Make way gorillas – there’s oil in them there hills
Make way gorillas – there’s oil in them there hills

Make way gorillas – there’s oil in them there hills

mountain gorilla

mountain gorilla (credit: d_proffer)

A report in the Financial Times is a real concern. The article brings to light the fact that DR Congo Environment Minister, José Endundo, is considering a petition by 41 local MP’s to redraw the boundaries of the Virunga National Park to allow oil companies in.

MPs request park boundaries redrawn.

Two British oil exploration companies, Soco International and Dominion Petroleum, have the license to explore and exploit oil reserves in part of DR Congo. They have the rights to Block 5 and within Block 5 is part of the Virunga National Park and it’s population of rare mountain gorillas. While the block does not take in the actual habitat of the gorillas any redrawing of the park boundaries could have an impact on the wider ecosystem and cause indirect disturbance. [pullquote]There could be an international battle looming between the oil companies and environmental lobby that will make the Arctic Wildlife Refuge campaign look like an insignificant pub argument[/pullquote]

The request from the MP’s will make all of Block 5 a viable option for the oil companies to explore. Currently the legal situation is that drilling in the National Park is illegal. However the oil companies are currently able to apply for scientific exceptions to explore for oil. By removing the part of the park that is in the licenced area through redrawing the park boundaries Soco International and Dominion Petroleum will not need permission to explore or commercially extract oil.

Previous skirmish has occurred at Virunga National Park.

There has already been skirmishes in the area between national park rangers and the oil companies. In February park rangers tried to stop SOCO exploration vehicles from entering the park but the vehicles forced their way through. The DR Congo National Parks Authority have now begun legal proceedings against SOCO International over the incident.

SOCO claimed that they had permission to enter the park to conduct environmental impact assessments and were accompanied by both a local MP and escorted by 12 Congolese soldiers. They deny the claim that they used force to enter the park.

Oil development threatens Lake Edward.

The major part of the oil exploration in the Virunga National Park – a World Heritage Site – appears to be planned around Lake Edward. This is the smallest of the African Great Lakes that lie along the Great Rift Valley. It’s not just part of the World Heritage site but is also an internationally protected RAMSAR wetland. Despite being the smallest of the Great Lakes it is still an enormous body of water – 77km long and up to 40km wide. It is an essential source of freshwater in the area, not just for wildlife but also local residents.

On the northern banks of Lake Edward at Ishango is the national training centre for DR Congo’s wildlife ranger service. Leading wildlife biologist George Schaller described the area around Ishango as the most beautiful place on Earth because of it’s stunning landscapes. Ishango is also home to the last remaining major population of hippos on Lake Edward – a lake that once was home to the biggest number of hippos – as many as 27,000 until the 1960’s – in the world. Now the lake’s hippo population is just a shadow of it’s former glory – down to just a few hundred individuals.

Any move to redraw the parks boundaries to allow for oil exploration and exploitation will lead to Lake Edward being removed from the Virunga National Park and with it much of the protection that has meant the the lake has remained relatively undeveloped. A lake of this importance to this delicate environment needs to be protected from oil development.

Oil revenue verses tourism development.

Tourism plays a major role in the economy of the region. The wildlife and scenery of the region offers a long term sustainable future for the residents. While in the short term the oil boom will offer jobs they will tend to be low paid labouring jobs with the high paid specialists being imported from overseas. Once the oil has gone and the area has lost it’s reputation for being an unspoilt beautiful wilderness it will take a long time to rebuild it’s ecotourism credentials. Who’s going to holiday in an area that could be an oil field for the next 10 or 20 years?

Currently everyone is waiting to see what the response is to the environmental impact assessment  before the next stage of campaigning. There could be an international battle looming between the oil companies and the environmental lobby that will make the Arctic Wildlife Refuge campaign look like an insignificant neighbour argument.

Update: 18th March 2011. The DR Congo government has suspended all oil activities in their portion of Virunga. Oil drilling is still planned in the Ugandan section of the park. The oil activities were suspended after the environmental risk assessment undertaken by the oil companies was declared ‘… insubstantial and failing to meet standards.’ The DR Congo government will initiate it’s own full risk assessment before making a final decision on whether to allow oil drilling to take place.

If you are planning on visiting the mountain gorillas of the Virunga National Park this year our advice is to choose a Congolese tour company over a Ugandan operated company. The DR Congo have taken a bold step by denying oil prospecting in their part of the park and we need to show our support for the decision by spending our tourist pounds wisely.


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