DR Congo: The quest for oil is the latest threat to Africa’s most venerable wildlife reserve

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The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental bodies, including local ones, have also voiced concern about a planned joint operation by small British firm SOCO International PLC and the Kinshasa government in part of the Virunga National Park.

Gazelle in Virunga National Park (Picture: Wikipedia / Radio Okapi)

The whole protected territory on the border with Uganda and Rwanda covers 800,000 hectares and has attained worldwide renown, notably for its rare and endangered mountain gorillas.

SOCO has stated that in July 2013, its chairman Rui de Sousa met with WWF chief David Nusbaum, and proposed that they “work together to find the best way forward.”

The firm also expressed a commitment to “improving our dialogue” with all parties “about how (its) activities in eastern DRC could affect the flora and fauna of the Virunga National Park and the livelihoods of the regional population.”

Created in 1925 in the far east of what was then the Belgian Congo, the whole park was declared an “endangered” part of the global heritage by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994.

The area is exceptionally rich in biodiversity, but is located in scarred North Kivu province, tracts of which have been ravaged by successive conflicts for more than 20 years.

Poachers and logging teams have damaged the reserve, as elsewhere in Africa, but the park is also criss-crossed by rival armed groups and soldiers, while local people have taken up illegal residence.

A global protest campaign erupted after SOCO in 2010 won a contract from the Congolese government to jointly prospect for oil on a concession overlapping the park’s territory.

International resistance proved strong enough to make Kinshasa suspend SOCO’s permit in 2011, until a “strategic environmental evaluation” had been conducted.

The launch of the study failed to satisfy the WWF and local organisations, which argue that such contracts and permits handed out by the state violate both Congolese law on conservation and the UNESCO convention protecting World Heritage Sites. A recent report by a French NGO, the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development, said that “far from constituting a manna for development”, oil production at Muanda had instead led to pollution and the degradation of the environment. For Thierry Vircoulon, the central African project director of the International Crisis Group, “the confirmation of oil reserves in the east would exacerbate the dynamic of conflicts” there.

SOCO has pointed out that it plans to operate only within a small geographical area of “lowland savannah around Lake Edward and the lake itself”, and that it “will never seek” to enter the gorilla habitat.

This is insufficient for UNESCO, which has declared that oil prospecting and production are “not compatible” with world heritage statutes. The organisation warned that part of the park may be unlisted, a prospect that horrifies wildlife activists.

The WWF argues that the DRC has more to gain in economic terms by protecting the park and developing sustainable tourism, fishing and hydroelectric projects, rather than undertaking a search for oil that might not even be there.

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