MARCH 2012: World Heritage expresses concern regarding aeromagnetic and aerogravimetric explorations at Virunga NP

Credits: UNESCO

The World Heritage Centre has just been informed that a Ministerial Order, signed on 1 September 2011, delivers to SOCO (South Africa Congo Oil) a Certificate of Environmental Acceptability in order to exercise an oil exploration campaign by the acquisition of aeromagnetic and aerogravimetric data in block V of the Albertine Rift (Virunga National Park), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

UNESCO, the World Heritage Centre, their partners and NGOs already expressed their deep concerns during the summer of 2010, when the same company was given a 5-year permit for exploration inside the World Heritage site. UNESCO has repeatedly warned of the extremely harmful repercussions of this type of activity for the outstanding universal value of Virunga National Park and of the habitats of its emblematic species. The property has been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 1994.

The Director-General of UNESCO went to Kinshasa in January 2011 to meet with Congolese authorities and to recall that no oil exploration or exploitation should be approved in Virunga National Park, taking into account its international recognition and the engagements undertaken within the framework of the World Heritage Convention. During her visit, the Director-General signed the Kinshasa Declaration together with the Congolese Prime Minister, M. Adolphe Muzito. According to the Declaration, the Congolese government commits itself to, among other actions, strengthen the application of the law, render the properties secure, strengthen the operational capacities of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), reduce commercial poaching, put an end to illegal exploitation of natural resources and to reinforce the peaceful evacuation of illegal occupants in the protected areas. It is important to note that oil and mining exploration and exploitation are specifically prohibited in the protected areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by the Public Order Act of 1969 on the conservation of nature and by the Mining Code of 2002.

Subsequent to the Kinshasa Declaration, in March 2011 the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism (MECNT) suspended the permit while an Environmental Evaluation Strategy (EES), in line with international standards, was to be conducted by an independent entity. This decision was welcomed by the Director-General of UNESCO, who formulated the wish that this lead to a definitive suspension of all oil exploration or exploitation within this World Heritage site.

In a letter dated 5 March 2012, addressed to the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism, the Director of the World Heritage Centre expressed his concern regarding this authorisation to initiate aeromagnetic and aerogravimetric explorations while the environmental evaluation strategy process is in progress, asking for additional information regarding the scope of this Order.

The Director of the World Heritage Centre has also evoked the latest Decision of the World Heritage Committee (35COM7A.4) in which the Committee requested the suspension of the permit within the World Heritage site.