To protect its forests and famous wildlife, Congo’s Virunga National Park has opened a bitcoin mining farm. The project is controversial.
The world’s first Bitcoin cryptocurrency mining farm operated by a national park is located in Luviro, a hamlet outside Virunga Park. The necessary hardware is powered by hydropower. It’s an experiment that has excited many who work in and around the park. But it has also raised skepticism among experts wondering what cryptocurrencies have to do with conservation.
The project goes back to the initiative of Emmanuel de Merode. De Merode comes from a Belgian noble family – Belgium has a bloody colonial history in the Congo. The anthropologist came to the Congo in 1993 to support the rangers of the Garamba National Park and to study the bushmeat trade for his doctoral thesis. In 1999 he went to Lopé National Park in Gabon, where he worked on gorilla habituation and ecotourism development.
“We built a hydroelectric power plant and thought we would gradually expand the network,” explains de Merode. “Then in 2018, we had to shut down tourism because of rebel kidnappings. In 2019 because of Ebola. And in 2020 – Covid . For four years our total tourism revenue collapsed – up to then it made up 40 percent of park revenue.” The Congolese government supports the park with just one percent of the operating budget. “So we had to find a solution. Otherwise, we would have gone bankrupt as a national park.” In March 2022, when de Merode said this, the Bitcoin traded at a price of $44,000, and the Virunga boss was expecting earnings of about $150,000 a month. This roughly corresponds to the tourism income at its peak. “We were lucky – for once,” said de Merode.
Bitcoins for the national park
However, not only the Virunga National Park is behind the project, but also the crypto investor Sébastien Gouspillou. With Gouspillou’s help, Virunga bought used ASIC miners in early 2020 and started building a small computing farm. Today there are 10 containers with 250 to 500 rigs each. Virunga owns three containers, the proceeds of which go entirely to finance the park. The other seven belong to Gouspillou. He pays Virunga for the power to run his servers. Everything he mines belongs to him and his investors.
De Merode estimates that the mining farm brought in about $500,000 for the park last year when the pandemic wiped out most other revenue streams. Additionally, the park benefited from the popularity of the gorilla NFTs Digital Apes: it teamed up with the NFT project CyberKongz, which auctioned off the digital graphics at Christie’s. That earned the park another $1.2 million. Part of this money was used to buy two of the park’s three containers.
“The miners promise too much and deliver too little”
However, not everyone is so positive about crypto mining. “The main problem is that the benefits are always extremely limited compared to the costs,” says Alex de Vries, a Ph.D. student at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who studies cryptocurrency sustainability. “Miners overpromise and underdeliver. Local communities are usually better off without them.” Peter Howson, assistant professor of international development at Northumbria University, is convinced that this also applies to Virunga. Clean energy in Congo can be used more effectively. “Bitcoin miners are crowding out more productive forms of green industrial development in Congo,” he says.
In addition, Virunga’s winning streak doesn’t seem to last. Almost a decade ago, the national park was made famous by a Netflix film of the same name, which showed the rangers struggling against a rebel invasion and the threat of oil companies. These dangers are far from over – on the contrary. Fierce fighting continues in the region. Violence is the order of the day here, and years of militia activity, rocket attacks and machete attacks have left deep trauma.
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