Time to give a dam
Jacques Kikuni Kokonyange

MUTWANGA — At the foot of mount Rwenzori, locals erupt in joy when they see their homes lit with electric light bulbs for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, at the nearby Pic Hotel in Mutwanga, a small village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), tourists are finally returning.

Over the past few years, the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation has helped limit poaching and agricultural exploitation of the DRC​"s Virunga National Park.

"This area belongs only to the park, the people have no right to live or cultivate there," says François Mutamba, the local area manager. "To stop inhabitants from continuing to destroy it, we've given them an ultimatum to leave the area at the end of their last harvest."

Despite the reserve's protected status, thousands of families have grown crops like beans, corn, rice, manioc, and bananas inside the area. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, Virunga National Park in the Congolese province of North Kivu is about to lose its special status due to the extinction of its flagship species including gorillas, hippopotamuses and rare plants.

Poachers and farmers aren't the only ones who are destroying the wildlife reserve.

To save the park, its Belgian director, Emmanuel de Mérode, helped implement development projects aimed at the population living around it.

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Silverback gorilla in Virunga National Park — Photo: Innocent Mburanumwe

"To this end, we've built infrastructure like the Mutwanga and Matebe hydroelectric dams and opened 12 schools in the Rutshuru and Lubero territories," Mérode said last year.

The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation built the Mutwanga power plant in North Kivu. The Matebe plant, which received help funding from the Howard G. Buffett foundation, supplies a vast part of the nearby city of Goma.

Mérode said that 70 kilometers of roadways had been built to make the Watalinga area more accessible and to boost tourism in the reserve.

Two years ago, a soap factory was set up in Mutwanga, a small village near Beni, to help fight unemployment in the region. In addition to that factory, several workshops to manufacture metal doors opened.

Etienne Mbatanguli, a local, says business has been good since he launched his own workshop, which gets its electricity from the Mutwanga hydroelectric power plant. "I feel liberated now because the cost of energy has gone down significantly," he says. "Only one-fourth of my monthly expenses go into electricity now — a lot less than when I had to use gasoline for fuel."

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Mount Mikeno in Virunga National Park — Photo: Cai Tjeenk Willink

Poachers and farmers aren't the only ones who are destroying the wildlife reserve. There are also rebel groups attacking it. A campaign launched to recruit guards for the park has attracted young locals, who are now calling on their unemployed friends to "join this profession instead of letting themselves be enrolled by armed groups."

"We're hunting the armed groups from all quarters and they're currently suffering a rout," says Lieutenant Mak Azukayi, DRC's armed forces spokesman in Beni.

Reverend Gilbert Kambale, who helps coordinate civil societies in Beni, says that the local population no longer exploits Virunga National Park thanks to local projects. "I appreciate these sort of inclusive projects, which have the advantage of bringing everybody together to protect the park. Because all inhabitants can reap the fruits from these works in their everyday lives."

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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