Valuing Virunga

Posted on 01 August 2013

WWF economist Toby Roxburg examines how we assign value to extraordinary natural places like Virunga National Park. 

By Toby Roxburgh, Economics Advisor, WWF-UK

Our 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 is a jewel in the crown of Africa’s natural heritage. It is Africa’s oldest national park, a World Heritage Site and a Ramsar wetland of international importance. It has a wide variety of habitats: forests, savannas, rivers, lakes, marshlands, active volcanoes and permanent glaciers. It hosts more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area in Africa. It is home to about 25 per cent of the world’s 880 remaining critically endangered mountain gorillas.

The park also is incredibly important economically and socially, providing food and raw materials, opportunities for tourism and recreation, secure supplies of water for drinking and hydropower, and carbon sequestration, for example. Should oil exploration lead to extraction in or around the park, the consequences could be disastrous, and could undermine future economic development and the well-being of communities. It is not a development pathway WWF wants to see.

Our new report explores the potential economic value of Virunga under an alternative scenario – one of sustainable management and improved regional governance – to help highlight what is being put at risk.

Total economic value

The report takes a Total Economic Value approach, which recognizes the wide range of ways in which the natural world provides benefits to people, and distinguishes between so-called “use-values” and “non-use values”.

Use values are derived from nature where it contributes to human production or consumption, either directly (e.g. the provision of food, materials, etc) or indirectly through the function of various ecosystem services (e.g. the prevention of erosion by runoff or the regulation of climate by forests).

However, nature does not have to be used to be valued by humans. Many people value aspects of the environment even though they may never use or see them themselves, and hence they play no role in supporting economic production or consumption. These values are often called “non-use values”.

Non-use what?

Non-use values may seem abstract and intangible, but few would argue about their existence. They are driven by a range of motivations. For example, some people derive a value from merely knowing that the environmental “resource” – like a rare type of antelope or mountain gorilla–still exists, although they have no intention of using it (so called “existence value”). Some may derive a value from the continued existence of the resource – like a spectacular landscape or natural park – in case they may wish to use it in the future (so called “option value”). Part of the motive can also be related to the desire to preserve the resource – such as a healthy environment or a culturally or spiritually important site – for future generations (known as “bequest value”).

Non-use values tend to be more significant for important, unique, rare, iconic natural resources – for example like those in Virunga. Non-use values are a key reason why people donate money or sign campaigns to save endangered species such as giant pandas, tigers and whales from extinction, even though they are likely to never see them or derive any obvious benefit from their survival.

Non-use values could have important policy implications for Virunga. If even a small fraction of the global non-use value for the park and its resources could be captured and converted into revenue, it could provide a significant added incentive for safeguarding the park, for the DRC government and local residents.

Establishing policies and mechanisms to enable DRC to “unlock” the value of the park in a sustainable way is a monumental challenge, but we believe it is the best path.

That’s why we’re inviting you to sign our pledge to save Virunga, and to share it with your friends and family so that they too can learn about the amazing park we are fighting to protect.

British oil company Soco is interested in exploring for oil in and around Virunga's Lake Edward. The lake provides freshwater for 50,000 people.
© / Christophe Corteau / WWF
Mountain gorillas, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo
Virunga National Park is home to about 200 critically endangered mountain gorillas. Oil extraction could have negative impacts on the park's environment.
© Martin Harvey / WWF
About 27,000 fishermen make their living in Virunga's Lake Edward, which is ground zero for Soco's oil exploration.
© Brent Stirton / WWF-International