Conservation and Oil in Protected Areas: Part I The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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 he Greater Virunga should be a place where no oil extraction and pollution occurs, were protected areas remains protected for humanity and future generations, a place where people develop sustainable livelihoods based on healthy and intact ecosystems.

The Plot:

This first part introduces the argument 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 world.

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.

In 2006, large oil reserves were discovered in the heart of Murchison Falls, a protected natural park in Uganda. Total, along with the Chinese petroleum company CNOOC Limited is all set to develop a project of colossal magnitude. Total will drill more than 400 wells, enabling the extraction of around 200 000 barrels of oil per day. Worse still, a 1445 km long giant pipeline will be built to transport the oil, impacting regions in Uganda as well as in Tanzania. In all, 10 billion dollars have been invested into this disproportionate oil project. However, some civil society mobilisation has already been successful: in the very same Great Lakes region, Total has given up oil drilling in the Virunga natural park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is unacceptable that the same transnational corporation launches a similar project at the same time in Uganda, just on the other side of the border (1).

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!

“Basically, the Trump Moment in Conservation means that mainstream conservation organizations commonly refuse—at their own peril and that of the biodiversity they aim to conserve—to properly acknowledge the root causes of biodiversity loss and hence to support the radical types of responses necessary to halt and reverse this trend. Instead, many conservationists are content—often proudly or ‘pragmatically’ so—to join forces with the economic logics and institutions of degradation behind such terms as ‘natural capital’ or ‘ecosystem services’. In doing so, they might occasionally slow down some biodiversity loss in some places. But at the very same time, they strengthen the broader drivers of biodiversity destruction that completely undermine the small gains that might be made.”

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 End:

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.”

Let’s hope that companies and governments 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).