Congolese People Fight for the Survival of Virunga: A Local Perspective

“Oil: the fossil fuel responsible for the dispute over Virunga National Park in Congo” By Jakub Szweda

Congolese people fight for their stability and food security after prospecting search for oil by a British company. 

SOCO International, in 2007, has signed a production-sharing contract for Block 5 Albertine Grahen, permitting them to enter over a half of Virunga National Park’s territory. The same contract was approved by presidential decree in June 2010.

Activists against the company’s plans, but also the European Parliament and the British Foreign Office released their statements urging the government in the Democratic Republic of Congo to prevent any potential damage to Virunga from oil exploration and exploitation.

In early May 2013, Total, also an oil company with plans and rights to explore oil in Virunga announced their ‘no-go’ policy on world heritage sites after protests and complaints. Although similar arguments surround opinions against drilling operations in other parts of the world, such as Scotland and North Sea, the oil exploration in Africa’s national park is an example of a fight in favour of preservation and survival.

In a recently released documentary ‘Virunga’ a footage of an undercover journalist shows SOCO representatives attempting to bribe park officials, making racist comments about the ability of Congolese people to manage the park and ideas of how to pass park’s ranger unit to continue the oil exploration. This is subsequently an act against the World Heritage states and its international law.

UK oil company Soco has committed to end its oil exploration operations in Virunga and the Block V area, but the Congolese government has previously permitted a number of other oil explorations and sustainable developments. ‘Block V’ area includes, as part of its territory, Lake Edward and the lowland savannah, both within the Virunga National Park. The company has also clarified that they never intended to launch operations in the endangered Mountain Gorilla habitat and the Virunga Volcanoes.

Environmentalists vs. Oil industry

Reports regarding death threats and violence against communities and environmental activists opposing the project add fuel to the fire. African Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ASADHO) announced two unidentified telephone calls threatening local activists, Alphonse Muhindo and Bantu Lukambo, to stop “advocacy against oil exploration [or] you will die” in early 2012.

“People, local villagers, are held hostage,” says Lukambo. “Communities are being intimidated to deceive them.”

Other examples include two fishermen beaten to death after allegedly disapproving activities of Soco International in Virunga National Park. Local villagers have also been beaten for opposing the plan to undertake oil exploration. A park warden was kidnapped and tortured for attempting to prevent the company from building a cellphone tower. Virunga National Park’s director Emmanuel de Merode, known for his work to protect mountain gorillas, was attacked and shot twice by three gunmen in June last year. The assailants remain unidentified however de Merode survived.

Director General of non-governmental organisation Innovation for Development and Environmental Protection (IDPE), Bantu Lukambo, raises questions about the oil exploitation in Lake Edward and its effect on local Congolese people. He raises awareness about the importance of Virunga’s safety not only for civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The conflict does not only concern the DRC and our neighbours,” he adds. “Also Northern countries who share the Nile River. The river is very clean, but if pollution becomes an issue caused by the project, it could potentially lead to a war.”

“This project was very frowned upon the communities in general, it does not consider the impacts on local communities. The population knows very well the importance of the Virunga National Park, despite the difficulties due to different wars.”

Save Virunga, an organisation that brings out the power of local communities, believes manipulation and corruption continue to be the biggest fear affecting local villagers.

“We are dealing with many underlying challenges in a ‘post conflict’ setting with too many resources, land-oil, minerals, charcoal, wildlife,” says Save Virunga activist, who wishes not to be named. “Local communities living in and around Virunga National Park have been one of the main victims of these different conflicts and with the oil dispute we get a new breeding ground for political and economic manipulation.”

Since 1996 more than 130 Virunga’s rangers have died protecting the park’s wildlife against poachers.

“Mistrust and suspicion, between communities to government and park management authorities and communities to communities, is one of the biggest [reasons responsible for] years of conflicts,” added Save Virunga activist.

“Fear for violence and involvement of armed groups. Local groups have condemned the intimidation of the residents of Lake Edward’s fisheries by the Congolese naval forces, locals are being forced to support oil exploration”

Survival of local communities

Virunga National Park is an extremely diverse area in relation to biological factors, fishing and hunting by the local population is their way of surviving. It is a key biodiversity hotspot with many species and ecosystems including mountains, lakes, and a savannah.

Save Virunga activist said that tourism is also an example of how villagers develop sustainable livelihoods. He said it helps to protect the parks and its integrity and uniqueness helps them develop new economic alternatives.

“Lake Edward and its river basin, have important river catchment areas, flood plains and is a reservoir of proteins (fish),” he explained. “It is crucial that local communities living in and around Virunga protect these ecosystems so that they remain healthy and can continue providing these vital services such as water storage and flood regulation services as well as protein supply (fish).”

Virunga National Park has previously discussed the importance of using natural resources rather than launching an oil industry in East Congo. They believe it is the only beneficial route for wildlife and the local communities. They predict a possibility of creating more than 100,000 jobs in the next 8 years.

Local communities develop sustainable livelihoods by being able to freely access natural and unscathed resources.

In June 2014, SOCO International and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) signed a declaration stating the company would stop oil exploration in Virunga National Park “unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”

“Areas surrounding the lake support over 50,000 families.” Men, women and children depend on the park, including farmers, fishermen, and opinion leaders. “Fishing and other related trade sources make it possible,” said Lukambo.

“My brother and I were born near Lake Edward, in Vitshumbi to be more precise. We grew up here, always hoping we would also die here,” he explained, seeking what the future might hold.

“The population is against oil exploration and exploitation because such project violate our laws. It is really important that the world says ‘no’ to the exploitation of oil in Block V, the heart of the Congo Basin forest and the Amazon.”

“It is difficult to fight against them and advocate the value of the park. The company’s agents and our authorities [allegedly] use corruption and force (armed soldiers) to persuade.”

“We have tried several techniques, peaceful marches or lobbying letters to raise our concerns.”

Communities do not always understand what a UNESCO World Heritage is and means, explained Save Virunga activist. He further clarified that they are unaware of what this means for them, their daily survival and the future of their children.

“However when you ask local people living in and around the park, they know what the park brings in terms of food security, stability, development.”

“Many families in and around lake Edward are able to survive only because of the park and its fisheries resources; children go to school thanks to the fish that is sold in the markets of Goma, roads are “secured “ because of the presence of rangers.”

“The park is playing a crucial role in the delivery of many ecosystem services including freshwater, protein and climate regulatory services for the whole North Kivu province. ”

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Source: Contributoria