Gorillas, militias, and Bitcoin: Why Congo’s most famous national park is betting big on crypto
The AK-47 is heavy with extra clips strapped together, jungle style, but the man holding it doesn’t flinch as he patrols the heavily forested mountain.
Here in eastern Congo, where the Soviet throwback weapon costs just $40 on the black market, militias use its dawa, or magic, to take land, timber, ivory, and the rare minerals that have long been this region’s promise and its curse.
But this man in fatigues is not militia. He’s a rare authority figure in a largely lawless region—a ranger who usually patrols Virunga National Park, a place famous for endangered mountain gorillas.
Today, though, his job is different. In Luviro, a hamlet just outside the park, he is guarding the world’s first known Bitcoin mine operated by a national park. One that runs on clean energy. It’s a gamble that’s energized many who work in and around the park—and invited skepticism from experts who wonder what crypto has to do with conservation.
On this muggy day in late March 2022, the guard is pacing in front of 10 shipping containers that are filled with thousands of powerful computers. They hum in the midday heat. Suddenly, something shiny flashes over the horizon. He adjusts his beret and hustles to secure a nearby dirt runway as a Cessna circles.
The plane soon touches down on a perilously steep and short landing strip, and out steps its pilot, Emmanuel de Merode, the 52-year-old director of the park, here for a routine inspection. De Merode grabs the leather strap of his bag with one hand; the other salutes the rangers, who puff out their chests and stand stick straight in the sun. Clean-shaven and lightly graying, he’s the only person in sight without a weapon. Behind him, the wings of the Cessna are pockmarked with bullet holes and patched with duct tape.
De Merode strides past a barking bush dog and into one of the containers—40 feet long and chrome green. Inside, surrounded by wiring, laptops, and body odor, a team of technicians in mesh vests monitors the mine.
All day, these machines grind away at complex math problems and are rewarded with a digital currency that’s worth thousands of dollars. They’re powered by the massive hydroelectric power station perched on this same mountain, making these containers a cathedral of 21st-century green tech, surrounded by greener rainforest.
In many ways, this operation’s mere existence defies the odds. Just being in a volatile region known for corruption and rising deforestation, where foreign investment is as rare as electrical grids and stable government, poses a host of problems. “Problems of internet connection, climate conditions which influence production, working in isolation,” lists Jonas Mbavumoja, 24, a graduate of the nearby University of Goma who staffs the mine. There’s also the threat from dozens of nearby rebel groups. Violence is frequent here, and years of militia activity, missile strikes, and machete attacks have left deep trauma.
This is a pivotal moment for Africa’s oldest protected park. After four years of disease outbreaks, pandemic lockdowns, and bloodshed, Virunga badly needs money, and the region badly needs opportunities. The Congolese government provides around just 1% of the park’s operating budget, leaving it to largely fend for itself. That’s why Virunga is betting big on cryptocurrency.
Bitcoin, though, isn’t usually associated with conservation or community development. It’s often known for the opposite. But here it’s part of a larger plan to turn Virunga’s coveted natural resources—from land to hydropower—into benefits for both the park and locals. While operations like this mine may be unconventional, they’re profitable and they’re green.
Proceeds from the sale of Bitcoin are already helping to pay for park salaries, as well as its infrastructure projects like roads and water pumping stations. Elsewhere, power from other park hydro plants supports modest business development.
This is how you build a sustainable economy tied to park resources, de Merode says, even though the mine itself is something of a happy accident.
“We built the power plant and figured we’d build the network gradually,” he explains. “Then we had to shut down tourism in 2018 because of kidnappings [by rebels]. Then in 2019, we had to shut down tourism because of Ebola. And 2020—the rest is history with covid. For four years, all of our tourism revenue—it used to be 40% of park revenue—it collapsed.”
He adds, “It’s not something we expected, but we had to work out a solution. Otherwise we would have gone bust as a national park.”
The park started mining in September of 2020 as most of the world was locked down, “and then the price of Bitcoin went through the roof,” he says. “We were lucky—for once.”
During this visit in late March, the Congolese miners chat with le directeur in French about their progress. Bitcoin is trading at around $44,000 and de Merode predicts revenues of about $150,000 a month, close to what tourism had provided at its peak.
