|Written by Joshua Alter|
Virunga National Park (Virunga) covers 790,000 hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).(2) Originally designated a national park in 1925, Virunga became a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 1979.(3) Virunga has been described as “the most unique biosphere in the world,” with more flora and fauna than any other park.(4) However, all is not well inside Virunga. Recently, the DRC Government granted two oil exploratory permits to SOCO International (SOCO), a British oil and gas company, to carry out prospecting activities in the park.(5) Additionally, poaching has once again become prevalent, leading to the deaths of endangered gorillas and elephants.(6) Finally, armed militias are using Virunga as a staging ground for violence.(7)
This CAI paper discusses the legal ramifications of oil and gas drilling within Virunga. It proposes that the DRC establish a fund similar to the Yasuni-ITT Initiative in Ecuador, where states and other actors may pay money to protect important natural heritage. This paper further discusses the problems of poaching and armed conflicts within Virunga, and proposes that the DRC use funds collected under a Virunga Initiative to heighten security within the park to protect it from poachers and armed militias.
Virunga National Park: Drilling for oil
Virunga National Park, located on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was the first national park established in Africa.(8) Today, it is home to a quarter of the world’s mountain gorilla population, as well as countless other species.(9) Virunga benefits from eco-tourism income, particularly from foreigners desiring to see its mountain gorillas and other exotic species.(10)
Enter SOCO International (SOCO), a British oil and gas exploration and production company. A Ministerial Order, signed on 1 September 2011, gave SOCO a Certificate of Environmental Accessibility enabling the company to exercise an oil exploration campaign by acquiring data in Virunga National Park.(11) In March 2012, it became known that SOCO procured two oil exploratory permits, which allowed seismic testing into Virunga.(12) SOCO has rights in oil block V, within which parts of Virunga lie.(13) However, oil exploration inside Virunga would constitute a breach of domestic, as well as international law.(14) Under Congolese Law 69-041, it is illegal for SOCO to undertake oil exploration work within Virunga.(15) Congolese Law 69-041 sets out a framework for improved conservation of wildlife, while DRC Law 75-024 established sanctuary areas within the DRC.(16) Virunga’s rangers used these domestic laws to refuse SOCO entry into the park. Unfortunately, the SOCO vehicles found their way inside Virunga anyway.(17) Under the World Heritage Convention, which the DRC ratified on 23 September 1974,(18) it must do everything it can “…to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and co-operation…”(19) to ensure “the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage.”(20) Although the park rangers should not risk their lives to stop these vehicles from entering, the DRC Government must do more than passively allow SOCO to do whatever it pleases.
SOCO continues to say all the right things to convince the Congolese that their actions will not harm Virunga, and has pledged to consult with stakeholders and to avoid taking any direct actions inside Virunga until they get the results from the aero-surveys that they undertake.(21) SOCO claims that it has an exemption to drill under the conservation law and that its exploration is further protected because it is considered scientific research.(22) Even if SOCO does no drilling inside the gorilla habitat, industrial activity in the vicinity would have harmful effects throughout the park.(23) Environmental groups have warned that oil exploration inside Virunga risks harming the wildlife and the ecosystem.(24)
The environmental impacts of drilling are well documented and should serve to caution the DRC from allowing drilling too quickly. The Texaco oil spill in Ecuador’s Yasuni rainforest in the 1960s(25) is an example of the negative effects of shirking environmental responsibility. Chevron, Texaco’s successor company, is still tied up in the litigation from actions that took place over 50 years ago.(26) The litigation has brought to light the negative effects of drilling on the local population and the environment.
The social impacts of drilling, although harder to quantify, also caution against drilling. Lake Edward, located partially inside Virunga,(27) and where SOCO plans to conduct exploration activities, is home to 30,000 local anglers, who make their living fishing on the lake.(28) Many of these anglers fear that drilling will bring pollution and conflict into the region.(29) They are sceptical of SOCO’s claims that drilling will bring them jobs, as residents of the region say that they are uneducated and lack the skills necessary to be hired by SOCO.(30) They also believe that drilling would increase the risk of war in the area, and point to Libya as a prime example of the effects that drilling has on a region.(31)
Protecting Virunga from poachers
In addition to the potential oil-drilling problem, Virunga must also protect itself from highly sophisticated poachers. Poaching is one of the biggest problems facing Virunga, especially after the high profile coverage of a mountain gorilla and an elephant, each killed after being trapped in a poacher’s snare.(32) Elephants are specifically targeted because of their ivory, which sells for a very high price.(33) Poachers involved in ivory trading have built sophisticated criminal networks in order to facilitate this lucrative trade.(34)
The DRC Government must do more to protect against poaching. In 2012, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a report on poaching in 23 countries, titled Wildlife crime scorecard: Assessing compliance with and enforcement of CITES commitments for tigers, rhinos and elephants.(35) The report highlighted that the DRC is failing on key aspects of compliance and enforcement of protecting elephants from poaching.(36) The report highlighted that although the DRC has improved its compliance over the period of 2010-2012, “major prosecutions for wildlife crime are still rare, and overall the scoring shows that enforcement has lagged behind compliance, indicating that many countries are not fully making full use of the policy tools they have set in place.”(37)
Although the DRC has legislation prohibiting internal ivory trade, it was singled out for a significant loophole, whereby the Ministry of Art and Culture provides licenses for ivory carvers because their production is considered a “work of art.”(38) This loophole contributed to the DRC’s failing score for compliance regarding elephant protection.(39)
One of the simplest solutions to this poaching problem is to remove the poachers’ snares. In early 2012, a joint patrol between the Rwanda and DRC border ended up removing approximately 26 snares.(40) However, although this helps to a degree, a more fundamental question is how to curtail poaching. Poaching is most effectively combated if potential poachers are steered towards other economic opportunities. One proposed solution is to promote the economic livelihoods of people in the region.(41) By providing people with a different form of earning a livelihood, they will not have to turn to poaching. Another solution is education. There is demand for ivory and rhino horns in the Far East, where rhino horns are believed to have healing powers.(42) People in the Far East must be educated about the myths surrounding the healing properties of rhino horns. Only then will poaching inside Virunga decline.(43) Finally, the DRC must close the loophole that allows ivory cutters to be licensed to sell elephant products. The DRC Government must take a stand protecting all elephant products, no matter what their usage.
