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Triumph in the Congo!

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.

This is an okapi. Looks similar to a zebra, but has closer relation to giraffes.

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.

Virunga mountain gorillas

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.


References

  1. SAVE VIRUNGA. http://savevirunga.com/
  2. 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
  3. Virunga National Park – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/63
  4. Joint Statement by SOCO International plc (“SOCO”) and WWF. http://www.socointernational.com/joint-statement
  5. 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
  6. The Economic Value of Virunga National Park | Publications | WWF. http://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/the-economic-value-of-virunga-national-park

Image Sources

  1. 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
  2. About the Okapi | FortWorthZoo Blog – Expedition: Education
  3. Willink, C. T. 2011. English: Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, DR Congo
  4. Marfinan. 2013. English: The Virunga mountain peaks taken from the vicinity of Kisoro, Uganda. From left to right, Muhabura, Gahinga, Karisimbi, Sabyinyo, Mikeno.

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Antarctica

Antarctica: Stop Coming Here!

As I sat with my dinner in my lap (because who needs tables?), I browsed YouTube for a video I hadn’t seen before to enjoy with my meal. I came across a news story detailed by John Oliver who spoke about a developing problem in Antarctica: increasing tourist numbers are threatening the biodiversity of the frozen continent. The information was sound, and the threat is real — but John’s solution (although humorous) was to stop going to Antarctica all together. He even went so far as to suggest that if you really need to feel the blistering cold on your face, that you go to Alaska and lie to your friends that you visited Antarctica.

I didn’t really buy it though. I completely agree that tourism can be a threat towards biodiversity, but I don’t believe that the best way to circumvent this problem is to completely cease all travel to the bottom of the world.

As travellers, we wish to experience foreign and pristine environments so that we can learn about them, so that we can understand them, and so that we can care and potentially conserve them. The irony is that, in doing so, we risk damaging what we originally went to protect.

This will be a common theme of many of my blogs: the fine line that humans must tread to ensure worldwide exposure to a problem without further contributing to the problem itself.

Back on track. So, we’re harming Antarctica. Now, that may not be big news (and maybe even a little cliché) if you like to stay updated with environmental issues. However, what is novel is the means by which this harm originated. And no, it’s not global warming this time. It turns out that more and more people are visiting Antarctica each year, and the increasing number of tourists are affecting the continent’s overall biodiversity (I’ll get to the how in a moment).

Antarctica is a pristine landscape, whose colour reflects its purity and unspoiled nature...

To most people, the frozen landscape is likely the last location on anyone’s “must travel to” list. However, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, over 37,000 people travelled there in 2014(1). And I can understand their curiosity. Antarctica is a pristine landscape, whose colour reflects its purity and unspoiled nature; it has been described as the “last of the wild”(2) and is an ideal destination for those looking to view unmatched landscapes and learn about the intricacies of the ecosystems that Antarctica contains.

However, the majority of Antarctica’s visitors make the pilgrimage to a small portion of the land-mass. Tourists (as opposed to researchers) localize themselves to the non-ice-covered regions of the continent — which is only about 1-2% of it’s land. The majority of the plants and animals that call Antarctica home reside in this 2%, and I’m sure you can now see where the problem lies.

In an interview with ABC news, Dr. Martin Riddle of the Australian Antarctic Devision stated:

“Even walking on Antarctic moss beds would leave footprints that would last for decades, if not centuries(3)”

I personally couldn’t conjure up with a better metaphor for human impact even if I tried — I mean,  humans are literally (and as an extension, metaphorically) leaving century lasting footprints on the plants. Aside from the blatant physical impact of human encroachment, tourists also inadvertently harm Antarctica’s biodiversity by accidentally ferrying over alien species to the white desert. A study published in Conservation Biology identified that non-native bluegrass has colonized in regions of high human traffic and is outcompeting the only two flowering plants in Antarctica (Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort)(4). If the non-native bluegrass ends up as the dominant flora of Antarctica, the animals that depend on the endemic flowers may be unable to feed and starve, and this would ultimately throw the food web into complete disarray.

