Virunga: Chronicle of a Betrayal Foretold

Unofficial translation of the excellent article of DRC blogger Jean-Baptiste Badesire: A  reflection on oil exploration and exploitation in Virunga National Park, and how the Congolese authorities choose the easy money at the expense of the sustainable development and social peace in North Kivu.


This Friday, January 31, 2014 , the city of Goma hosted a workshop that brought together representatives of Governments and Parliament from Kinshasa , the authorities of the province of North Kivu , the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and the civil Society of North Kivu . On the agenda : ” Oil exploitation in protected areas in the DRC, the case of  Virunga National Park” , Virunga is classified as a World Heritage Site.

The government granted in March 2012 a petroleum exploration license for Block V in the Albertine Rift, which covers a big part of  Virunga National Park, to the British multinational SOCO International. This happened before the entry into action of M23 who are now militarily defeated. The government initiative has encountered fierce opposition from civil society, international NGOs in the field of environment and local communities.
Through the meeting of 31 January 2014 , it appeared that Congolese authorities wanted to show the world that they consult with communities and local partners involved in the process. But faced with the intransigence of the latter, the government sharpened its claws and unilaterally announced that it has chosen to transform the country’s natural resources into wealth : the case of oil.

The problem with oil exploration in North Kivu is deep and very delicate. It involves not only environmental and economic values, but may significantly affect the fragile security of the province and provide a new source of violations of human rights.

In this reflection, I propose to reproduce a summary of the content of the discussion between the government and civil society in North Kivu that took place during the workshop this Friday, January 31, 2014 , and then I will return to some of the challenges surrounding oil exploitation in the park.

1 . Discussion points between the authorities and civil society around the issue of oil exploration in Virunga National Park

During this exchange that lasted most of the day, government officials pleaded for oil exploration in protected areas, including Virunga National Park. This is essentially based on the following arguments:

  • Technological advances make it possible to exploit the oil without destroying ecosystems;
  • Congo does not have a legal framework in this area , which is the basis of several mistakes the government claims to want to correct , especially through the hydrocarbon bill currently under discussion in parliament;
  • The government just wants to know the amount of oil in the Virunga before taking the decision.

For Civil Society , however, it is not certain that SOCO International, which has obtained the right to explore for oil in block V in Virunga National Park, disposes of the modern equipment and technologies mentioned by the government. Civil society has also argued that :

  • It is absurd that the government develop a spineless oil law just to cover the immoral granting of rights to oil exploration in Virunga National Park ;
  • Local communities were not consulted before the government took the option to explore oil in the park and to award the contract to SOCO ;
  • Security guarantees for local communities do not exist in this deal between the government and SOCO ;
  • Nothing is there to assure that local communities could benefit from oil exploration ;
  • That activities such as the development of tourism in the park could generate more resources and guarantees of security and sustainable development for local communities.

Even though civil society pleaded strongly, the government then roared : “We have exercised the option .” Without any further ado !

2 . Exploration and exploitation of oil in the Virunga National Park : a blow to environmental and economic interests of local communities

Located in eastern DR Congo, Virunga National Park is the oldest park in Africa . It is full of exceptional biodiversity including one of the largest remaining population of mountain gorillas, an endangered species . However, this park, a World Heritage site nominated by Unesco, has the misfortune to be full of important oilfields. The granting of exploration rights to oil companies (TOTAL , ENI and SOCO) by the Congolese authorities threaten 85% percent of the park area and in this sense puts at risk the whole park’s biodiversity and ecosystem.

In addition to this environmental issues, oil exploration in the park poses serious problems for the economic interests of local communities living in and around the park. In fact, Lake Edward, where SOCO focuses his actions, is an important source of revenue for the surrounding communities who depend on fishing. In a dialogue between NGOs and community members in November 2013, they argued that fishing provides them more income than SOCO promises as allocation to local development.

Civil Society prefers tourism to oil. A visit to the gorillas is currently valued at more than U.S. $300. Profit from this sector could increase through the gradual return of peace in the region. In neighboring Rwanda , gorilla tourism generates around 200 million in 2010. Nothing prevents the DRC to do so.

But faced with the race for easy money that represents the oil wealth for the ” privy purse ” , I meant ” Treasury ” , the rulers , the Congolese authorities prefer to sacrifice the interests of local communities and future generations regardless of the laws of the Republic.

3 . Exploration and exploitation of oil in North Kivu : a challenge for peace and human rights

Armed conflict in North Kivu are closely linked to the illegal exploitation of natural resources that abound in the province. It is fueled by, according to different reports of the United Nations, a vast network of illegal extraction of minerals and natural resources. Nothing indicates that the exploitation of oil escapes this rule. In fact, the area where the oil is expected, Rutshuru territory, is infested by armed groups. The largest armed group that occupied Rutshuru is the M23, fortunately defeated by the army with the help of MONUSCO last year November. Since the advent of M23 and his determination to establish a parallel administration (government) in Rutshuru territory , I always wondered whether this armed group and the countries that supported them were aiming for the control of oil exploitation.

SOCO International itself does not hesitate to use unorthodox methods, when confronted with the  growing opposition. At Nyakakoma and Vitshumbi, two locations at Lake Edward, where SOCO has installed its facilities, military naval forces are the one securing their installations and accompanying them during their terrestrials and aquatic missions. Military naval force, on behalf of SOCO , resort to abuses and intimidates the population. In December 2013, a local human rights activist was arrested and beaten by the military under the accusation that he photographed the facilities SOCO. But one of the biggest fears is that greed of other armed groups operating in the region for the oil, might start either new sporadic attacks or a bigger widespread armed conflict.

In this context, there is every reason to fear the increase of human rights violations in the region. The same day the government officials discussed with civil society – Jan. 31, 2014 – a public demonstration of farmers in Rutshuru, against oil exploration in the park was violently charged by the police. The Congolese government and SOCO are in any case ready to do anything to guarantee the success of their work. In 2012, several human rights defenders were threatened with death for having publicly challenged the initiative of oil exploration in the park.

According to confidential sources, SOCO uses money to rally local authorities and leaders to their cause. On several occasions SOCO’s local representatives have distributed money to a number of people to stimulate them to demonstrate and show their support.

In view of the foregoing, it is clear that the Congolese authorities have not only granted the right to SOCO to explore oil in Virunga National Park at the detriment of the importance that the site poses to the environment and humanity but also gave SOCO “carte blanche” to trample the laws of the country and the human rights of local populations.

Posted by Jean- Baptiste Badesire at 22:32

Source: Carnet de Jean-Baptiste Badesire