New Scientist by Andy Coghlan
For years an oil company has been planning to drill in one of Africa’s key national parks. Now conservation and heritage organisations are joining forces in a bid to stop them.
In the aftermath of a brutal civil war, a majestic natural landscape teeming with exotic wildlife is being threatened by a British company that wants to drill into its heart – with the blessing of a compliant government that has granted the company permission to explore. At the same time, a prominent wildlife warden has been shot and left for dead, and opponents of drilling threatened through anonymous phone calls.
This is the story of the Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site that is the jewel in Africa’s biodiversity crown.
With an oil company determined to explore in the park, a major report fromUNESCO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is calling for its drilling permits to be revoked.
Heart of Africa
Virunga covers 790,000 hectares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and is linked to other protected areas in neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda (see map). UNESCO calls it “the top African National Park for biological diversity“, and says its habitats – ranging from icy mountaintops to swamps, savannahs and forests – “surpass those of any other African park“. Virunga also hosts Africa’s two most active volcanoes.
Gallery: “Six natural treasures of Africa’s Virunga park”
Since 2006 the DRC has issued permits for oil companies to prospect in the park. One permit has been taken up by London-based SOCO International. Since late April, SOCO has been conducting seismic tests in Lake Edward, a centrepiece of the park that seems to be sitting on a significant oil reserve.
The seismic tests are unlikely to disrupt wildlife around the lake – an important aquatic corridor for wildlife – but full-blown drilling for oil could cause havoc.
The WWF says oil leaks, flares, spills and sabotage could contaminate the lake and surrounding land. “That would impact the 50,000 families that live around the lake,” says WWF’s Alona Rivord. “Their biggest concern is contamination of the fish stock on which they depend.”
The lake is listed as a wetland of international importance and is home to many species, including 6000 hippos – down from the 30,000 that lived there in 1960. It also feeds into the Nile, so Rivord says contamination would pose a wider threat. Virunga is also home to one-third of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. Fortunately, the gorillas are too far from the lake to be disturbed by SOCO’s activities.
“The reason we’ve taken a strong stand is not because of the direct impacts of the exploration, but because exploration shows the very clear intention to exploit,” says report co-author Guy Debonnet of UNESCO in Paris. He says countries that host World Heritage sites have committed to preserve them in perpetuity, and exploitation violates that.
Tension has been building in the DRC over the past month. On 15 April Virunga’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, was shot in an ambush. He is currently recovering in a Nairobi hospital.
This week, WWF reported that unidentified callers had menaced two of itsemployees in the DRC capital of Goma over their opposition to drilling in Virunga. The callers said they “had missed killing de Merode, but would not miss WWF’s employee”.
“It’s been happening to anti-drilling activists for years, but it’s the first time it’s happened to WWF employees,” says Rivord. “We’ve filed a report to the Goma prosecutor’s office. We take it very seriously, especially after what happened to Emmanuel.”
SOCO has condemned the attack on de Merode and the threats to WWF. The company told New Scientist it “does not condone… threats or intimidation of any kind”.
The new report, compiled by a team that visited Virunga in March, calls on SOCO to halt its activities on Lake Edward, including the seismic monitoring.
It also demands that SOCO adopt a pledge to avoid exploration and drilling on all World Heritage sites. In 2003, Shell and the International Council on Mining and Metals – which represents over 50 mining and drilling organisations including Rio Tinto and De Beers – promised never to exploit such sites. Since then a growing number of companies have signed this pledge. Last year, the French company Total signed up and abandoned plans to drill in the north of Virunga.
For now SOCO simply says its activities in Virunga are legal and sanctioned by presidential decree.
Cancel the permits
In the long run, UNESCO says the only solution is for the DRC to annul the oil permits in Virunga. “Even if SOCO withdrew, another company could take advantage if the permits remain,” says Debonnet.
The World Heritage Committee has repeatedly asked the DRC’s government to annul the permits, and the new report repeats that request. “The responsibility is with the government,” says Debonnet. “It’s the government that commits to conserve the site.”
Of the 193 natural sites on the World Heritage List, Virunga is the only one where such exploration is under way, says Debonnet. “Its fate will set an important precedent.”
Virunga’s status as a World Heritage site does not necessarily protect it. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman was once such a site, having received the designation in 1994 to protect the vulnerable Arabian oryx. But the Omani government unilaterally reduced the size of the site by 90 per cent to enable drilling to take place in areas within the original boundaries. So in 2007 the sanctuary became the first site to be removed from the World Heritage List.
If the DRC and SOCO press ahead, Virunga could meet the same fate. The World Heritage Committee will discuss what to do about Virunga at its meeting in Doha, Qatar, in June. Debonnet says oil exploration alone would not be enough to make them de-list the park, but full-scale drilling might.
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