VICTORY FOR VIRUNGA? BRITISH OIL COMPANY AGREES TO END ITS OPERATIONS IN AFRICA’S OLDEST NATIONAL PARK

British oil company SOCO International plc (SOCO) has agreed to end its controversial operations in Africa’s oldest national park. Oil drilling was resolutely opposed by local and international environmental groups and also drew criticism from the British Government, which said it was against all oil exploration within the national park or any other World Heritage Site.

International campaigns such as WWF’s “Draw The Line”, EcoInternet’s global petition and SaveVirunga, as well as the recent film documentary ‘Virunga’ produced by Orlando von Einsiedel put pressure on SOCO to withdraw from Virunga.

In October 2013, WWF filed a complaint against SOCO under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The company’s commitment comes following mediation between the two parties as part of this process.

IS IT REALLY A VICTORY?

SOCO International has agreed with WWF in a joint statement to commit 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”.

However, the oil company will still complete their existing operational programme including completing the seismic survey on Lake Edward this month.

Roger Cagle, SOCO’s deputy chief executive, said that the DRC could apply to UNESCO to redraw the boundaries of the 3,000-square-mile park to exclude part of Lake Edward, where SOCO is exploring for oil. If the DRC wanted to benefit from its oil, it could even apply to Unesco to remove Virunga from the list of World Heritage Sites.

Does SOCO finally admit that their intentions are to drill for oil, or sell the concession to another oil company? We may have won a battle, but Virunga is still 'under siege'.

Virunga – Official Trailer 2014 from Grain Media on Vimeo.

RESOURCE CURSE

SOCO is a comparatively small oil company with a business strategy that gambles on big returns from risky locations in which it is cheaper to operate. This in contrast to oil giant, TOTAL, who has pledged in 2003 not to exploit resources within Virunga’s boundaries – or indeed any World Heritage listed territories. The DR Congo government and SOCO were steadfast in their goal to find and extract oil in the iconic conservation area. They claimed oil will bring economic prosperity and, consequently, political stability to the fragile, recovering region.

However, history has proven the opposite to be true. The Resource Curse (or Paradox of Plenty) describes the phenomenon of countries with the most abundant natural resources having the lowest economic growth. Specifically, countries exploiting rich reserves of non-renewables like minerals and fuel have the poorest populations. The DR Congo still depends on aid for about one-third of its GDP, despite vast mineral wealth that has been tapped for several hundred years.

According to the latest Africa Progress Report (2013) which lists DR Congo as a victim of the resource curse, “natural resource wealth should strengthen economic growth, provide governments with an opportunity to support human development, and create employment. In practice, it has often led to poverty, inequality and violent conflict.”

CONFLICT AREA

Brussels-based think tank, The International Crisis Group (ICG), whose mission is to prevent conflict worldwide, warned in 2012 that drilling for oil in war-torn Eastern DR Congo represents a “real threat to stability” and would “exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics”.

ICG cited the lack of clearly defined borders between DR Congo and Uganda and Rwanda in the Great Lakes region as likely to re-ignite clashes when exploration commences.

“Exploration is taking place in disputed areas where ethnic groups are competing for territorial control and the army and militias are engaged in years of illegally exploiting natural resources, states the ICG report, Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?

“Given that the Kivus are high-risk areas, oil discovery could aggravate the conflict.

BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOT

Virunga is home to a quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, the largest population of hippopotami and the endangered okapi, endemic to Congo’s forests. Virunga spans savanna and rainforest, hot springs and snowy summits, active volcanoes and lakes supporting more than 50 species of fish as well as migratory and perennial birds such as the outlandish shoebill stork. Virunga’s 790,000 hectare habitat was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979.

But Virunga is also home to human beings. According to a 2013 WWF commissioned report on Virunga’s economic value, more than 3 million people live within a days’ walk of the park boundary and 97% of those households depend on timber and charcoal from forests for energy production. Around 20,000 people and even more head of cattle live inside the park and Lake Edward’s water and fish stocks supports 50,000 people.

VIRUNGA DEFENDERS UNDER SIEGE

Virunga has been at the centre of brutal recent rebel uprisings as well as providing a haven for refugees from the Rwandan genocide. Park wardens face relentless pressure from poachers, pastoralists and militant groups such that, in just 15 years, 140 park rangers, armed environmental soldiers, have died defending Virunga. Across the DR Congo, almost 6 million people have died since war broke out in 1996 – the bloodiest war since World War II but a conflict barely acknowledged by the rest of the world.

Virunga National Park epitomizes the struggle between human development and nature conservation. Even as the noise of civil war quietens, the clamour of seismic today tests clears a path for the oil industry to prevail over wildlife preservation. But, against the odds, many refuse to abandon Virunga’s vision as a place of peace and sanctuary for all those who depend upon it.

The first casualties of clashes between DR Congo/SOCO and those opposing oil exploration and extraction in Virunga have been truth and freedom of speech. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation found that several park rangers and activists have been detained by authorities and threatened or assaulted after criticizing plans for oil exploration in Virunga.

On April 15, 2014, armed men shot and seriously wounded Virunga National Park director, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian national who is passionately against oil drilling in Virunga. Although who shot de Merode and why is yet to be established.

According to Human Rights Watch, victims and witnesses allege the Congolese government and military officials are responsible for the threats. But Virunga rangers have claimed in the HRW report that SOCO representatives tried to bribe them to promote SOCO’s plan to local people and help “facilitate the company’s activities”. In the film documentary, Virunga, released just days after the attack on de Merode, footage from 2012 shows SOCO contractors attempting to bribe park staff to gain access for SOCO operations

WWF has set a precedent by using the OECD guidelines as a mechanism forsafeguarding the environment, and will now pressure the DRC government to cancel all oil concessions overlapping the park.

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Congo. The name alone inspires myriad emotive images: heart of Africa, endangered gorillas, impenetrable jungles, iconic wildlife, vivid cultures, political corruption, genocidal wars, mineral riches, desperate poverty and now, oil.

This drama and wonder is embodied in the microcosm of Virunga National Park, a small but crucial part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s first protected area and hosts the planet’s most diverse range of terrestrial ecosystems.

Virunga was once paradise. It survives today against shocking odds. But many predict that, if oil is extracted, Virunga will become a hell on earth.

Cat Holloway and Tim Strupat, for the African Conservation Foundation, explore how drilling for oil in Virunga could change everything – and not only in Africa.


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