WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Consumptive use of resources from a national park in the DRC is illegal, deemed so by the DRC government and additionally for Virunga, by its World Heritage status. Currently 85% of Virunga has been designated into three different oil block concessions. Block III and block V, together containing 4865km2 (62.36%) of the park, have already been sold to various international oil and gas exploration companies including Total S.A. (France), SOCO International (UK), Ophir (UK), SacOil (South Africa) and DIG (South Africa), with the DRC Government retaining a certain percentage. SOCO and Ophir have both published that they have exploration plans for inside the boundaries of Virunga, and to date, none of the other companies have stated publicly that they will refrain from operating within the park.
Seismic tests in Lake Edward.
June 2012. The committee overseeing World Heritage Sites yesterday cautioned that petroleum exploration in Virunga National Park could cause serious harm and should be halted. WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fauna & Flora International, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Lukuru Foundation welcome this strong position and urge the DRC government and oil companies to act on it.
Expressing its concern over recent actions by petroleum companies, the World Heritage Committee reiterated its position that oil development is incompatible with World Heritage status. In the Committee’s decisions, passed at its annual meeting, the committee also called on the Democratic Republic of the Congo to revoke permits granted to exploration companies.
Hostile to the park
British oil company SOCO International, which has already begun activities in Virunga, was criticized in the State of Conservation report on Virunga as being “hostile to the park”. The committee said SOCO’s permits did not conform to Democratic Republic of the Congo’s international commitments.
SOCO states that “it will never seek to have operations in the mountain gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest.” Soco fail to point out that the block that they claim to have permission to drill in DOES NOT INCLUDE THE GORILLA SECTOR, so they could not drill in that part of the park anyway. This also ignores the point that large areas of Virunga, Africa’s oldest National Park, lie outside the gorilla habitat, but it is still extremely valuable habitat for many other species. It seems that SOCO belive that this area will be fair game.
Although the habitat of Virunga National Park’s 200 mountain gorillas does not currently fall within an oil concession. Nevertheless, development in the park will most likely negatively affect their security. Even if the oil exploration does nor take place in the Gorilla’s habitat directly, the secondary impact of the near by activities will most certainly have a negative impact on their habitat. Based on past experiences, in Virunga we can expect to see an immediate increase in natural resource use including deforestation for illegal land use change and charcoal production, bushmeat hunting etc. Also an increase of people present inside the park, increasing the chance of disease transmission to the Gorillas.
130 Congo Rangers have been killed protecting the Virunga National Park
The Congo rangers have continued their work without interruption throughout the war, and during that time the gorillas have increased by over 14%. But this has come at a cost. 130 of Virunga’s rangers have died protecting the park’s wildlife against poachers since 1996.
It would be a crying shame if, after their loss, the park is trashed by Bigoil.
Read more about the Congo Rangers
SOCO has announced plans to begin aerial surveys to map oil deposits, and reportedly landed a helicopter in the park earlier this month. Questions over authorization for the landing allegedly led to an altercation between Congolese navy sailors, acting as security for SOCO, and Virunga park rangers. The incident resulted in the bayonet stabbing of a ranger, according to witnesses. However SOCO claim that this incident happened after their helicopter had left the area.
Residents have expressed concern over the possibility that pollution from SOCO exploration in Lake Edward could contaminate fishing waters where 30,000 residents make their livelihoods.
Total, the other oil company with a concession in the park, and SOCO were admonished by the committee for not joining other industry leaders in pledging to remain out of all World Heritage Sites. The Committee also called on the countries where the companies are headquartered to “to ensure that petroleum and mining companies in their territory cause no damage the World Heritage properties.”
Virunga National Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979. It is recognized for its unique landscapes and rare animals, including critically endangered mountain gorillas.
SOCO states that after aerial surveys it plans to conduct seismic tests in Lake Edward, home to about 50,000 people who largely depend on fishing. The company says its seismic testing will not impact the lake’s fauna.
SOCO, an international oil and gas exploration and production company, today announces its proposed work plan regarding its exploration permit in Block V, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which encompasses a portion of Virunga National Park including a portion of Lake Edward.
SOCO has received approval to undertake an aero-survey, which entails flying over Lake Edward. This survey is planned to take place in the next few months. Dependent on the results of the survey, SOCO will then consider seeking approval, potentially around the third quarter of this year, to conduct a compressed air seismic survey on Lake Edward. Compressed air seismic has been recommended by the seismic contractor as it is not harmful to any nearby marine life. A seismic acquisition of this type has already been conducted on Lake Edward by another operator. Any activities beyond these would only be conducted with DRC approval and in conjunction with an appropriate consultation process with stakeholders. SOCO does not therefore anticipate undertaking any direct exploration activities within the Virunga National Park for at least six months.
Over the last year, SOCO has actively engaged with local communities, and regional and national authorities and other stakeholders regarding environmental and social impact assessments and potential activities described above. Most specifically, in an effort to bring stakeholders together for full debate, SOCO organised meetings under the authority of the Governor of North Kivu and the Environment Minister of North Kivu which was attended by over 90 stakeholder representatives including ICCN, international and regional NGOs, local fishery representatives, other interested DRC governmental ministries, local customary chiefs and regional and provincial authorities.
This Position Paper is a joined publication of:
- Wildlife Conservation Society
- Lukuru Foundation
- Flora and Fauna International
- Frankfurt Zoological Society