Democratic Republic of Congo

Thousands Have Taken Refuge Near DRC’s Virunga National Park. Can the Park Survive?

Deforestation threatens the park’s future — but the people cutting its trees are fighting for survival themselves.

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Thousands Have Taken Refuge Near DRC’s Virunga National Park. Can the Park Survive?

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

People displaced by war live in huts near Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Near the green savannah of Virunga National Park, at the foot of the Nyiragongo volcano, stand hundreds of white tarp huts. The huts, built by internally displaced persons that fled the M23 war, are home to about 5,000 people.

Young trees, easy to bend, are most often used in their construction. Each hut requires 15 to 18 trees and is then covered with a tarp donated by the United Nations Children’s Fund. A few nails are hammered in and the structure is ready for occupation. Some 2,000 huts have been built this way in the past few months.

Anne Marie Vumiliya, 39, is among the displaced persons living on the edge of the park, which stretches across 790,000 hectares (3,050 square miles) of land. She prepares lunch outside her makeshift hut with her 7-month-old baby on her back, kneeling and blowing to light the firewood, her eyes red from the smoke.

“We use the wood to cook because we cannot buy gas like the people from Goma. Here, we make do with what we have,” says the mother of five, who lost her husband to the war last year.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

A man carries a bag of charcoal at a settlement for internally displaced people around Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The park, Vumiliya says, has helped her and other displaced persons tremendously. “Today, thanks to its trees, we have huts that protect us from the rain.”

But shelter isn’t the only thing the park provides for those living around it. To earn a few Congolese francs, some people resort to cutting down trees to make charcoal, known locally as makala, for sale.

Virunga National Park is known for its rich biodiversity: It’s home to mountain gorillas and other rare species such as the okapi, which is endemic to DRC. But the area has increasingly come under intense and unprecedented pressure from populations displaced by the war in the eastern part of the country, threatening its survival.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, one of the main threats to the site, which features on the List of World Heritage in Danger, is deforestation for charcoal production. Without an alternative to this energy source, the forest could disappear within 10 years.

The effects of clearing vast swaths of forest inside the park are already being felt. In the first half of 2023, rangers observed animals such as chimpanzees fleeing to areas of the park where trees had not yet been felled. Méthode Bagurubumwe Uhoze, head of external relations at Virunga National Park, says the deforestation rate increased dramatically during this period from 200 hectares (494 acres) in January to 500 hectares (1,236 acres) in May.

Deforestation on this scale had not been observed before the arrival of hundred of thousands of displaced persons (an estimated 520,000 people fled their homes between March and December 2022), Uhoze adds, because felling of trees had been controlled. Only mature trees were felled and only by authorized persons. This is no longer the case, however, and deforestation is now out of control.

For years, the M23, an armed group, has been fighting the DRC government over claims of “marginalization.” Although the group had been dormant since 2013, its activities have surged since November 2021. Formed about 10 years ago, the M23 is made up of former soldiers largely drawn from Rwandan-Congolese communities in the north, demanding better representation within the North Kivu administration. This is yet to happen, leading to frequent clashes between the group and the national army, the FARDC, which have led thousands to flee their homes.

Anaclet, a man of average height who was displaced by the war, burns trees to make charcoal. His shirt and pants are worn out, and he is barefoot. He stands, machete in hand, impatient for the coal to be ready for sale. Anaclet, whose last name is being withheld to protect his identity, is shy, talks little and doesn’t want to show his face. He knows what he is doing is illegal but says he has no choice due to lack of resources.

After leaving his village in the territory of Rutshuru with his wife and their six children, Anaclet settled with other displaced persons near the park. He feels let down by the government and partly blames its failure to stop the conflict for the destruction of the park. “If I am in this situation, destroying the park to survive, it is because the authorities have not done their job to protect us,” he says.

Anaclet’s dilemma reflects how the mission to protect the habitat of gorillas and other creatures, however noble, clashes with the needs of a community desperate to survive on what the park provides.

Anyone entering the park to cut trees is well aware it is protected and that cutting trees is prohibited. But many displaced persons like Anaclet feel they have little choice as long as the war continues and people are unable to return to their normal lives.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

A man burns charcoal, which he then sells around Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

“If I left my fields, which were the source of livelihood for my family, and I am in this place where I have nothing to feed my family, what other option do I have?” Anaclet asks.

Jean Claude, who is also being identified only by his first name, is a displaced man who took refuge around the Virunga park. He says a lack of humanitarian assistance pushes him to make do with what is available, including the resources found within the park.

A 37-year-old father of four, Jean Claude fled his village more than five months ago and says he has received no assistance since arriving in the camp. Although various international organizations, like UNICEF and the Red Cross, in partnership with the government, often provide help for displaced persons, there just isn’t enough for everyone.

General Sylvain Ekenge, the Congolese army’s national spokesperson, however, says the government is doing all it could to help the population with basic needs such as drinking water and medical care.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Men stand over piles of logs harvested from Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.

But those who suffer the cyclic effects of the war are left seeking other ways to survive. “The aid that is coming in is not enough for the number of people in the camps, so we have no choice but to make do with what we can, so we don’t have to watch our children starve before our eyes,” says Jean Claude, who was an agronomist in his village in Rutshuru and understands the effects of felling trees. “I used to run awareness campaigns on the consequences of deforestation for the inhabitants of my village, and here I am now, doing the opposite,” he says. “I am not proud of it, but if I don’t do this, how will I survive? Where will I live with my family? And how will I feed them?”

Each morning before dawn, he goes into the park with his machete to cut wood and turn it into charcoal, which he will sell for 70,000 francs (about 28 United States dollars). With this money, he can buy food for his family.

Bwanampongo Kulimushi, vice dean of research at the University of Goma’s Faculty of Agricultural Sciences and Environment, says the park must be protected at all costs and reforestation efforts started as soon as the displaced persons return to their villages.

Deforestation, he adds, contributes to global warming by releasing carbon that would normally be stored in trees.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

People build huts for families displaced by war around Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Uhoze, who has been monitoring events at the park, says the situation is dire.

“We are facing an unprecedented event because, on the one hand, we have displaced people who have to survive after leaving their villages because of the war, and on the other hand, we have a park to protect,” he says.

To manage the situation, at least temporarily, a barrier has been established within the park, with rangers from Virunga National Park controlling access into the area.

“In the meantime, we are hoping that the situation will get better and that displaced persons will be able to go back to their villages,” Uhoze says.

Aware of all these consequences, displaced persons say the only way to stop deforestation within the park is to bring peace to their villages so they can return to their daily lives.

“I understand the importance of preserving the park, but my life and my family’s life come first! It’s either cutting down the park’s trees or seeing my family starve,” Anaclet says. “There is no hesitation for me! My family is first and the park is second.”

Noella Nyirabihogo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.

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