Protected areas: a pathway to sustainable growth in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Mount  Mikeno, Virunga National Park

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is facing unprecedented development opportunities as it emerges from decades of conflict. That means the forests and rivers of the DRC—the second largest country in Africa and one of the fastest growing countries in the world—are now on the frontlines.

Those from around the world who are investing in the redevelopment of the country usually don’t see the DRC’s forests, rivers, and other natural resources as carbon sinks, areas rich in wildlife, or vital sources of livelihoods and food. They see them as places where minerals can be extracted, hydropower operations can be created, urban areas can be expanded, and more—all to feed global demand.

The potential trajectory of bad investment and development decisions—those that hurt, instead of help sustain, the country’s natural resources—needs to be stopped before it becomes a reality. Otherwise, the DRC risks losing its rankings as the country with the highest number of bird and mammal species in Africa and the fifth-highest biodiversity in the world. Protected Areas like Salonga National Park (the world’s second largest tropical rainforest park) and Virunga National Park (Africa’s oldest national park) risk being degraded so severely that they no longer are a source of sustainable livelihoods for millions of people. The supply of drinking water for more than 50 percent of Africa is at risk of being greatly reduced.

The country’s natural resources are already fragile—largely because of the conflicts the country has endured, the inefficient use of farm land to help feed the rapidly growing population, and uncontrolled hunting and fishing. A total of 190 species that live in the DRC are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The ability of the country’s land and water to absorb additional threats while still providing important wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services is limited.

Protected areas: central to the solution
One solution to balancing the growth-related opportunities with the challenges they present is designating the DRC’s most important natural resources as protected and ensuring they are properly governed and managed. Such protected areas have proved to be an effective tool for conservation.

The DRC has a good foundation for this. The protected areas system covers approximately 11 percent (64 million acres) of the national territory. And the DRC has committed to expanding protected areas to cover 15 to 17 percent of its national territory. That’s an increase of up to 35 million acres—roughly the size of Maine.

But most protected areas in the DRC are far from secure, even though they are designated as protected; there is not enough money, expertise, or capacity to properly manage or govern them. What the DRC needs is a vision and holistic strategy for creating new protected areas and properly managing and governing the whole protected areas system.

WWF walks the forest
WWF, which has worked in the region for several decades, is helping the country deliver on this. In partnership with the country’s national protected areas authority, we have travelled thousands of miles in the DRC to gather qualitative and quantitative data on the existing protected areas (e.g., how many large mammals live there and how many local livelihoods depend on the natural resources there). And we have consulted with thousands of people in local communities, as well as private sector and government leaders, to better understand the role of protected areas, their effectiveness and their impacts. Before we started this project several years ago, the DRC had no idea how many protected areas it had (most of the legal documents related to protected areas had been lost) or whether they were healthy.

Now WWF and others are assessing the data. The information will be used to create a gap analysis that will determine which protected areas should be consolidated and where new protected areas should be created.