Gorillas in Congo are in Danger: Oil exploration in Virunga

Instead of the hoped tourists, now the oil industry is moving in and stating that their positive effects would easily balance minor environmental damages…


Unofficial translation of the German article Die Zeit “Der große Ausverkauf des Virunga-Nationalparks”

By Jonas Schaible

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo through the last two decades has had to mourn three civil wars and millions of deaths, lately tourists had hesitantly been brave enough to come back. Because of the gorillas living in the forests of Congo.

Like the Chinese Panda, gorillas have become a symbol of worldwide animal welfare. They attract tourists to the extent that they are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch these animals in their original habitat. Eastern Congo, where the warfare was heaviest, could at last make some money thanks to these Great Apes. The neighboring states of Rwanda and Uganda have been doing just this for years – with rising success. In a report commissioned by WWF (World Wildlife Fund) an income of about 175 million dollars per year is estimated for Virunga Park. That’s a lot of money even given the mission of WWF, but not for the plans of international oil concerns like Soco International.

The British enterprise has announced to investigate the oil reserves in Virunga in the next few years. The Park is part of Unesco World Heritage, on the slopes of the park’s volcanoes about 200 Mountain Gorillas live on the Congolese side, they are two subspecies of Eastern Gorillas. The park is under protection by the law, but Congo’s ministry of environment as well as president Joseph Kabila have granted an exceptional permission for Soco’s investigation.

85 percent of the park are situated within the five blocks the government has permitted to be investigated. Soco has secured a concession in the south. In the northern part among others we find French Oil Multinational Total. While Total only wants to search for oil outside the park’s boundaries, Soco won’t stop there. They deny, though, that future oil-drills would endanger the Gorillas: they would inhabit just a small sector of the park…. Of course the environment would be affected, but the gorillas would not be in danger.

Environment-activists disagree. Several organizations like WWF fear that this exceptional permission for international concerns will have disastrous effects. A large part of the people of Congo in the past has accepted the prohibition to hunting and forest clearance in these regions. Why should they go on being compliant if international oil firms do business there? If more people would move close to Virunga Park in search for jobs, the consequences could be severe.

That the government still promotes the project in spite of these risks and ignores the protest uttered by the Unesco, the British government and the environmental organizations looks like a u-turn. Up till now the gorillas were mainly endangered in those regions were the influence of the Congolese government was weakened after years of civil war. The animals fell victim to opposing militias and poachers looking for dead gorillas for trophies and living ones for private zoos. Forests would be cleared illegally for farming, gold- or cobalt mines or charcoal. The Eastern Lowland gorillas, another subspecies of the Eastern Gorillas, were reduced to 5.000 from 17.000 within 20 years.

So far, in Virunga National park Rangers by order of the government have looked after the safety of the gorillas. About 300 rangers risk their life to defend the gorilla reservations against poachers and militia. More than 140 have died in the last 20 years. Their work was so successful that the gorillas have multiplied in this time.

Emmanuel de Merode has been Chief Warden of Virunga since 2008 and is fighting for every support available: with websites, blogs and videos of his rangers. For some time it looked like the strategy would work: funds began to flow and after the end of the third Congo War four years ago tourists came back. In 2010 De Merode’s men lead about 1.800 tourists to the apes in the mountains. One year later their number had increased to 3.300.

But then trouble started. Militia occupied parts of the park and the officials had to close it. The rebels started to offer “Gorilla tours” for half the former price, they had spotted their chances as well to fill their war-chests and polish up their image by way of posing as protectors of the gorillas to the tourists.

Meanwhile the rebels have succeeded and de Merode’s rangers could go back to work, but tourism is still lying idle. There is no saying when and how Virunga Park will be able to provide the 45.000 jobs the WWF has calculated for.

Oil business looks more promising if it comes to new jobs and easy money. The government would make millions from taxes and drilling rights. Furthermore, Soco International promises to “have a positive influence on the life of the local inhabitants”, which would easily outbalance minor damages to the environment.

Nobody could tell better if this is a lie than Emmanuel de Merode. And what he thinks about the government making that deal with the oil concerns and risking his ranger’s success by it. But he won’t comment. The government not only decides the future of the park but also his job.

Credits – Translation by Amy Roemelt

Source: Die Zeit

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