Oil exploration suspended in DRC, but for how long?

Posted on April 5, 2011

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Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, DRC

They’ve may have won the first round, but conservationists say they are stepping up the pressure on the Congolese government to say ‘no’ for good to two British oil firms drilling in Africa’s oldest park.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a UNESCO world heritage site, permission had been granted for the UK-based company SOCO International and its sister company Dominion to explore parts of it for oil, but this has now been suspended. A  small victory, but for how long?

The conservation charity, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says it wants the  government to go a step further and ensure the park and species are safeguarded long-term.

Spokesman for WWF International Natalia Reiter said: “The environment ministry did the right thing and what we hope to see next is a firm declaration guaranteeing there would be no exploration in this iconic park now or in the future.

“Allowing oil exploration in this iconic park would set an extremely dangerous precedent that even the most precious places on earth are open for oil and gas development.”

The Virunga Massif – of which Virunga National Park is part – is one of the few places in the world where gorilla populations are not in steep decline, thanks to decades of conservation work by the government, local communities and conservation organisations. The park itself is home to 200 of the 700 remaining mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei) which are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Congo’s Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism, Jose Endundo said his government had rejected SOCO International‘s environmental impact assessment, which it considered “premature and superficial” and which did not conform to the standards it expected.

He added: “We will initiate a thorough and transparent Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to decide whether future exploration for oil could be considered.”

The area where the oil exploration was due to take place once had one of the highest biomass densities of wild mammals ever recorded on earth. Over the years wildlife has suffered enormous pressures – with civil war; poaching and the habitat degradation taking its toil. Conservationists say mineral exploitation within the park will be environmentally damaging.

SOCO International argue its presence in the park would be beneficial by providing better protection to the park. The company was awarded prospecting rights by a presidential decree for the block last year – drilling in the park is illegal under Congolese law.

It said the current set back is not of huge concern at this stage as “operations” haven’t started, however it said it could not wait indefinitely.

Speaking to Reuters News Agency Roger Cagle, SOCO International’s deputy CEO, said he was shocked that the environmental impact assessment, had been rejected so quickly. He added: “I’d be surprised if the minister has even read it, we were told it would take a month to get back to us. It is up to the government to decide what they want and we’ll abide by that.”

Mr Endundo said the oil company has assured him it “… will not attempt any prospective work in the park unless a positive consensus is achieved in its favour.”

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