Why are Protected Areas so Unprotected? Making a Deal for Virunga?

Every day we hear that the integrity of a protected area is being challenged by the expansion of industrial activities such as oil, gas and mining exploration. Last week it was the turn of Manu National Park in Peru’s Amazon one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and home of several indigenous peoples – as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Guardian reported that a leaked map revealed how a gas company has interest in doing “geological fieldwork” despite national and international laws.  A similar situation happened in Virunga National Park and the seismic activities conducted by UK oil company SOCO in 2014.

At first sight one could expect that some places on earth are just too valuable to risk any damage. It seems incomprehensible that UNESCO World Heritage Sites with recognized outstanding universal values for the humanity, irreplaceable ecosystems, fauna and flora can be threated and are not being fully protected against any possible negative impact on their outstanding values.

How is it possible that the most biodiverse and particular natural habitats, and species in the world are being continuously eyed and targeted by extractive industries?

It’s all about Money

Reading the news and court cases of companies fighting to avoid paying compensation for oil spills, forced evictions, loss of vital livelihoods, environmental damage, one could think that extractive industries are not only targeting these most biodiverse places because of the wealth under their soils but also because most of these places are often the most inhabited areas in the world.

The less people you need to relocate and compensate from the start of your activities, the less plaintiffs you need to handle during your operations for the loss of their livelihoods and the damages incurred because of oil spills, makes probably your business case less risky and more profitable, even for a major company that needs to deal and protect its reputation. Surely, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, will think twice before agreeing to drill in a Wetland or Lake with many fishing communities by fear to have to pay millions of dollars to the affected fishing community in case of an oil spill.

In some cases, and when thinking in terms of a company doing business as usual, it might also seem much easier to seat on the negotiation table with a few, a government representative, a wildlife authority and possibly a big international organization that are all eyeing for a quick win-win deal, instead of sitting with hundreds of local community members, with their own needs, perceptions and having to deal with real human concerns and the complexity of their interdependence with nature.

Drilling in  “unhabited” protected areas and reducing the negotiation table to a few seems to be the new chosen business model. One could even wonder who negotiates then for nature?  Who do they represent? What is their agenda and does negotiating for nature also mean that you represent and defend the rights of local communities, of the most vulnerable, and fight for the right of future generations for a healthy environment?

What we often hear from groups and individuals, who set themselves up as Nature’s negotiators and who pitch weak compromise rather than serious change, is that real change will not “get traction.” What they mean by this is that the status quo institutions – political parties, corporations, and well-funded organizations – don’t want deep or radical social transformation. What they want is to keep doing what they’ve always done, keep making money, and simultaneously appear “green.”

We must ask, however: What good is traction if we’re racing down the wrong highway toward a cliff?

Who Negotiates for Nature

And Virunga in all this?

Virunga is key in all this. It represents one of the most powerful precedents in history; it shows how a protected area that has all the possible legal, geopolitical and human safeguards is being still targeted by big oil, and could fall victim of our own system and “green” practices.

The battle that is being fought for Virunga goes beyond oil and corrupt companies it is about changing the system, turning the wheel and getting things right for people and nature.

Keeping Virunga intact in its integrity means respecting human rights, advocating for real change and protecting the irreplaceable.

No deal to make.