“The area that is covered by Virunga has exceptional value to all of humanity, but it also has a cost and that cost is being borne locally by some of the poorest people on Earth,” De Merode said. “Our target is to create an industry that is dependent on the park that can offset that cost.”
In addition to hydropower and associated agro-industries, De Merode said tourism can also drive development. Revenue from tourism reached $1.7 million last year, up from $500,000 in 2014, and is expected to rise by at least 50 percent this year, he said.
Matebe is the first private hydropower project to be completed under a June 2014 law that provided for the liberalization of the country’s electricity sector. Congo has installed power-generating capacity of 2,442 megawatts, though only about half of that is functioning after years of under-investment. The plant is currently electrifying the surrounding villages and the park headquarters via a 40-kilometer power line, though in the absence of other reliable power sources, Matebe is under pressure from the state energy company to send electricity to Goma, de Merode said.
“Our initial responsibility is to the rural communities around the park,” he said, adding that he’s optimistic about the potential future reach of electricity generated by rivers flowing from the park’s mountainous interior.
“That potential really exists to develop a transformative sector,” he said. “The park can become an engine behind a new economy.”