Virunga: Avoiding drilling and stopping poaching
One area that SOCO’s desire for profit maximisation and environmentalist’s desire for protection from poachers overlap is boosted park security.(44) Should SOCO set up oil exploration projects inside Virunga, SOCO would surely secure those sites, forcing poachers and armed groups that are currently operating inside the park to relocate. However, Marc Languy, Leader of WWF’s Green Heart of Africa Initiative stated, “oil exploration is incompatible with World Heritage status.”(45) Indeed, it is tough to imagine SOCO exploring for oil in a way that would protect Virunga under domestic and international law. If the DRC must collaborate with a group in order to protect Virunga, SOCO should be required to pay for security to protect from poaching and armed groups. Further, SOCO must make sure that any exploration would be conducted away from protected wildlife.
However, it is preferable to avoid drilling and stop poaching and, as previously stated, in order to turn people away from poaching, they must be provided with an alternative means of earning a livelihood. One novel way that Congolese citizens can earn livelihoods is from a multimillion-dollar luxury lodge that was recently completed nearby Virunga and the ensuing eco-tourism of foreign travellers.(46) However, the luxury lodge cannot be used so long as armed activities continue inside Virunga. Therefore, the park, at least temporarily, needs another source of income. This leads back to the drilling conundrum. Because SOCO and other oil companies do not have the best interests of the DRC or the environment in mind, it would be foolish to trust SOCO’s assurances of job creation, wealth maximisation and minimal environmental impact.(47)
Therefore, Virunga should set up an initiative, similar to the way Ecuador set one up for the Yasuni rainforest in the northeastern portion of Ecuador. Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, stated that Ecuador would be willing to forgo drilling and leave Yasuní as it currently stands if the international community pays US$ 3.6 billion over 13 years.(48) The oil in these unexplored fields is valued at over US$ 7 billion.(49) Ecuador, at least in theory, is willing to forgo half the value of that oil in order to protect Yasuní and keep its pristine features intact.(50) This project is known as the Yasuní-ITT Initiative.(51) Ecuador has had some, albeit limited, success with their Yasuni-Initiative. States and multinational organisations around the world have contributed money towards leaving the oil inside the Ecuadorian national park, also a UNESCO site.
Protecting Virunga from armed groups
There are 271 rangers that protect Virunga from drilling and poachers.(52) Nevertheless, these rangers, along with DRC soldiers, must also protect the national park from armed groups that camp inside Virunga.(53) According to officials, there are four armed groups that are currently occupying Virunga and using the park to battle the Congolese Government.(54) Over 150 rangers have lost their lives protecting Virunga since 1996.(55) The fighting inside the park has also forced authorities to temporarily close down a luxury lodge, which cost millions of dollars to build.(56) The proceeds from this lodge were supposed to go toward making Virunga self-sufficient.(57)
Instead, the fighting has led to displacement and people taking shelter inside the park for survival. People are cutting down trees in order to make fires for cooking, causing environmental degradation.(58) There have been attempts to solve this problem. Examples include providing clean cook stoves and planting a buffer of fast growing trees so locals can harvest them for charcoal.(59) However, so long as the conflict continues, displaced persons will be forced to look for short-term solutions, which will have long-term environmental implications.
The appeal of drilling for oil is seducing. However, the DRC must avoid the temptation and prohibit SOCO from drilling for oil inside Virunga. Drilling would be harmful for the DRC in the short term, leading to pollution and destruction of local livelihoods. It would also be harmful for the DRC in the long run, leading to environmental degradation, corruption and conflict. Although SOCO believes that setting up sites would make the region more secure, it would merely invite others into the area, deepening the conflict already existing. Instead, Virunga should borrow a page from Ecuador and set up an initiative that protects the park from multinational oil companies. The funds from this initiative would be used to heighten security inside the park and keep Virunga’s status as an international eco-tourist attraction. It would also ensure that local fishermen would be able to continue earning their livelihoods on Lake Edward. Better-funded rangers would be able to protect Virunga from poachers and keep out armed militias as well. Thus, the DRC should adopt a ‘responsibility to preserve’ approach inside Virunga.
Source: Consultancy Africa Intelligence