This brings us back to my earlier sentiments. If we close our doors to all forms of tourism to Antarctica, what do we gain? We potentially stop alien species from taking over a foreign land and disrupting the ecosystem, and we potentially prevent littering and human displacement. These are all problems that we need to mitigate. However, looking only at what we gain is half of the story and rather naive — because in preventing Antarctic tourism we prevent actual interaction with the continent. And it is this interaction that facilitates a yearning to understand and conserve. For all we know, we may be preventing the development of future Antarctic conservationists by shutting our doors to the public.

Or, at least, that was my viewpoint before I found some rather alarming information about vacationing to Antarctica and the people that take them. I found that it can cost upwards of $20,000 to make the trek. This immediately rules out a large demographic of travellers — as only the most affluent of adventurers will be able to afford such an expensive ticket. This then led me to believe that the motives of some of these travellers weren’t as virtuous as I originally thought. It turns out that many people lie about their intentions when planning a trip to Antarctica. That is, some travellers stated that their motive for visitation was for scientific, environmental management, or educational purposes — yet upon landing, these patrons made no such effort towards their “primary goal”, some even performed scientific research in areas designated for conservation — demonstrating a blatant disregard for the ecosystem they stand for. In a study published in Environmental Science & Policy, scientists noted that:

“Clearly, substantial amounts of scientific research are undertaken in areas designated for conservation, which may not be in the best interest of the environmental values under protection.”(5)

I’m all for the proliferation of tourism when it promotes education and conservation. But after learning that Antarctica’s primary visitors are affluent travellers who lie about their motives, I can’t help but get a sour taste in my mouth.

Maybe John Oliver was right, they should just go to Alaska. I mean, who would know the difference?

This is a photo of Glacier Bay in Alaska. Couldn’t tell, could you?

 

 

 


References

Original story idea: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Don’t Visit Antarctica (HBO). 2014.

  1. Tourism Statistics – IAATO. http://iaato.org/tourism-statistics
  1. Sanderson, E.W. et al. (2002) The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild The human footprint is a global map of human influence on the land surface, which suggests that human beings are stewards of nature, whether we like it or not. BioScience 52, 891–904
  1. Hunt, L., and S. Ikin. 2014, June 18. Antarctica under threat from human visitors: scientist. Text. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-18/antarctic-tourism-threat-to-the-pristine-wilderness-scientist/5533252
  1. Molina-Montenegro, M.A. et al. (2012) Occurrence of the Non-Native Annual Bluegrass on the Antarctic Mainland and Its Negative Effects on Native Plants. Conservation Biology 26, 717–723
  1. Hughes, K.A. et al. (2013) Area protection in Antarctica: How can conservation and scientific research goals be managed compatibly? Environmental Science & Policy 31, 120–132

Image sources

  1. Fiske, M. and Said, 2013 at 1:08 Pm Antarctica. , Matt’s Ceramic Action.
  1. Emperor penguin. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2015).  http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Emperor_penguin&oldid=646190913
  1. Margerie Glacier Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska – Human and Natural. http://humanandnatural.com/img-margerie-glacier—glacier-bay-national-park,-alaska-6998.htm.

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The Darién Gap: It’s all on foot from here

Ever since the “Age of Discovery” began in the 15th century, humans have made a point of exploring uncharted regions of the globe. After over 500 years of tropical disease filled travel and the advent of “Google Earth”, it would seem as though the Earth has been spoken for. Each corner has been checked, each cave has been mapped, and each mountain has been summited.

But what if I told you that there are still a few hidden gems stashed around our planet; that there exist locations only spoken of in legend and rumour. Would you believe me? Would you dare travel to them? Brave the travellers’ diarrhea and typhoid in the name of idiocy curiosity?

The Darién Gap is such an area, a name breathed only by locals and naïve travellers.