The looming question now is whether their luck has run out.
Nearly a decade ago, Virunga rose to fame thanks to a celebrated Netflix film that showed the park grappling with a rebel invasion and the threat of Big Oil. These dangers have returned, jeopardizing everything.
Congo’s government has recently announced plans to auction oil leases in and around the park. It’s early stages, but if drilling happens, it would mean disrupting lives and key wildlife habitat. It’s also no stretch to say the health of the planet would be at risk: the Congo Basin is the world’s second-largest rainforest, after the Amazon, and a crucial carbon sink.
Meanwhile, a militia called the M23 is occupying the park’s gorilla sector and sacking towns as it battles Congo’s military. In the past, the M23 avoided direct confrontation with Virunga—but over the past few months, that seems to have changed.
On top of all that, the recent collapse of FTX and the subsequent earthquake that’s rocked the entire crypto industry means de Merode’s gamble may sound like quite the Hail Mary. But every day of mining is pure profit, he points out—so no matter how much Bitcoin fluctuates in value, as long as it’s positive, it’s profitable.
In the face of these threats, de Merode believes the Bitcoin mine can still be their ace. Neither altruist nor crypto grifter, he’s a pragmatist willing to risk everything.
If the park can hold on, it may just work.
An “extraordinary solution” in a “bewildering place”
One of the first things you notice in this slice of the Democratic Republic of Congo is how green it is—oceans of emerald fed by heavy rainfall and rich volcanic soil. Virunga borders the Congo Basin on one flank and Uganda and Rwanda on the other. Its 3,000 square miles are home to half of Africa’s terrestrial animals, including around a third of the world’s last mountain gorillas.
Around 5 million people live just outside the park; most lack electricity to cook, light, or heat their mud-plastered homes. On top of that, 80,000 people live in the park. Many settled here before Virunga’s creation in 1925, while the country was under Belgian colonial rule; others are refugees fleeing more recent violence.
That’s why the park is a vital source for charcoal, or makala in Swahili, and for food—even though farming, fishing, hunting, and logging are all illegal. Park resources are stripped with regularity: between 2001 and 2020, Virunga lost almost 10% of its tree cover, and de Merode estimates $170 million in Virunga’s trees and ivory are lost annually. But the alternative for locals is being unable to pay local warlords or starving. These are perfect conditions for corruption.
“Congo is a bewildering place to make moral judgments,” says Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost, which chronicles the Belgian monarch’s harrowing 19th-century rule. Congo is further complicated by “its sheer vastness, people who speak hundreds of languages, and the colonization which was done for the purpose of extracting wealth,” he says. “Under those circumstances, it’s very hard to have a just and fair society.”
Congo has nearly as many displaced people as Ukraine, and decades of conflict despite decades of UN peacekeeping. Most stolen profits from the park go to armed rebel groups, which some locals join for lack of better options. Some are relics of past wars, most notably Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Others may be linked to the Islamic State. The largest is the M23, a Tutsi-led group so well-armed that the UN says Rwanda backs it. (Rwanda denies this, but its economy relies heavily on Congolese resources.)
As a result, Virunga may be the only UNESCO site that regularly buries its staff: over 200 rangers have been killed since 1996, on average one a month. Cherubin Nolayambaje, who has spent eight years as a ranger, calls it “the most dangerous job in the world.”
Virunga’s nearly 800 rangers, including about 35 women, often encounter armed rebels in the park and civilians farming or living there illegally. Many locals don’t even know the park’s boundaries, adds Samson Rukira, an activist in the nearby town of Rutshuru. While conservation requires community involvement to solve issues, he says, “we are in areas which are not secure, and that means maybe rangers can’t be in dialogue.”
De Merode is sympathetic to community complaints that individuals are being denied access to the park’s vast wealth. “Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people suffer what we hope is a short-term cost to turn this park into a positive asset. If we fail in that, we do more harm than good,” he says. “But we believe passionately that it can be turned around—this ecosystem, this park.”
