Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the park borders Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is rich in wildlife and fauna, having over 706 bird, 196 mammal, and 2,000 plant species. Although Virunga National Park is rich in biodiversity, it is also located in a nation that is facing violence and instability. According to BBC:
Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transnational government in 2003, people in east of the country remain in fear of continuing death, rape or displacement by marauding militias and the army.
The war claimed an up to six million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. It has been possibly the worst emergency in Africa in recent decades.
The years of turmoil and lack of governance severely impacts Virunga National Park’s biodiversity. According to the World Wildlife Fund:
The war in Rwanda in the early 1990s and years of civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo have sent waves of refugees into the region around the Virunga Mountains parks that are home to more than half the mountain gorilla population, leading to poaching and destruction of gorilla habitat.
As as shown in the documentary Virunga, even greater instability within Virunga National Park occurred when SOCO International, a British oil company, began its oil exploration plans in 2010. Unfortunately, those who opposed – including civilians and park rangers— SOCO’s presence in the park were “beaten by government soldiers.” What has happened since the film came out?
M23 – a Rwandan backed militia consisting of ex-Congolese soldiers – occupied Virunga National Park from 2012 to late-2013, when the Congolese government claimed to defeat the militia. Essentially, both the militia and the government stirred up violence within Virunga National Park. Yet, it’s important to note that at the time, other rebel groups were present in the park, such as Mai-Mai PARECO and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
As of summer 2014, SOCO agreed to stop its oil exploration plans, “unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its world heritage status.” More recently, the DRC wants to redefine the park’s boundaries for oil exploration. The future of the park’s management and protection remains uncertain, as SOCO could very well allow another company to have its exploration rights.
The DRC is arguably facing a resource curse—having abundant natural resources, while undergoing slow economic development.
Are there other means to facilitate economic development in the DRC without endangering biodiversity? In order to address economic development, it is imperative to ensure the governance and stability of a nation. To ensure the governance and stability of a nation, building capacity within government institutions is essential. However, that takes long-term willingness and dedication of assisting nations, IGOs and NGOs.