In a region of Democratic Republic of the Congo where few people have electricity, Virunga National Park produces some of the area’s most coveted, long-lasting fuel — charcoal or ndobo — made by cutting down and burning trees in the park.
Virunga is Africa’s most bio-diverse national park, a UNESCO world heritage site, and home to endangered mountain gorillas.
Congo’s illegal charcoal trade – worth an estimated $35 million a year – is fueling the widespread deforestation of Africa’s oldest national park, along with crimes including murder, forced labor and sex slavery, according to human rights group the Enough Project.
The charcoal trade is one of the most lucrative businesses for the rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a group linked to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
The Enough Project fights to prevent genocide and atrocities. It says in a new report that the FDLR rebel group coerces local people to produce ndobo, killing or enslaving those who resist.
Demand for the charcoal is mainly in Congo, but smugglers also transport it to Uganda and Rwanda, where old growth forests have nearly disappeared, according to the report.
Charcoal made from the park is particularly valuable—rare higher-density wood yields longer-burning, higher quality charcoal, and can sell for over 60 percent more than lower-quality charcoal. An estimated 92 percent of charcoal used in North Kivu comes from Virunga. The trees are cut and turned to cooking fuel inside or near the parks, then transported to markets in nearby communities or larger cities.
FDLR is one of the region’s most notorious rebel groups, Reuters reported in the Daily Mail. It’s one of dozens of groups stoking conflict through ethnic rivalries. Along with foreign invasions and competition for land, these rivalries have cost millions of lives.
“Peace building in Congo will be a losing game without addressing the complex business networks operating in the east,” said Holly Dranginis, a policy analyst at the Enough Project.
DRC is responding to illegal FDLR activities such as mineral smuggling and elephant poaching, but little has been done to tackle the charcoal trade, according to the Enough Project.
Households across the region depend on charcoal as their main fuel source. Any efforts to end the charcoal trade must be backed by alternative fuels to prevent a fuel shortage among millions of people, the report said.
“Time is running out to address the charcoal trade, which has operated for years with few successful interventions,” Dranginis said in a statement.
The Enough Project wants impact investors and financial institutions to invest in Virunga Alliance, which aims for peace and prosperity through responsible economic
development of natural resources for 4 million people who live within a day’s walk of the park’s borders.
The alliance has microhydro power projects to improve local access to clean, alternative, sustainable energy. It needs investors like the U.K.’s development finance institution CDC Group, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), the Enough Project says.
Investors and donors should also support the expansion of shorter-term, legal alternative energy initiatives including legal charcoal plantations and the use of alternative biomass briquettes and fuel-efficient cookstoves, like those led by the World Wildlife Fund and Rwanda-based Inyenyeri.
World Bank should develop an electrical grid for the city of Goma to distribute power from Virunga’s microhydro electric projects to the people using the illegal charcoal, according to the Enough project.
Africa does not have to develop old, high-carbon technologies, says former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. “We can expand our power generation and achieve universal access to energy by leapfrogging into new technologies that are transforming energy systems across the world,” Annan said, according to an IPSNews report.
Annan is chairman of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of 10 people from private and public sectors who advocate for equitable and sustainable development for Africa.
The carbon-intensive systems now driving economic growth have taken the world to an environmental tipping point. Africa is being asked to lead the transition to avert an impending disaster, the APP said in its 2015 report, “Power, People, Planet: Seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities.”
The report asks Africa’s leaders to demonstrate leadership on the international stage. Former president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, said, “If Africa focuses on smart choices, it can win investments in the next few decades in climate-resilient and low-emission development pathways.”
An estimated 138 million poor households spend $10 billion annually on energy-related products such as charcoal, candles, kerosene and firewood, IPSNews reported.
The African Development Bank believes a marginal increase in energy investment could solve the problem.
Africa collects $545 billion a year in tax revenues. If you put 10 percent of that into electricity, the problem is solved, said African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina.
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