His plan to do that hinges on the three hydro plants the park has opened since 2013, in Matebe, Mutwanga, and Luviro; a fourth is under construction. If you can power your home, the theory goes, you don’t need to chop trees to cook. Electricity supports new jobs and businesses, like coffee coops and chia seed production. And, of course, the Bitcoin mine.
“That’s the misconception we most want to correct: that Virunga is just about the wildlife,” de Merode continues. “No, it’s about the community through the wildlife. Our role is to try to facilitate that.” There’s no way to practice conservation in one of the world’s most troubled countries without local support, he says.
The Luviro station, like all of Virunga’s hydro plants, uses a river-run design, meaning that power is generated by the river’s constant flow rather than dams and reservoirs, which has a low environmental impact.
But its construction was daunting from the start. It required workers to first chop off a mountaintop to build an airstrip, then carve roads in the rock with basic hand tools, sometimes while under attack by rebels.
Then, partway through construction, one of the park’s biggest benefactors, Howard Buffett (son of Warren), ended his donations over a disagreement with de Merode about how funds were being spent. Buffett, who co-funded other park projects, calls de Merode “an amazing guy” but says funds intended for power plants were used to build a network to deliver that power to the provincial capital of Goma instead.
“They’re basically right,” admits de Merode, who insists nothing was misappropriated and later hustled to secure $17 million in grants and loans from the EU and the UK to try to finish the Luviro project. “When you build an energy project, there’s a power plant, but also the network around it. If you can’t deliver the electricity to the community, it doesn’t have much purpose. We made a mistake in good faith.”
Still, these goals were all a bit more complicated in remote Luviro. There were fewer potential customers in the nearby community than there were for the hydro plants in Matebe and Mutwanga; the idea was to build a network of power—and buyers—gradually. But in the meantime, the plant would be creating excess power, and the question was how to find something productive and profitable to do with it.
At the same time, there was yet another problem: by 2019, the Luviro plant was incomplete, and the park still didn’t have enough cash to finish construction and then turn the plant on.
Finally, de Merode and his colleagues landed on an idea they thought could solve all these issues in one go: buying $200,000 in Bitcoin rigs, which could potentially earn short- and long-term profits and provide a viable way to use the hydropower.
“Over a few weeks,” de Merode says, “it dawned on us that this was an extraordinary solution.”
A Belgian prince teams up with “Bitcoin Indiana Jones”
That solution presented itself nearly 4,000 miles and a world away from Virunga, at an imposing French castle in the Loire Valley. In February of 2020, the crypto investor Sébastien Gouspillou arrived at the Château de Serrant around midday, expecting a pitch from some showoff.
“It’s very common to rent a chateau in France—it costs about the same as a hotel,” he explains.
Instead, he was greeted at the door by a princess whose family had owned the castle since the 18th century. Minutes later, she went to fetch Gouspillou’s lunch date: her fils, Emmanuel de Merode.
Virunga’s park director was born in Tunisia to Belgian nobility. At just 11 years old, he spent time with the legendary lion guru George Adamson in Kenya. Later, he trained as an anthropologist, and he came to Congo in 1993 to help Garamba National Park rangers and to study the bush-meat trade for his PhD. In 1999, he left for Gabon’s Lopé National Park, where he worked to habituate gorillas and build ecotourism. That’s where he realized: “You have to be there for 20, 30 years to really succeed. And I wanted to be in eastern Congo.”
De Merode arrived in Virunga in 2001 as civil war raged. He quickly recognized the importance of the work of the rangers, who often went unpaid. Together with the famous fossil hunter Richard Leakey (who would later become his father-in-law), he started fundraising to support their salaries.
He became director of the park in 2008, after a group of gorillas were killed and photos of their execution-style murders caused international outrage. In the chaotic aftermath, Virunga’s then director was arrested and state officials vowed radical change; there may not be anything more radical than a Belgian prince taking a leadership position in a former Belgian colony.
De Merode made his mark immediately. Two months into the job, rebels stormed park headquarters in Rumangabo, and he crossed enemy lines to negotiate and protect staff. After regaining control, he fired hundreds of rangers and arrested senior officers, and then re-recruited rangers and retrained them. Salaries rose; rations and gear improved. Morale soared and animal populations eventually rebounded.
