Triumph? I know — triumph in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is seldom issued. After all, we’re talking about a country that has been colonized numerous times, had various natural resources exploited, held under the rule of a brutal totalitarian leader, and scourged by civil war; a country that currently ranks 2nd last of all countries on the Human Development Index, and is so renowned for corruption that locals gave it a new name making it akin to some transmissible disease: “Zaire sickness”. But yes, even with that track record holding the country back, environmental protection in the DRC has taken a large and much needed step forward; and this has conservationists rejoicing the world over.
All this international hoopla came about with the recent development that the London based oil company SOCO will be demobilizing all efforts to find and extract oil from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Virunga National Park.
And with its removal, the tourist and funding money would flow out with the oil being extracted.
In 2010, word got out that the large oil corporation was searching for oil in a region that they have no business looking in. Virunga National Park is located along the eastern border of the DRC and is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity. This park is home to some of the last remaining, critically-endangered, mountain gorillas on Earth, as well as being the home for forest elephants and the endangered and oddly painted okapi.
When SOCO originally stationed themselves in the DRC, the country’s President green-lighted the operation to begin exploring for oil reserves in a region that included sections of the national park. If that wasn’t already cause for concern, alarms blew when it was revealed that over 80% of the land within Virunga was viable for oil concessions(1). SOCO soon released an impact assessment detailing the amount of direct and indirect damage that would occur as a result of drilling within Virunga’s confines. The World Wildlife Fund summarized the assessment stating:
oil exploration could cause pollution, damage habitats and bring poaching to this fragile ecosystem. It could also harm residents’ health and damage the natural resources upon which 50,000 people depend(2).
To many, unless quick protest occurred this spelled the demise of Africa’s oldest national park.
Now, I’m not entirely sure what was going through the minds of the oil execs at SOCO when they published their damage assessment and still felt that continuing their oil exploitation operation with the knowledge that it will cause irreparable damage to a vulnerable ecosystem was a fantastic idea. Oh wait, yes I do: “$$$$$$$”.
It seemed as though money was also on the mind of DRC president, Joseph Kabila. He green-lighted the exploration by SOCO, and he was the only one truly able to prevent soil from being broken. Despite the protests of the countrymen, environmentalists, and organizations, the power of veto rested in the hands of the leader. In order to swing his vote, an ultimatum needed to be brought forth.
In 2014, the documentary Virunga was released. Ironically, the original motive of the production team was to illustrate the progress made by the national park, but this quickly shifted when the crew stumbled upon the corruption taking place within its confines. The film captures the shady business practices of the oil conglomerate, including numerous bribes and forced entry into the national park at gun-point. This film’s release signalled change, and was instrumental in the efforts towards the removal of SOCO from Virunga.
However, as stated earlier, a strong ultimatum was needed in order to sway the president’s vote. This came in the form of the World Heritage Status that Virunga holds dearly. Being a World Heritage site brings international fame to a region, increasing tourism, funding, and, of course, money. However, ever since 1994, Virunga has been on the list of current World Heritage Sites that have the potential to be delisted(3). If SOCO was allowed to drill within the boundaries of the park, it was near certain that Virunga would be stripped of its World Heritage status. And with its removal, the tourist and funding money would flow out with the oil being extracted.
Just three months after the release of Virunga and after many years of tough lobbying by WWF, SOCO signed a joint declaration with WWF stating:
The company commits not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status(4).
Now, as I said earlier, this is a great triumph for the DRC, WWF, and environmentalists (and of course the animals). But we’re not out just yet. Note in the above statement the phrase “not incompatible with its World Heritage status”. Once you get past the awkward double-negative, you realize this just means that once the DRC government finds a way to preserve Virunga’s heritage status they will allow SOCO to drill for oil.
Think I’m just fear mongering? This very situation has already occurred in the neighbouring country of Tanzania inside the Selous Game Reserve. Toronto based company, Uranium One, found uranium deposits within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site, and in order to safely mine the lands while retaining the park’s heritage status, the World Heritage Committee agreed to change the boundaries of the park such that the mining operation would occur outside of Selous’ borders(5). In an interview I conducted with a game warden at the Selous Game Reserve, I was told:
Selous’ world heritage status was going to be terminated, so they changed the boundaries of the park to preserve it. However, there is no fence surrounding Selous and the animals and plants are easily exposed to the toxic waste released from the uranium mining
The silver lining is that Selous Game Reserve is over 44,000km2 (larger than the Netherlands), and this mining operation will have relatively smaller impact on the overall biodiversity of the park. Comparatively, Virunga is only 7,800km2, and with 80% of the park containing oil reserves, any disturbance would lead to imminent ecosystem collapse.
This was a step in the right direction for the DRC — a great triumph for environmentalists everywhere. However, I hope this progress is permanent and the Congolese government doesn’t suggest enacting the same boundary changes seen in Selous. WWF released a study in 2013 that suggested Virunga National Park is capable of generating over $1.1 billion per year with sustainable growth and tourism, and provide upward of 45,000 jobs in the process(6). Hopefully this one success leads to a string of many more and Virunga can return to its status as one of the premier national parks in Africa.
- SAVE VIRUNGA. http://savevirunga.com/
- WWF Complaint Alleges Oil Company Violates Environmental and Human Rights Provisions | Press Releases | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/wwf-complaint-alleges-oil-company-violates-environmental-and-human-rights-provisions
- Virunga National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/63
- Joint Statement by SOCO International plc (“SOCO”) and WWF. http://www.socointernational.com/joint-statement
- Wippel, G. Press Release Re: World Heritage Comittee Decision on Selous Game Reserve Boundary Changes. http://www.uranium-network.org/index.php/africalink/tanzania/253-press-release-re-world-heritage-comittee-decision-on-selous-game-reserve-boundary-changes
- The Economic Value of Virunga National Park | Publications | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/the-economic-value-of-virunga-national-park
- World Heritage Committee requests cancelation of Virunga oil permits. http://wwf.panda.org/who_we_are/wwf_offices/france/?209082/World-Heritage-Committee-requests-cancelation-of-Virunga-oil-permits
About the Okapi | FortWorthZoo Blog – Expedition: Education
Willink, C. T. 2011. English: Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, DR Congo
Marfinan. 2013. English: The Virunga mountain peaks taken from the vicinity of Kisoro, Uganda. From left to right, Muhabura, Gahinga, Karisimbi, Sabyinyo, Mikeno.