Virunga National Park (formally known as Albert National Park, after the King of Belgium of the time of 1925) was the first national park of Africa. Situated in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Rwanda and Uganda are borders, the park covers 7,800 square kilometres. It became a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site in 1979 due to its extreme biodiversity and endemic mountain gorilla population of around 240. However, this designation has been altered to ‘endangered’ as the severe conflict in the country has led to the decimation of the wildlife. After 1960, when the Congo was granted independence from Belgium, the state entered into disarray and conflict. Over the years Virunga has been plagued by the civil war and continual siege. Since the 1980’s, when the Mobutu regime lost its hold on the country and chaos ensued, the park has suffered. Militia have entered the park from the most recent Kivu War of the Congo and rebel forces have taken over the park headquarters. To add to the parks demise refugees from Rwanda came and with it came down the park forests. In 2008, the future of the park looked doomed. Virunga has since begun to rebuild and become again a national park, yet on the 1st August 2013, it was reported by the BBC that ‘tourism in Virunga is currently suspended due to insecurity in the region, with armed groups continuing to operate’. Virunga has come under siege time and time again, yet now, it is under an all together different threat: oil.
Those who have ventured onto the WWF page I am sure have come across a rather disturbing appeal to stop Africa’s oldest national park from becoming an oil drilling site. I was shocked that this may happen, but found the facts rather lacking and decided to do some of my own research. It became more shocking as I read the pages and pages of information on Virunga and the situation seemed to become even more unclear and complicated.
The British company proposing to search for oil is Soco International PLC (a FTSE 250 company), which is currently evaluating the resources present. They have a licence to explore for oil in an area named Block V in the southern part of the park. The licence was given by the DRC which includes a permit for an aerial survey over Lake Edward, therefore there is a contractual agreement. The DRC government commissioned a Strategic Environment Evaluation of Block V to assess the potential petroleum resources. Two thirds of Block V is made up of the area of Lake Edward and the other third in Uganda. It is important to note that no drilling has been planned or is warranted and Block V is not located in the mountainous region of Mikeno Sector where the Mountain Gorillas call home. All the activities seem quite consented and controlled. However, if Soco International were to find petroleum, it seems unlikely that the DRC would not begin to drill deep into the park to extract every drop of black gold. As already explored, the DRC has a long running history of conflict, which is typically funded by mineral resources. It would not be presumptuous to conclude that if oil was found, it would become a source of conflict. This idea was made public in the International Crisis Group’s 2012 report Black Gold in the Congo.
WWF certainly is concerned. They are calling Soco International to abandon the search for oil. WWF are concerned that the exploitation of oil concessions in the park may cause long-term and widespread environmental damage, that would be perpetuated by a resurgence in conflict. This conflict and the constant threat of poaching has also ended in the death of 140 rangers working in the park. The huge sacrifices of these people and the battle Virunga has constantly faced has left WWF no other option but to “Draw the Line” against the commercial gain of Soco searching for oil. WWF have already had triumph after the French oil and gas giant Total agreed to not explore for oil in Virunga and the pressure is on Soco. After the efforts of WWF, the Norwegian oil fund has withdrawn their investments of over $33 million in Soco, another huge gain for WWF.
The reasons that WWF are concerned:
1) Lake Edward has a huge fisheries industry which up to 28,000 people are depending on. The value of these fisheries is at around $30 million but could increase to over $90 million if the stocks and hippo population (which is still recovering from decimation from the civil war) were better managed.
2) A third of the Mountain Gorilla population of the world lives in Virunga. Although the exploration and possible future drilling is not where the Gorillas live, it is close enough to have a significant impact on them due to new infrastructure and with that, possible increase threat of poaching.
3) The birds of Lake Edward would hugely suffer from the constant noise and seismic vibrations from the possible future drilling.
4) The local anglers will lose their jobs and it is unlikely that they will be employed by Soco in the future due to a lack of education and skills necessary. Not to mention, the pollution of drilling will also cause jobs to be lost as stocks plummet.
There are both long-term and short-term effects if drilling were to be carried out and if no other warning was needed, you only have to look into the environmental disaster that oil giant Shell caused in the Niger Delta 100 million barrels of oil were spilt (1960-1997) into the Niger delta, a 20,000 square kilometre wetland and gas flaring led to 50% of its industrial carbon dioxide emissions. The effects of this natural disaster may not be repaired for many, many years.
It must be tempting for the DRC to begin drilling and gain so much from the revenue of oil, but there are incentives to not drill. WWF have stated that without drilling, Virunga could generate $1.1 billion annually and 45,000 permanent jobs could be created through tourism, fisheries and investments in hydropower. The revenue generated from the tourism to come and see the famous Mountain Gorillas varies from country to country but in the DRC, a tourist can pay up to $400 for one hour. The maximum possible annual revenue (If the maximum number of tourists per year visits) that can be generated by one gorilla family is US$1,152,000. A UN backed programme named REDD+ aims to value the carbon stored in large forests and could conclude in a complex carbon market that would result in billions of dollars for the DRC if Virunga’s forests remained untouched. This money could be vital to the DRC and will be environmentally beneficial as well. The DRC needs to appreciate the value of Virunga and see that in the long run, it will be beneficial for all involved if the area remains protected and tourism is once again allowed in Africa’s oldest national park.
By Penny Banham
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