But in April 2014, the story almost ended. De Merode had gone to Goma to deliver evidence against Soco, a British oil company accused of bribing officials. He was driving alone back to the park when gunmen opened fire on his Land Rover. He returned fire, sprinted to the forest, and hid. But a bullet had hit his chest, breaking five ribs and perforating a lung. Another ripped into his stomach, “through the liver, diaphragm, lung, and out the back,” he says.
Eventually farmers on motorbikes pulled over to help. When he finally made it to Goma, he had to translate between Indian and Congolese doctors who lacked a common tongue. With no x-ray machine, the doctors cut him right down the middle.
Two days later, while he was still recovering, Virunga premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary, later acquired by Netflix, focused on the park’s fight to survive a siege by the M23 and Soco. Executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, it was nominated for an Academy Award. It also turned de Merode and his colleagues into international heroes.
That’s how Gouspillou saw de Merode in that first meeting. At Château de Serrant, the two men wound up talking for four hours. De Merode was in a tight spot: eager to figure out how to use Virunga’s excess electricity to fund the park, which was quickly losing money. And Gouspillou was eager to do something that mattered.
On the train home, “I Googled and saw he’s a hero,” says Gouspillou. “I wanted to help. We 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, who got into crypto after working in real estate investment, likes to call himself the Bitcoin Indiana Jones. Despite lacking a whip or fedora—he prefers jeans and is bald—he has an adventurous reputation. His company, Big Block Green Services, is known for putting together controversial projects: advising El Salvador on its “Bitcoin City” and prepping another crypto project in the Central African Republic.
With Gouspillou’s help, in early 2020 Virunga bought secondhand servers and got to building a Bitcoin mine. As with the hydro plant, construction was arduous. Getting shipping containers and Bitcoin rigs from Goma meant two days driving along dirt roads through rebel-held jungles.
“The Italian ambassador was killed on the road we take every day,” says Gouspillou. When he arrived in Luviro, he found bullet holes in his bungalow that de Merode hadn’t told him about. “I didn’t tell my wife, either,” Gouspillou quips.
Around this time, the park’s body count was rising sharply. Twelve rangers, a driver, and four civilians were killed in April 2020 in the worst attack in Virunga’s history. Another ranger was killed in October, six more in January 2021, another in October, and another in November 2021. De Merode describes it as “our hardest year ever.”
Yet against these odds, by September of 2020, the Luviro mine began operation.
A local job posting led to the hire of nine Congolese crypto miners, who scored well on a questionnaire competition. Most of them had heard of Bitcoin before, but their initial impressions weren’t always positive, owing to scams operating in the area. Now many of them have crypto wallets.
“The field is totally new,” says Ernest Kyeya, a 27-year-old electrical engineering graduate from the University of Goma, who works at the mine.
“It took me a little time to adapt to the jargon, to understand the operation of a mining machine and manage to repair and maintain it,” he adds. “But I was treated as a member of the team and not as a simple worker. That responsibility gave me confidence.”
The miners work 21 days straight before getting five days off. The digs aren’t “classy,” says Kyeya, “but we like what we do.” He adds, “It’s not like in town. Everything must be planned. But it’s worth it. It’s such an honor to work here, as many as 13 hours a day—sometimes more, because we have nothing else to do in the jungle.”
Today there are 10 containers powered directly by the plant’s four-meter turbines. Each container holds 250 to 500 rigs. Virunga owns three containers, with all the proceeds going to fund various park services. The other seven are Gouspillou’s. He pays Virunga for the electricity to run his servers, and whatever he mines belongs to him and his investors.
De Merode estimates that the mine generated about $500,000 for the park last year, when the pandemic had shut down most other revenue sources.
And cashing in on the popularity of digital apes, the park teamed up with the NFT project CyberKongz, which auctioned gorilla NFTs through Christie’s, providing another $1.2 million for the park. Some of that money was used to buy two of the three park-owned containers.
“That’s what got us through covid,” de Merode says.
Selling Bitcoin as savior
“Emmanuel was very surprised when he saw the money. I was sure about our success,” says Gouspillou, who speaks rapid-fire when the conversation turns to the sustainability of crypto.
