On June 28th will start the 39th session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee where the state of Conservation of Virunga National park will be discussed. The World Heritage Committee comprises representatives from 21 States Parties to the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972). Virunga was designated as a World Heritage site in 1979.
Why is this important for the future of Virunga?
UNESCO World Heritage Convention has been one of the only International binding agreement protecting Virunga from oil exploration and exploitation. In June 2014 “UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and IUCN provided a clear response to the extractive sector: no extractive company anywhere in the world should attempt to carry out exploration or extraction activities in World Heritage sites. Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, UNESCO’s advisory body on natural World Heritage reiterated this commitment and the outstanding value of Virunga National park:
“There is consensus that extractive industries are not compatible with World Heritage status. Virunga has been danger-listed for 20 years but it has not lost its outstanding values and international efforts are still focused on its conservation.” Source
The 39th session is important for Virunga because it will not only monitor the state of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List but it has also the function to decide which properties included in the World Heritage List are to be inscribed on or removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger; and can even decide whether a property may be deleted from the World Heritage List.
If Virunga came to be deleted of the World Heritage list, it will mean no more legal protection against oil exploration and the lost of a protection status that has made the survival of Africa’s oldest National park a reality in the biggest of the adversities. Losing Virunga will also put the existence of all the other national parks in DRC and World Heritage sites in Africa at risk. Notwithstanding the catastrophic consequences for the future of millions of peoples that depend on the resources of the park and its healthy ecosystems.
In 2015 no formal request on the part of the Congolese authorities to declassify a part of the park has been presented to the committee. However the declaration made in the press by the DRC government seeking a possible modification to the park’s boundaries to accommodate oil interest, and the fact that there is still no confirmation provided by the Government to cancel the oil exploration licenses covering the park makes the oil threat a very clear and present danger for the survival of Virunga.
#Keeping Virunga on the List of World Heritage sites
#Advocating for a stronger no-go commitment in World Heritage Sites by the oil sector
#Urging the cancelation of all the oil exploitation permits granted within Virunga
All this is key for the long-term survival of the park and for the development of sustainable economic alternatives based on Virunga’s universal outstanding values that will benefit directly millions of Congolese.
For more in-depth analysis on the current status of the Conservation issues presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2015 and the Conclusion by the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies with regard to Virunga, read here UNESCO State of Conservation report on Virunga National Park:
Conservation issues presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2015
On 16 February 2015, the State Party submitted a report on the state of conservation of the property, which is available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/63/documents/ (pages 33 – 44). The report notes the following points:
It is recalled that the oil company SOCO announced in June 2014 that it would stop its activities in Virunga National Park unless the Congolese Government and UNESCO agree that these activities can be compatible with its World Heritage Status. No confirmation is provided on whether the Congolese Government has cancelled the oil exploration licenses covering the property, as was requested by the Committee;
Security in the site has been improving, following several military operations against rebel groups and efforts to demobilize rebel forces. Nevertheless, security remains problematic especially in the northern and central areas of the property where military operations are still underway. The total number of rebel groups operating in the property diminished from 13 to 8. As part of a new stabilization plan, 600 soldiers of the Congolese Army have been removed from the site, and a new contingent of 280 soldiers is placed under the command of the park authorities for joint operations. 107 new guards were recruited and trained, bringing the total number to 480. Consequently, the number of ranger patrols was increased by 54%, resulting in 75% of the site now covered by patrols;
Elephant poaching has diminished, with 13 cases recorded in 2014 compared to 25 in 2013;
Some progress was made on the critical issue of encroachment, with close to 50 km2 evacuated at Ndwali. It is planned to re-launch the process of peaceful evacuations this year;
Deforestation for charcoal production is a continued problem, involving mostly Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels, which continue to occupy large areas on the western borders of the park. The park is continuing its efforts to provide alternatives through the Virunga Alliance, mainly through the development of hydropower on the rivers originating from the site, which is thought to potentially be an important factor to jumpstart development in the areas neighboring the park, which are characterized by high levels of poverty.
The Management Plan of the Park was validated and approved by the General Directorate of ICCN.
Analysis and Conclusion by World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies in 2015
While noting the commitment by SOCO, it needs to be pointed out that the company made it at a time when its seismic exploration activities in the property were being finalized. According to a statement of the company, it is expected that the results will be available by mid-2015. However, the main concern is that so far, the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has not cancelled the oil exploration permits granted within the property, as requested by the World Heritage Committee. On 8 January 2015, the Delegation Heads of the European Union, World Bank, UNESCO and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) and the Ambassadors of Germany and Canada sent a joint letter to the Prime Minister expressing concern that the oil exploration permits covering the property have not yet been cancelled, recalling the commitments made by the State Party in the Kinshasa Declaration. In his reply, the Prime Minister pointed out that no decision has been made on authorizing oil exploitation in the park and that in the event DRC would want to go forward with oil exploitation, it would seek a minor boundary modification, citing the case of Selous Game Reserve (Tanzania). It should be recalled that the Committee approved the boundary modification of Selous Game Reserve in an “exceptional and unique” manner (Decision 36 COM 8B.43). UNESCO replied to the Prime Minister, in April 2015, to explain that the situation of both properties are not comparable, and recalled that in both cases the process of significant modifications of boundaries should be applied.
It is recommended that the Committee reiterate its established position that oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status, which is supported by the commitments made by industry leaders such as Shell and Total not to undertake such activities within World Heritage properties. Furthermore, modifications to boundaries of World Heritage properties that are related to extractive industry should be dealt with through the procedure for significant modifications of boundaries, in accordance with Paragraph 165 of the Operational Guidelines given the potential impact of such projects on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). The Committee is also recommended to recall that the Statement of OUV of the property refers on several occasions to the importance of Lake Edward and its floodplains and therefore removing this area from the property would significantly affect its OUV.
The improved security situation in the property reported by the State Party is noted, although at least 8 armed groups are still operating within its boundaries and military operations are continuing to affect parts of the property. It is especially encouraging that patrol coverage has increased to 75% of the park, and that park staff are now in control of all remaining important areas for large mammals in the property. Indicators show improving trends for gorillas and hippopotamus, and stabilization of the number of elephants.
It is hoped that these positive developments will expedite the implementation of the corrective measures adopted by the Committee. In particular, it is hoped that progress can be made in addressing the crucial issue of encroachment. The 2014 Reactive Monitoring mission estimated the total encroachment at 8 to 9% of the surface of the park. Many areas have been occupied for more than 10 years now and it will become more and more complicated to evacuate them. It is therefore crucial that the improvement of security is used as an opportunity to re-launch the dialogue with the communities and to proceed with the evacuation process. It is important that the provincial and national authorities fully support this process.
It is recommended that the Committee express its encouragement to the work of the Virunga Alliance, which aims to support sustainable economic development around the park and that it encourages private, bilateral and multilateral donors to support this initiative.
It is also recommended that the Committee retain the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger and continue to apply the Reinforced Monitoring Mechanism.