Virunga National Park, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is Africa’s oldest protected space and a testament to the biodiversity and natural beauty of the continent. But the park has faced increasing pressure from local militia groups that have waged violent attacks on its animals and employees, all while various problems, including COVID-19, led to an extended closure of the park to tourists, which it claims represents approximately 40% of its revenue.
A report in the MIT Technology Review describes how park director Emmanuel de Merode has turned to bitcoin mining to monetize the park’s abundant natural resources that are otherwise stranded in order to preserve the park’s existence.
De Merode met with Sébastien Gouspillou, owner of Big Block Green Services, which advised El Salvador on its “Bitcoin City.” Gouspillou described how “[They] used to do mining by buying electricity — it wasn’t efficient. The money maybe goes to oligarchs in Kazakhstan. In Virunga, we see it’s saving the park.”
Gouspillou aided de Merode in setting up the first portions of the operation in 2020, which began mining in September of that year. The site then hired nine full-time workers to staff the facility, who work in rotating shifts within the jungle to operate the miners. It is powered by three hydro plants within the park, a sustainable source of electricity that was already being used to power nearby towns.
“Today there are 10 containers powered directly by the plant’s four-meter turbines. Each container holds 250 to 500 rigs,” describes the report. Virunga owns three of these 10 containers, while Gouspillou owns the remaining seven. Their arrangement allows him to purchase energy from Virunga, while keeping the bitcoin mined.
Michael Saylor commented on the project, saying that Bitcoin is “the ideal high-tech industry to put in a nation that has plenty of clean energy but isn’t able to export a product or produce a service with that energy.”
De Merode described how, despite recent market downturns, he still retains confidence that the project will be successful, saying, “We’re not speculating on its value; we’re generating it. If you buy Bitcoin and it decreases, you lose money. We’re making Bitcoin out of surplus energy and monetizing something that otherwise has no value. That’s a big difference.”
He also addressed custody of the bitcoin in response to a question about what would happen if he was attacked, an ever-present threat in the jungle. “If I crashed? The digital wallet is managed by our finance team … It’s unlikely we sit on Bitcoin for more than a few weeks anyway, because we need the money to run the park. So if something happened to me or our CFO lost the password, we’d give him a hard time — but it wouldn’t cost us much.”