Africa

The power projects keeping Virunga Park alive

Updated 5:33 AM ET, Mon December 12, 2016
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The largest mountain gorilla population in the world is in Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa, and the continent's most biologically diverse protected area.

This environment is under constant threat from conflicts, deforestation, and poaching, and Virunga authorities are now pursuing a strategy of developing power infrastructure, which it is hoped will deliver prosperity that will reduce the violence and criminal damage inside the park.
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The Matebe hydro-electric power plant is being constructed by the Virunga Alliance. It will produce around 13 megawatts of clean energy, which be used to support local development. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Rigging electricity wires at the Matebe plant to supply local communities. It is hoped the plant will create thousands of direct and indirect jobs. Dominique Keser
Workers carry construction materials at the Matebe plant. The $20 million facility was funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the European Union. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
People socialize in the streets enlightened by electric lightning in the town of Bugara, powered by the Matebe facility. The vast majority of the Congolese population doesn't have access to electricity. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Workers paint a wall in white at the electric turbines of the Matebe dam. The Virunga Alliance has raised a further $39 million for two further hydro-electric plants in the region, and hopes to build eight plants by 2025, estimating the total cost at around $200 million. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A technician works on a computer at the control room of the Matebe dam. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Workers in the Virunga National Park digging and preparing the canal in Matebe in 2014. The project began a month after government soldiers backed by UN troops defeated rebels of the Movement of March 23 (M23) who had seized control of the area. JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
After digging the canals, construction teams line the banks with sheet metal. Virunga
The completed waterway at Matebe, although the Virunga Alliance say upgrades to the facility are ongoing. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
The plant was inaugurated in December by DR Congo President Joseph Kabila and key benefactor Howard G. Buffett, who has spent over $200 million on conservation projects in Africa. Virunga
The Matebe plant was preceded by a smaller hydro-electric plant that was constructed in neighboring Mutsora in 2013, providing electricity for up to 30,000 people. Brent Stirton/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
A new soap factory in Mutsora that uses palm oil was made possible by newly installed electricity lines. Brent Stirton/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Director of Virunga National Park Emmanuel De Merode has been working in the Congo since 1992. He is determined to make the park economically sustainable and deliver benefits to the local population, beyond conservation of wildlife.

A World Wildlife Fund report estimate the park could generate $1.1 billion a year, with hydro-electric power and eco-tourism among the leading potential contributors.
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Park ranger surveying an area that has been devastated by illegal charcoal production. This area is a former chimpanzee habitat and can never be restored from this level of devastation. The charcoal trade is one of the main problems that De Merode hopes to curtail by developing new, legitimate industries that benefit local people. Brent Stirton/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
A Virunga National Park ranger from the Congolese Wildlife Authority (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, ICCN) stands at an observation post at Rumangabo at the edge of the Virunga Park. The rangers are responsible for patrolling the national park and protecting the wildlife, which frequently brings them into contact with heavily armed militant groups. Hundreds of rangers have been killed on duty. AFP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Virunga is also threatened by the prospect of industrial drilling, after tests confirmed the presence of oil. British firm Soco planned to explore in Lake Edward, a vital resource for local fishermen, although public pressure later forced it to pull out. NGOs such as Global Witness fear the threat has only been postponed and are calling for a ban on drilling in the park. Brent Stirton/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Intensive conservation efforts have seen the park's mountain gorilla population climb from 254 in the 1980s to around 480 today, although they remain on the endangered list. Brent Stirton/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images