Not everyone is so sure. And not all Congolese are fans of radical development. Even if some do benefit, most won’t get jobs. Years of war and foreign exploitation also weigh heavily on locals, who often praise the park and curse it in the same sentence.
Meanwhile, for the international community, the idea of Bitcoin as savior has perhaps never been a harder sell.
That criticism is heavily tied to the enormous amount of electricity required to mine coins—electricity typically generated from fossil fuels. The director-general of the European Central Bank recently called Bitcoin mining “an unprecedented polluter.” And connections are often costly; the seven biggest US crypto miners, for instance, tap the same amount of power as all the households in Houston. (US crypto companies are not legally required to report carbon dioxide emissions.)
Many communities, particularly in developing countries, have also been exploited by international crypto miners, some of whom swoop in to take advantage of weak local regulations or tax benefits, siphon power, damage the surrounding environment, and then disappear for the next hot spot.
“The main issue is that the benefit is always extremely limited compared to the cost,” says Alex de Vries, a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who studies crypto sustainability. “Miners overpromise and underdeliver.”
A key, he says, is that recouping investments means running rigs 24/7. “Local communities are typically better off without them,” he concludes.
Peter Howson, an assistant professor in international development at Northumbria University who has conducted research with de Vries, also argues that Congo’s clean energy could be used more effectively. “Bitcoin miners are outcompeting more productive forms of green industrial development in DRC,” he says. “Those industries could have employed combatants, poachers, and illegal loggers. Even the largest Bitcoin outfits employ only a handful of people. And those are very precarious jobs with insecure contracts. So is this a good model? No. They should use the hydropower for something useful.”
Esther Marijnen, a Dutch political ecologist who has worked in Congo since 2013, makes a similar point—arguing that the mine at Luviro is simply at odds with conservation and questioning what a gorilla sanctuary has to do with crypto. For all the development taking place in Virunga, especially around hydropower, she notes that the park has failed to bring widespread stability or employment.
“What is the objective?” she asks. “Is it rural electrification so people around the park can actually use electricity to improve their relationship to the park? Or is it to attract business?”
Jason Stearns, the founder of NYU’s Congo Research Group and a former UN investigator who considers de Merode a friend, warns that militias too can benefit from hydropower, so it will not necessarily lead militants to drop their guns. “I admire Emmanuel’s tenacity and willingness to think outside the box,” he says, “but this ideology that the free market will bring peace flies in the face of the last 20 years in the Congo.”
Nevertheless, Gouspillou maintains that Bitcoin mining “can be a force for development.” In fact, he sees the project in Virunga as a potential model: “People say it’s bad for the environment, but here it’s clean energy. It’s a formula that could be replicated.”
There are no fossil fuels here since the mine relies on rivers, he adds, and the lack of customers in Luviro means no power is being siphoned from local needs.
Michael Saylor, the cofounder of the investment firm MicroStrategy, agrees—calling Virunga’s model “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.” To this end, de Merode is speaking to other state national parks about turning their waterways into hydropower supplies.
Peter Wall, the CEO of Argo Blockchain, which runs hydro-powered mines in Quebec, notes that “85% of [a mine’s] operating cost comes from power,” meaning even a low-power mine can be profitable. “I think [the Virunga mine is] a first,” he says. “I have not heard of any national parks mining. Ultimately you need three things: power, machines, capital.” Virunga has all three.
Still, all crypto mines, including those in Luviro, need to grapple with the currencies’ cratering price. Bitcoin alone has fallen over 70% since its height last year. And then there’s the FTX debacle, which wiped out $32 billion overnight. All this, plus crypto’s track record of pollution, may turn off the crucial donors that places like Virunga rely on.
But it’s still “an incredibly good investment for the park,” de Merode says. “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.”
Even if Bitcoin dropped to 1% of its value, the 10 containers would remain profitable, he says.
It’s a system de Merode hopes can essentially sustain itself, which is one reason the park is building so much infrastructure. When I ask what would happen to the mine if something were to happen to him, he keeps smiling.
“If I crashed? The digital wallet is managed by our finance team,” he replies. “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.”
