WWF works with UN refugee agency to protect Congo’s Virunga National Park
Nairobi, Kenya / Gland, Switzerland – WWF is working closely with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, to prevent encroachment into the World Heritage-listed Virunga National Park by displaced people after several weeks of civil unrest in the area, and to help them meet the huge demand in fuelwood.
About 35,000 people have fled the heavily armed conflict near Sake in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over the past week, according to the UN.
People fleeing the fighting in Sake, west of Goma, the largest town in the region, have spontaneously set up three camps for internally displaced people in Mugunga, a small town next to Virunga National Park. However, one of them – the Lac Vert Camp – is partly located within the park.
“With so many internally displaced people near Goma looking for food, shelter and fuelwood, we are facing a very difficult situation,” said Marc Languy of WWF’s Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office.
"One of the challenges is to avert a fuelwood crisis that would put the park’s forest under pressure while ensuring the displaced people have all the necessary commodities they need.”
WWF is working closely with UNHCR and ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) to find solutions to the problem, under a programme funded by the European Union.
While collection of wood within the park is being regulated to meet the immediate demand, several alternatives have already been identified, such as sourcing of wood from nearby plantations. Most of them are located among the 10 million trees WWF has planted in the past 20 years around Virunga National Park.
“With an average of 12kg of wood per family per day, we are looking at about 50 tonnes of wood to be collected every day; it is a real challenge for both humanitarian and conservation NGOs,” explained Languy.
During meetings with UNHCR, WWF also provided maps showing the park’s boundaries so that the most suitable areas for settlements can be identified.
While recent threats to mountain gorillas — nine of them have been killed in the past few months — seem to be coming slowly under control, habitat destruction, and in particular deforestation, remains the most important concern, as it has far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the park’s biodiversity.
“We don’t want history to repeat itself, when in 1994-1995, in the face of another humanitarian disaster, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Rwanda invaded Virunga National Park and destroyed the forest. It still has not recovered,” added Languy.
UNHCR is urging the displaced people to move from the Lac Vert Camp to a new camp that could accommodate up to 5,000 families. This is an encouraging sign that will help reduce the damage to the park, according to WWF.
However, WWF is concerned that some other humanitarian NGOs are discouraging people to move from the problematic camp to the new one set up by UNHCR. WWF urges these NGOs to respect national and international law and not to build any infrastructure within the protected area.
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