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Valuing Virunga – without oil

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The world’s insatiable demand for oil is leading to exploration in places that were once considered ‘off-limits’ – some of the world’s most special, important and fragile places. Places like the Arctic, and indeed Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of the CongoVirunga National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Virunga is a jewel in the crown of Africa’s natural heritage. It’s Africa’s oldest national park, a World Heritage Site and a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

Virunga has a wide variety of habitats: forests, savannas, rivers, lakes, marshlands, active volcanoes and permanent glaciers. It has more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area in Africa. It’s home to about a quarter of the world’s 880 precious mountain gorillas.

The park is incredibly important economically and socially too, providing food and raw materials, opportunities for tourism and recreation, secure supplies of water for drinking and hydropower, and carbon sequestration (carbon dioxide absorbed by trees and soil), for example.

Should oil exploration lead to extraction in the park, the consequences could be disastrous, and could undermine future economic development and well-being of communities. It’s not a development pathway we’d want to see.

Our new report (produced for WWF by global development advisors Dalberg), explores the potential economic value of Virunga under an alternative scenario – one of sustainable management and improved regional governance – to help highlight what’s being put at risk by oil exploitation.

‘Total economic value’ of Virunga

The new report takes a Total Economic Value approach, which means it recognises the wide range of ways in which the natural world provides benefits to people. It distinguishes between so-called ’use values‘ and ’non-use values’ – which isn’t as confusing as it sounds.

Fishermen in a dugout canoe on Lake EdwardFishermen in a dugout canoe on Lake Edward. © naturepl.com / Christophe Courteau / WWF-Canon

‘Use values’ are where nature makes an obvious contribution to human production or consumption, either directly (e.g. by providing food, materials etc) or indirectly (e.g. the prevention of soil erosion and regulation of our climate by forests). But nature doesn’t need to be used in order to be valued. Lots of people value aspects of the environment that they may never use or even see themselves. It might not play a role in supporting economic production or consumption, but it can still have a ‘non-use value’.

If that still sound a bit abstract and intangible, there are lots of undeniable examples of non-use value. They can be split into different types too:

  • Existence value‘ – you might derive a value from merely knowing that a tiger, or a rare type of antelope, or a mountain gorilla, or any ‘environmental resource‘ still exists. Even though you have no intention of ‘using’ it yourself in any way.
  • Option value’ – where you derive value from knowing that the continued existence of a resource – a spectacular landscape or natural park for instance – gives you the option of maybe using it at some point in the future.
  • Bequest value’ – this is about wanting to preserve a resource – a healthy environment or culturally or spiritually important site – for future generations.
Hippo and calfThe hippo is one of the many beautiful species that inhabits Virunga National Park. © naturepl.com / Karl Ammann / WWF-Canon

‘Non-use values’ are a key reason why people donate money or sign campaigns to save unique or iconic endangered species – like giant pandas, tigers and whales, from extinction – even though they’re unlikely ever to see those animals, or derive any obvious benefit from their survival.

Virunga is valuable for all the reasons mentioned – and the different elements of this value are significant in different ways.

Use values are critically important to the DRC economy and local communities, who rely on the park for livelihoods and meeting daily needs. Non-use values are held by global populations – and if even a small fraction could be captured and converted into revenue, it could provide a significant added incentive for safeguarding the park, for the DRC government and local communities.

Finding ways to help DRC ’unlock‘ the value of Virunga National Park in a sustainable way is a monumental challenge – but we believe it’s the best path.

That’s why we’re inviting you to add your name to our campaign to protect Virunga from oil exploitation. And tell your friends and family about it too, so everyone sees the value of this amazing place we’re fighting to protect.

View of the Semliki River, Lake Edward and the Tshiabirimu MountainView of the Semliki River, Lake Edward and the Tshiabirimu Mountains. © Brent Stirton / Reportage by Getty Images / WWF-Canon

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