MAY 2012, HR ALERT: Local Communities in Vitshumbi silenced

Credits: Wendy Cockcroft

Local organizations and civil society representatives from Vitshumbi were going to host a public meeting today, 26th of May. Goal of this meeting was to reflect on the oil concession and contract for Block 5 in the Virunga National Park and the state of the fisheries in Lake Edward. The meeting was co-organized by several civil society actors, some of whom already expressed their concerns about the dangers of oil exploration in the Virunga NP in the March 23rd workshop (read post).

During this workshop the North Kivu local communities openly opposed oil exploration in Virunga National Park, expressing serious concerns about the consequences of natural resource exploitation in DRC and how they are at the basis of the current conflicts in Eastern DRC.

Today we are the direct witnesses of how local communities in Vitshumbi are been silenced and how their right to freedom of expression is being hampered.

The administrative authorities of Rutshuru territory decided to cancel the meeting, no reasons given. Morerover, security forces are blocking the entrance to the meeting room. Local populations are left outside with no voice and no right to express their views and concerns around the threat of oil exploration in Virunga National Park.

This limitation of social protest and increasing violations of the rights to freedom of speech and dissent of ‘extractive’ opponents is not something new. Two Congolese environmental activists that oppose the oil developments in Virunga National park have been receiving death threats since 2011 (read post). If we look at Latin America, we see how an alarming number of people including activists, lawyers and members of social organizations are been accused, harassed and even killed when fighting for their right to protect their environment and livelihoods, and when opposing economic developments which they do not believe will be for the long-term benefit of local communities[1].

The International Alliance of Catholic development Agencies, CIDSE, has been pointing to the new dangers of the criminalization of this kind of protests, and the direct link with the expansion of extractive industries and companies in Latin America.

Latin American communities, like the Congolese’s population, can be opposed to extraction for a range of reasons: “on the whole, extractive companies have a poor record in respecting the rights of the communities their operations affect. Common complaints include severe damage to the environment and water resources, due to the release of toxic substances through mining processes or accidental spills; negative health impacts on surrounding communities, especially skin and respiratory problems; forced displacement of communities and the destruction of ancestral land which has spiritual and hereditary significance for indigenous people. Lack of prior consultation with communities and the violation of hard-won constitutional and legal rights related to water, land, the environment and collective rights are additional problems. [2]

As CIDSE argues “democratic states have a duty to allow protests to happen, and indeed to provide protection when they do. But in Latin America protest – and particularly that related to large investment projects – is routinely met by direct repression and with the abuse of judicial procedures to convert legitimate protest into criminal acts. The aim of criminalization is to create fear…Ultimately states and companies want to weaken and neutralize resistance so that large scale extractive projects can proceed[3].”

Unfortunately, the oil developments in the Great African Lakes region and growing interest of states and companies for extractive projects in the Virunga lets us fear that this action against Vitshumbi’s local communities is just the beginning.

Therefore we are extremely concerned about the limitation of the freedom of expression of the local communities. Save Virunga is wondering how this will foster a comprehensive debate about oil exploration among all the stakeholders, and how this will address the specific development and security needs of local communities and the protection of the Virunga National Park.