Congo is Sitting on Trillions in Mineral Deposits, What Does That Mean for Wildlife?
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most iconic parks in Africa boasting of a rich diversity of ecosystems and landscapes. Not only is it rich in wildlife but also large deposits of valuable minerals, which have the potential of generating $1 billion worth of revenue yearly and lie unexploited within the park. With plans to excavate these minerals underway, will the wildlife be sacrificed for the minerals?
The park, which was founded in 1925 and initially named Albert National Park after its founder King Albert I of Belgium, is the oldest national park in Africa and covers about an area of about 1.9 million acres. Considered to be one of the wonders of Africa, the park’s large mineral deposits have the potential of making DRC one of the richest countries in the world and transform the entire economy of Africa. In 2009, the country had an estimated $24 trillion worth of unexploited minerals ranging from gold and diamonds to oil, cobalt, uranium and many others.
The massive natural wealth of the DRC has largely been seen as a curse rather than a blessing as a civil war and the fight over control of the minerals has never ceased in the country. This security instability has, in turn, made it easy for poachers to access the park, which has to a massive decline of animal populations including that of elephants and mountain gorillas.
Nature conservationists are, on the other hand, worried that if the plans for commercial mineral exploitation were to see the light of day, it would result in the massive destruction of the dense equatorial forest that covers much of the DRC, including the natural habitats of the many animals resident to the Virunga National Park. It will also hugely contribute to the devastating effects of global warming and climatic change.
Emmanuel de Merode, director of the Virunga National Park, expressed concern that the park will not survive unless a critical mass of funding is mobilized. He spoke in reference to the growing resentment by the local communities around the park that have been politically incited to believe that the park is responsible for the current economic woes. Many of them now believe that the Belgian colonizers tricked them and acquired their precious farmlands, which now contain precious minerals. De Merode remarks that unless the park is able to generate an equivalent of the revenue the minerals would generate for the locals, then it won’t survive.
True to this, the park is classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as endangered.
As a response and in a bid to save the park, communal projects have been kickstarted to help improve the livelihoods of the local communities. For instance, a $166 million hydroelectric power scheme funded by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation has been started with an aim of utilizing Virunga’s rivers and electrify the adjacent households. The project is estimated to provide about 60,000 to 100,000 jobs for the locals, the outcome of which de Merode hopes will be peaceful co-existence with the locals. Roads around the park are also receiving an upgrade courtesy of the park.
With the DRC remaining a chronically unstable country, one can only hope that the Virunga National Park will survive. But it remains to be seen what will be sacrificed for the other; minerals or wildlife?