Virunga National Park threatened by oil companies

From Le Carnet de Colette Braeckman

Translated and adapted from the French article Le parc des Virunga menacé par les pétroliers

The Virunga National Park, formerly known as the Albert Park, is the oldest of the African National Parks. In 1979, UNESCO classified it as World Heritage site because of its exceptional biodiversity. Fifteen years later, in 1994, its status became even more critical: currently the park is classified as “Site in Danger”.

For two decades, gorillas, okapi, elephants and hippos had to share their territory with unwanted guests: Hutu refugees arrived in Rwanda after the genocide, Rwandan armed groups, Congolese military in conflict with their government, not to mention poachers and peasants in search of firewood.

The park rangers, however, have never deserted. Since 1996, 130 of them paid with their lives for the protection of this exceptional site. In the southern part of the park, the years of war led to the disappearance of much of the wildlife: from 29,500 hippos, which fertilized the lake and helped the multiplication of fish, there are only 400 individuals left. The others were machine-gunned.

Since 2008 however, the park is reborn: the European Union provides 6 to 7 million dollars a year to support its management, new guards were trained – among others by former Belgian military – the population of mountain gorillas has increased 50%. As for tourists, their number is increasing. The revenues, are nearly a million dollars a year. 75% of this is redistributed to the local communities.

For the Belgian Emmanuel de Merode, Park Director, “schools, roads, water supply, and the dam Mutwanga – all make the park an important development factor in North Kivu”, following the example of Rwanda , where tourism brings in $ 430 million per year.

The park’s future is threatened: oil has been discovered, and the Congolese government has awarded three concessions for oil exploration, which cover 85% of the park. Enrico Pironio, which manages European Aid for the Congolese parks, is not only worried about the possible disappearance of elephants within a decade. He believes that “oil is the most important threat to the park and to the ecosystem. When drilling takes place in Lake Edward and the slightest accident occurs, the pollution and possible oil spill in this environment, with difficult access, will be uncontrollable and affect at least the survival of 40,000 families living in and around the park. Most importantly, being an upper stream basin of the African Great Lakes, the Nile could be contaminated, and eventually the Mediterranean sea.”

In principle, the Virunga National Park is protected under Congolese law. It prohibits any oil exploration and extraction. Two of the three oil companies initially interested, Total and ENI, have promised not to enter the park. The boss of Total has pledged not to conduct exploration activities in the park periphery. However, a third company, the English Soco, listed on the London Stock Exchange, proved far more intrusive: on several occasions the park guards surprised members of Soco entering the park without authorization, accompanied by soldiers, laments Emmanuel de Merode.

Soco invokes exemptions “for scientific reasons” – the Congolese authorities want to know the potential oil reserves, perhaps in order to request any kind of compensation if the reserves are not to be exploited. Soco says they only conducted aerial studies, 300 meters above the sea level, and without any intrusion or landing in the park. But for August 2012 seismic surveys are planned in the lake. This is illegal since it is a protected area.

In view of this danger, conservation initiatives like WWF and “SOS Virunga” are campaigning to make the park a no-go-zone for the oil companies. In Belgium the senator from Donnea, member of the Management Committee of the Africa Conservation Fund, which manages the Virunga National Park, believes pressure must come from the top to stop Soco.

The situation is urgent because Soco seems determined, by all means, to convince the elected officials of North Kivu to support exploration and to ensure the cooperation of some members of the army, so that they can go forward with the exploration in the park, no matter what.