Drilling stopped in Virunga National Park but for how long?

Posted on June 12, 2014

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As I prepared to board a flight to East Africa yesterday news that oil exploration within Africa’s oldest national park had been suspended broke.

The environmental charity WWF was claiming this as its own hard-fought victory. It follows endless campaigning and celebrity endorsement which the NGO believes helped to safeguard the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park from drilling.

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Virunga is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the continent and home to the endangered mountain gorillas whose range spans Uganda as well Rwanda. In total there are only about 700 of these primates left and in DRC it’s estimated their population is around 480. But underneath this precious area which includes Lake Edward could be multi millions dollars worth of oil and it is being eyed up by the fat cats.

While drilling may have been temporarily stopped in DRC a porous border on the lake falls into Uganda, where another petroleum company Tullow Oil is sucking from that end because that part of the lake is not in a protected area.

After months of lobbying British-based petroleum company, Soco International, WWF said it had reached an agreement with Soco that the company would withdraw from Virunga after completing seismic tests inside the park. In return WWF had agreed not to pursue a legal complaint against Soco which it had filed with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for breaching guidelines by exploring for oil.

In the last six months I have hosted at two major wildlife conferences for the United Nations (Great Apes Survival Project, GRASP and the United Nations’ Environment Programme, UNEP) both have looked at the impact of extractive industries on protected areas. Seismic testing is damaging. It erodes the soil, invites pollution, noise and disease into an area through human disturbance. All of which negatively affects the biodiversity both short and long term. This is fact.

Regardless if testing is done in a block on the fringes of a protected area vibrations are felt and erosion causes a chain reaction on the environment we don’t fully appreciate. Roads have to be built, vegetation and trees stripped out, habitat destroyed and animals displaced, they move out or worse still die out. Without those species helping to regenerate the forests it’s a downward spiral. Have you ever tried to work/sleep through drilling happening outside your home? It’s not happening in your house but it feels like it may as well be; and what about the walls shaking and potential structural damage?! Now magnify this situation ten-fold and this might be a fraction of what the species in the park will experience.

The 7,800-square-kilometre (3,000-square-mile) park was created in 1925 when the country was a Belgian colony. And despite its own environmental rules and international accords, the government of the conflict plagued republic controversially awarded oil concessions in much of the park, despite outrage from scientists and campaigners. It beggars belief that protected areas are not simply no-go areas.

My trip this month is taking me back to Uganda but also to new pastures – Rwanda. I have bought a very expensive mountain gorilla permit to go trekking to see these endangered apes this weekend. It is an immense privilege to be able to do this and who knows in the near future this opportunity may be lost forever unless extractive organisations start behaving more responsibly. I thought these were educated individuals?

If tests reveal there is an abundance of oil there is no way on earth petroleum companies will walk away – who are you kidding? It will be an even bigger bum fight than the one that’s happening at the moment! When I was in Uganda I witnessed first hand how local villagers were being displaced in the most appalling way so that petroleum companies could get their hands on their land – sold for peanuts and moved on with intimidation.

DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. An important inside source from the World Bank told me yesterday there is huge concern that this agreement may be short-lived. And I have to say I share this sentiment.

The DRC government has been warned that if extraction went head Virunga would lose its world heritage status. But judging by the government’s past actions it isn’t bothered. Comments made by the deputy chief executive of Soco International also reflects that this would actually play perfectly into their hands because legally they would not be doing anything wrong.

Speaking to The Times newspaper Roger Cagle said that if DRC wanted to benefit from its oil it could even apply to UNESCO to remove Virunga from the list of World Heritage Sites.

Are you serious? Virunga has huge potential for eco-tourism and sustainable development of hydropower according to NGOs that could help DRC long-term. Not to mention the livelihoods of those fishermen and women who rely on that lake. Fisheries generate an estimated $30m a year say WWF.

Mr Cagle added: “It forces DRC and UNESCO to come to some kind of accommodation as has been demonstrated in many other places where they have accommodated things in world heritage sites by redrawing boundaries and by agreeing to certain activities being conducted in certain ways.”

All of this comes as governments gather in Qatar for the annual meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee next week to discuss the conservation status of various protected areas including Virunga and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. Both of which have already been compromised.

The results of the seismic tests done by Soco will take about a year to analyse according to Mr Cagle. He is reported as saying that, “if they prove positive, the DRC government would have to decide whether it wanted to proceed with exploratory drilling.”

In other words this is far from over.

As part of its agreement with WWF, the company said it was committed “not to conduct any operations in any other world heritage site”. WWF described its deal with Soco as “a victory for our planet”.

I can’t help but feel this is a premature celebration by WWF and this issue will more than likely raise its ugly head once more and the battle is far from over.

How can we stop this? My view, we need to start pressurising shareholders, naming and shaming and calling for better corporate responsibility because it’s clear company bosses and governments don’t listen, don’t care and clearly don’t see the bigger picture.

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