The Darién Gap is such an area, a name breathed only by locals and naïve travellers. This pristine swath of dense jungle requires an equally dense mind to believe that traversing it without extensive research and planning is feasible. The Darién Gap separates the North American and South American legs of the Pan-American highway, a nearly contiguous route that will take you from Prudhoe, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. The route is unbroken for ~30,000km, except at the border between Panama and Colombia for a 160km stretch: the Darién Gap.

The extreme remoteness, isolation, and harsh conditions are the perfect cocktail for any borderline insane explorer. Although crossing on foot would seem like the easiest method of transportation, there have been numerous (attempted) vehicle crossings taking upwards of 740 days to make the journey through the jungle.

Since this region is the only overland obstacle separating the two continents, there is constant discussion regarding cutting down a small section of the Darién jungle and creating a highway — completing the Pan-American and finally linking North and South America. Many believe that “The highway … will facilitate trade of petroleum, cotton, clothes, iron, steel and other goods between Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela”, as stated by Juan Castañega, director of the Latin American desk of Colombia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry(1).

However, little pavement has been laid as of yet. Environmentalists and indigenous populations are opposed to the destruction of the jungle for various reasons, not least of which are the loss of ethnic traditions and lowering biodiversity. Oddly enough, the Darién Gap even has the medicinal benefit of preventing numerous diseases from border hopping and making residence in North America inside a body near you(2)(3).

I’m with the environmentalists on this issue, I believe this region should remain entirely pristine. Many years prior, a road extending to Yaviza (the southern end of the Pan-American highway in North America) was created. Environmentalists were worried that extensive deforestation would follow as a result of this new road into the jungle. Their apprehension was warranted. Within decades, logging and agriculture extended from the highway like the roots of a tree and pierced over 10km deep into the Darién.

This swath of jungle is one of the few remaining “final frontiers”

However, keeping the Darién Gap untouched has significance beyond deforestation. This swath of jungle is one of the few remaining “final frontiers”. It represents unknown and danger; a place removed from commercialization and corruption. That being said, this place is far from paradise. Darién is home to dangerous animals and is a common drug smuggling route by narcotraffickers looking to avoid detection by taking advantage of the lush jungle. Oh, and did I mention rebels? Ya, there are rebels in the Darién as well. They are known as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo) and are a guerrilla group in Colombia that fund their operations through kidnappings, drug production and distribution, and illegal mining.

Abandoned Train

In a sense, the Darién Gap brings about the idea of El Dorado — this mythical region of Earth, forgotten by civilization, skipped over by industrialization, spoken of in legend and hearsay, and full of riches. As if this region wasn’t surreal enough, there is a literal gold mine deep within the jungle — a true El Dorado. Mined by the Spanish, Anglos, and French hundreds of years ago, each settlement left when they realized that accessing and transporting the gold was not feasible. The gold mine has since been overgrown with vegetation after disuse and remains in the heart of the Darién Gap in the Cana region — a legend in its own right.

Whether this region evokes fear, awe, wonder, or mystery is purely subjective (it conjures up all four for me). Maybe this article gave your more than enough reason to never scribble it’s name on your bucket list (or maybe you’re like me and it was every reason to include it). But it goes without saying that the Darién Gap is a place that humanity seems to have forgotten, a place that through its lack of civilization and structure, and its abundance of biodiversity and lore, simultaneously represents nothing and yet everything. It is a place I hope to experience, and I wish to write another article about this location after having been swallowed by its depths.


References

  1. MM November 1995. at http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/issues/1995/11/mm1195_07.html
  1. Eschwefe, H. (n.d.). Transportation: Construction Progress and Problems of the Darién Gap Highway. United States General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/PSAD-77-154
  1. Embassy, U. S. 2013, March 21. Press Releases 2011. http://panama.usembassy.gov/pr031511.html.

 

Image sources

  1. Sutherland, B. 2009. Rainforest canopy in Manuas, Brazil.
  2. Abandoned Gold Mine Locomotive, Darien Gap, Panama. http://imgur.com/r/AbandonedPorn/QihZz

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