National Geographic : 2016 Jul
Battle for virunga 79 concluded, would be “to use the park as a basis for creating mass employment, but in a way that wouldn’t damage the park.” That goal led him to the park’s northern sector—and specifically to the Butahu River, which cascades from the gla- cial peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains into the outskirts of Mutwanga village, a typically mea- ger community that lacked electricity. In 2010 the park began hiring villagers to dig canals and lay the foundation for what would become Virunga’s first hydroelectric plant. For $110, the park would connect a Mutwanga household, which could then buy electricity on a modest pay-as-you-go basis. In 2013 the power came on, and de Merode held his breath. I had not seen Mutwanga before it had elec- tricity, and it hardly resembled a boomtown when I spent a day touring the mud-splattered village. Still, the residents spoke of the change as transformative. What it had cost in a single day to power their shops in generator fuel now bought an entire month’s worth of electrici- ty. Students could do their homework in the evening. The hospital functioned at all hours. People were buying irons, televisions, and CD players. The owner of a computer-repair store was renting out DVDs and preparing to open the town’s first Internet café, so that villagers would no longer have to drive an hour to Beni to send an email. A couple from Beni actually moved to Mutwanga in 2014 to realize their dream of owning a small printing shop. All of this despite the fact that only 500 of the community’s 2,500 households have been hooked to the hydroelec- tric plant’s modest 400-kilowatt output. And while de Merode’s team makes plans to accom- modate the long waiting list, in April a factory powered by the park began making soap. It em- ploys about a hundred workers from the area. “Mutwanga became our laboratory test,” de Merode said. A second, larger hydroelectric plant came on line in December, and by the end of 2018 two others should be running. Those four plants would bring de Merode halfway toward his goal of producing a hundred megawatts of power. Selling that electricity, he predicts, would “en- able us to ensure that the park will be financial- ly sustainable for the next one hundred years.” Enough additional revenue would be generated to invest millions a year in community projects and conservation efforts in other Congo parks. De Merode’s expectation is that electricity will catalyze economic development. “The rea- son there isn’t industry is there’s no access to cheap energy. That’s really what the park can offer,” he said. That this will lead to a flower- ing of entrepreneurship is far from a sure thing. “There aren’t any business role models here,” the soap factory’s managing director, 29-year- old Leonard Maliona, told me. “ Young people have nothing to aim for, other than being a poli- tician or joining a militia.” The notion of Virunga as the region’s “economic At the Senkwekwe Center for mountain gorilla orphans, in Rumangabo, rangers live around the clock with four juveniles whose parents were killed. The rangers see their families only every few weeks and are very close to their charges. Since no mountain gorilla orphan has ever been successfully returned to the wild, they will always depend on humans.