The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Conservation and Virunga in a Changing Climate

For the past years, we have fought for the protection of Virunga National Park and against oil exploration and exploitation in Africa’s oldest National park. We engaged in this battle not only because we wanted to safeguard one of its most iconic species, the mountain gorilla, but also because we believe that local communities have a say in the decision and future of the region. Virunga should be a place where no oil extraction and pollution occurs, a protected area that remains protected for humanity and future generations, a place where people develop sustainable livelihoods based on healthy and intact ecosystems.


The Plot:

In the last couple of months the plot around Virunga has become more complicated. This article argues that if the mainstream environmental conservation wants to save the last remaining iconic places on Earth and be true to its mission and public commitment it will need to make a clear choice. Like Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher write in their article “The Trump moment in environmental conservation” : “If environmental conservation doesn’t face the current political movement by becoming much more radical there will soon be precious little biodiversity to conserve.”

In short, there is no more a middle way for the environmental conservation world, no more time for half measures, half-truths and public outcries, it is time for conservation organizations to unite and clarify their mission and role in this changing climate.

Mainstream conservation is at a crossroads.

The Bad: The Last Oil Capos

Since beginning of 2017 a few characters have been reshaping the world we knew. At a regional level, Museveni’s Uganda continues eyeing for oil developments in Lake Edward and has not yet committed to stop the licensing of the Ngaji oil block at the DRC border with Virunga National Park. Allowing oil drilling in Lake Edward’s Uganda side raises serious questions about the respect for the World Heritage Convention as well as becoming a potential source of cross-border conflict between the two countries.

At an international level we have the Presidency of Donald Trump. Many fear that the harsh campaign words against the environment are now put into practice. President Trump has already signed executive actions to advance approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines; He is in the process of dismantling the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Trump’s nominee Scott Pruitt, and current Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency denies the scientific consensus on climate change. Enough reasons to fear what Trump’s administration will do next with the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement. This agreement signed by 194 countries aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Trump has already threatened to pull out of it and has called global warming a hoax.

Another interesting character in this plot is former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson confirmed as secretary of the State Department. This confirmation is two steps back in holding fossil fuel companies legally accountable for climate change. As anti-corruption campaigners Global Witness states: “ Exxon is currently facing allegations that it misled the public over the science behind climate change, it has a long history of questionable deals with oil-rich countries around the world and it has consistently tried to undermine global efforts aimed at reducing corruption in the extractives sector.” Global Witness rightfully questions the ability of the new Secretary of State to put the interests of people and planet before those of oil and the extractive industry.

Add to these new characters a possible Russia connection and be sure to have a Molotov cocktail for our Planet Earth.

The Ugly: Fake Conservation, Wake-up

Many conservation organizations have adopted corporate friendly practices with the oil and gas industry, signing MoUs, developing frameworks for engaging with the sector, looking at mitigation of impacts and providing them with the needed biodiversity surveys and data to “green wash” their activities in key biodiversity hotspots and protected areas. But when it comes to radically oppose oil developments in protected areas and not to make deals with the oil industry or take their money, these organizations have been largely silent and support measures that are looking at “conciliating” oil developments with conservation and reducing environmental impacts, instead of just saying NO!

The split nature of the World Wildlife Fund also brought some confusion in Virunga. On the one hand they said no and “draw the line” for Africa’s oldest national park, but ended-up signing a joint agreement with the UK oil company SOCO, claimed victory when the battle was still on and allowed the company to end its seismic testing in Lake Edward.  It took the heat off of SOCO and stopped any possible questioning on the community engagement program of the company and the adequacy of its due diligence processes in DRC.

Others, like The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the largest environmental conservation groups in the world, managed to earn money from an oil well in Texas in land that’s was set aside for the conservation of the Attwater’s prairie chicken.  Result the Attwater’s prairie chicken, one of the most critically endangered birds in the US, disappeared from the site and the Nature Conservancy earned millions from the oil dwell when it could have stopped the drilling in 2007. Since 2015, The Nature Conservancy has spearheaded the African Great Lakes Conference (AGLC); surprisingly enough all their activities were stalled till beginning of 2017, probably awaiting the results of the US elections. One can only wonder how the TNC will engage with the oil sector in this oil-rich region, what will be the leading conservation policy for these lakes and how it might affect the protection of one of the most vital fresh water sources in Africa and the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas?

The Good: A Movement of Resistance

Despite the darkness of these times, the Trump moment in environmental conservation has also brought a new élan to the fight for the protection of our planet. Some promising steps have been taken by mainstream conservation to prohibit industrial activities like mining, dam building, oil and gas extraction, logging, and infrastructure building from protected areas and indigenous peoples’ and community conserved territories. Hundreds of people and grassroots organizations are rising and transforming into a full-fledged social movement. New initiatives have emerged such as, which is building a global climate movement and uniting many grassroots movements all over the world. They are all demanding the same: to stop all new fossil fuel projects. Today if governments are determined to implement their climate policies and the Paris Agreement it is time to Keep the Oil in the Soil.

Big oil majors like Shell are also starting to recognise that the tide is turning and “public faith in fossil fuel industry is ‘disappearing’ and calls for carbon taxes”. But, let’s not be fools, this is the same company that made a film about climate change in 1991 and then fought climate action disregarding its own warning. The risk of drilling for oil in Virunga might always remain, as long as we don’t change our economic model and look at new ways of sharing this planet and creating sustainable development models that not only benefit corporations but also people who depend on healthy ecosystems for their survival. Investing in Virunga is a valuable opportunity to conserve the natural basis on which the economy and livelihoods depend and an effective pathway to address poverty, create employment and improve the overall well-being of the population in Congo.

As Naomi Klein says in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

The End:

Maybe, the Trump moment in conservation will have the same effect as it is having in journalism. It has shaken its ground, disseminated “alternative facts”, eroded the trust of the public and destroyed the media, as we know it, however “Trump has also helped the mainstream media to “clarify their mission”. After a decade of soul-searching, the news industry has found that its new mission turns out to be similar to the old one: dig deep, find stuff out, and report it fairly.” (Amol Rajan in his article: Trump and the Media – Is it war or Love?:

Let’s hope that mainstream environmental conservation will reach a similar soul-searching  and end up “properly acknowledging the root causes of biodiversity loss and supporting the radical types of responses necessary to halt and reverse this trend”. (1).