On a Friday in Goma central prison in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, 25 dirty, barefoot men accused of illegal fishing in Lake Edward are gathered before three judges, who come once a week to hear cases against those locked up in a building unrenovated since the Belgian colonial era.
Most of the men immediately admit their guilt. One explains he was hungry. Another needed money to pay school fees. “Life is hard. That is why I did it,” says a third.
Their alleged crime is fishing in Virunga National Park, a protected area in North Kivu province that is home to about 200 of the 720 mountain gorillas left in the world, lions, elephants, buffalo, antelope, hippopotamus, crocodiles and monkeys. Africa’s oldest national park is among its most diverse, with active volcanoes, snowy peaks, great lakes and the glaciers of the Rwenzori mountains. Park officials say it contains more species of birds, mammals and reptiles than any other protected area on the planet.
But its location – in the most unstable part of an unstable country where competition for land is fierce and more than three million people live within a day’s walk of its borders – often brings it into conflict with local residents.
Members of a farming cooperative in North Kivu’s Rutshuru territory are among those unhappy with the park. “Because of the war we have many IDPs [internally displaced people] and need many farms. It is difficult to live without our land,” said Kasereka Kikolera Koseye, a member of the cooperative from the town of Kiwanja.
|There are many ways to protect the animals. But we are really struggling to cultivate the soil.|
“There are many ways to protect the animals,” he said. “But we are really struggling to cultivate the soil.”
A Pygmy displaced in 2008 by fighting between the government and the National Congress for the Defence of the Congolese People (CNDP) rebels says his people used to live in the park, hunting and gathering as they had done for generations. “The gorillas are staying there now and the government has decided to protect the gorillas,” said the man, who now lives in an IDP camp in Kiwanja. “We don’t know where to go.”
The Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN), which runs Virunga, is aware that excluding local people from more than 790,000ha of prime North Kivu soil is not popular in a country where most people live on less than US$2 a day.
But it also knows that to protect the animals it must win over their human neighbours and so has implemented education and economic development projects.
ICCN is building a 300KW hydroelectric plant in the north of the park, enough to provide electricity to the park station as well as to about 50,000 people living in the area. It has also built seven local schools with funding from the European Union.
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Elsewhere, it hopes to bring up to 150 children per week to the park’s Rumangabo headquarters to see two young mountain gorillas rescued after their parents were killed in 2007. Ndeze and Ndakasi were moved from Goma several months ago to the Senkwekwe Centre where they are tended by four rangers.
“The centre is not just about caring for gorillas. We’re going to use it for education,” said Samantha Newport, Virunga’s communications director. The centre is named after the murdered Silverback gorilla.
One of Virunga’s most challenging – but crucial – projects is to change how residents cook. Most use charcoal, about 90 percent of which is taken from the park. Goma residents alone consume more than 1.3 million sacks per year, making deforestation the park’s biggest threat.
ICCN is trying to tempt people away from charcoal by offering a sustainable replacement – biomass briquettes made from organic materials, including grass, leaves, agricultural waste, scrap paper and sawdust.
The briquettes are produced by local women using equipment provided free by the park. Virunga then buys back the briquettes and sells them in Goma to hospitals, schools, the UN mission and even the prison.
“We now have 3,600 people and 600 presses making the briquettes,” said Newport. “They’re made by women, which means they don’t have to go into the forest to collect firewood and risk getting raped.”
Photo: Lisa Clifford/IRIN
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She says the briquettes are 30 percent cheaper than charcoal, which consumes up to 80 percent of locals' income. But Newport knows the ICCN goal of permanently displacing charcoal as the dominant household fuel in North Kivu is ambitious. “It’s really hard to change people’s cooking habits,” she said.
Kalengira village chief Kanuma Mwendapole says lack of access to Virunga is hindering reconstruction. “Many houses were destroyed, but we can’t get into the park to cut down the trees and build more,” he said.
Park officials know that convincing the villagers of Kalengira that Virunga’s trees are more valuable housing gorillas than sheltering humans will be a huge challenge. Newport believes that tourism and its potential income could be one way to get locals involved in protecting the park.
Permits for mountain gorilla viewing in Virunga are $400 and climbing the Nyiragongo volcano costs $200 - 30 percent of which goes directly to local communities.
“I don’t think that people have forgotten that tourists used to come here,” said Newport. “People are also aware that the DRC is perceived in a catastrophically negative light.”
Tourism flourished in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, but years of war and neglect have taken their toll on the park infrastructure, meaning tourists are sparse: just 120 visited in May.
There are no real roads or electricity and the 250km “gorilla sector” is the only part of the park that is safe for visitors.
Tourists are given an armed guard for all forays into the park; rangers still clash with the four armed groups operating inside its borders. More than 150 rangers have died defending Virunga in the past 10 years – the latest killed as he installed toilets for volcano climbers.
“Ultimately tourism will be very beneficial but we need to do things slowly,” said Newport. “To work in Virunga you have to have a lot of energy and remain optimistic.”
Back at Goma prison, the fishermen file out of the makeshift courtroom to await their fate. Verdicts will be handed down at a later date.