A Hail Mary for the future
Crypto, de Merode emphasizes, isn’t the sole answer to save Virunga but part of a larger eco-business model. The annual GDP impact of Virunga’s other green investments, which include coffee and chocolate cultivation, could be as much as $202 million by 2025, according to a 2019 report by the British economic consultancy Cambridge Econometrics.
“What we’re trying to demonstrate is that a green economy implies diversity,” de Merode says. “Hundreds of different industries can be reliant on sustainable energy over the long term, which makes a healthy society. Unlike being reliant on just oil.”
About 100 miles south of Luviro, from the top of the Matebe hydro plant’s tower, you can see the plan in action, with power lines snaking into the town of Rutshuru. It’s no metropolis, but in many ways it has been a success—a place where this vision has been working—even if that success is incredibly tenuous. This area has become the heart of territory now claimed by the M23. Still, when I visited over the spring, 5,000 bars of soap were being produced a day at the RUSA soap factory via equipment purchased with a microloan backed by Virunga. Christophe Bashaka, the owner, smiled ear to ear and said this work “was not possible” without hydropower.
At a maize factory a few minutes away, Elias Habimana took off his leather coat and picked up a giant calculator to show me how many thousands of dollars he’s saved: hydropower let him ditch costly generators and employ 30 people.
“De Merode made this possible,” he said. “Avec le courant, things are much easier now.”
And a park-run chocolate factory in nearby Beni gives cocoa growers a fair price and a legal market. It produces 10,000 bars a month, also powered by hydro—numbers poised to grow now that Virunga has teamed up with Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative, an NGO helping bring park-produced chocolate to stores in the US.
According to de Merode, power from Virunga’s hydro plants has created over 12,000 jobs; since the average Congolese household has at least five members, one job is an outsize stabilizer in a place where desperation drives radicalization. None of the core Congolese crypto team are ex-militia, but some of the temporary workers who participated in construction were, notes Gouspillou.
At the park’s headquarters in Rumangabo, the stakes of this experiment are on stark display. Near piles of confiscated charcoal and a gorilla cemetery is the grave of the first female ranger. Widows make stuffed animals and rifle straps in a workshop filled with dozens of stars bearing names of the fallen. “My husband loved this place,” a woman named Mama Noella told me. With five mouths to feed after he died, she toiled as a day laborer until she learned a trade here: “It gave me value, hope.”
On my last morning in the park, shelling began early. The next day, missiles streaked over the sky as the M23 moved against the army—with Virunga staff and thousands of Congolese in the middle.
Within days of my departure, de Merode ordered Rumangabo’s evacuation. Matebe was next. Later that week, a UN helicopter crashed over a militia-held area and fighting engulfed Rutshuru and Matebe. Through it all, park staff stayed. By luck or divine magic, the M23 retreated back up the mountain.
The respite, though, turned out to be short-lived.
By mid-summer, fighting had resumed, and towns fell as the rebels swept toward Goma. The government declared its oil ambitions, and in August, US secretary of state Antony Blinken announced a plan to jointly examine the extraction areas.
Since then, a hydro plant has been hit by artillery and a high-voltage line to Goma has been struck. The M23 has continued its bloody campaign in Rutshuru and in October seized Rumangabo, leaving de Merode and staff reliving an occupation that feels eerily reminiscent of what captivated viewers of Virunga a decade ago.
In early January, the M23 announced its withdrawal from Rumangabo, but park staff warn that they’ve pulled out of other captured territories in recent months only to quickly return, and that rebels are still being seen in the area. And even if the M23 actually retreats, various other rebels remain; just a few weeks ago, around Christmas, a group called the Mai-Mai killed two rangers.
Gouspillou, meanwhile, has continued proselytizing about crypto’s future—traveling to Ghana for the first African Bitcoin conference—and is waiting for things to cool off before returning to Luviro.
And de Merode is still waiting, Kyeya and Mbavumoja are still hard at work, and the rigs are still plugging away in Luviro. After so much luck, good and bad, le directeur is stuck in place with a small team—as he put it in a late August WhatsApp call, just “holding our heads above water.”
Adam Popescu is a writer in Los Angeles.