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What does SOCO’s withdrawal really mean for the future of Virunga National Park?

Virunga, SOCO and Great Apes – which will win out? – Part 1

Recent headlines have touted an agreement between SOCO International, a British oil company, and WWF, as bringing about an end to oil exploration in Virunga National Park. For example: Oil company Soco not to drill in Virunga World Heritage Site, Deal aims to ban drilling in gorilla preserve, and Soco halts oil exploration in Africa’s Virunga national park. However, the same news banners flew in 2011, and oil exploration returned.

When King Albert I of Belgium founded Virunga National Park in 1925, Africa’s first such protected area, little did he know what was in store. The king created the park in then-Belgian Congo to protect mountain gorillas in what is today the Mikeno southern sector, but since 1925 the park has expanded as far north as the Ruwenzori Mountains, over 150 kilometers away. Now at 7,800 square kilometers it encompasses one of the most diverse and spectacular landscapes in Africa, including active volcanoes, tropical forest, savannas, swamps, glacier-capped mountains, Rift Valley lakes and rivers.

Baby Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Original photo by Cai Tjeenk Willink - cropped. Photo available under <a href=></img>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>“><i>Baby Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Original photo by Cai Tjeenk Willink – cropped. Photo available under <a href=>CC BY-SA 3.0</a></i></span></p>
<p>Besides mountain gorillas (<i>Gorilla beringei beringei</i>), the park is also home to the eastern lowland Grauer’s gorilla (<i>Gorilla beringei graueri</i>) and the chimpanzee (<i>Pan troglodytes</i>), making Virunga the only park in the world to host three kinds of great apes. In addition, both forest and savanna elephants, the rare okapi–which looks like a collision between a zebra and a giraffe–lions, hippos and various monkeys roam within the park’s boundaries. Virunga is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet–containing more mammal, bird and reptile species than any other protected area on the African continent.<br></br>
In recognition of the park’s biodiversity importance, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. As such, under the terms of the World Heritage Convention, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) agrees to do all it can do to ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the “…protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory.”<br></br>
But in 2006 SOCO International arrived. SOCO, which also operates in Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Vietnam, was attracted to what is termed the Albertine Graben, a geologic depression along the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, because oil has been found on the Ugandan side. Since grabens do not respect man-made borders, it follows that oil should be on the DRC side as well.<br></br>
The DRC government awarded SOCO a huge exploration area, called Block V, in June 2006. The 7,500 square kilometer  block runs along the Ugandan border starting at the northern shore of Lake Edward and moving south right through Virunga National Park to just north of the Mikeno Sector, where Dian Fossey studied her famous mountain “Gorillas in the Mist.” A small population of Grauer’s gorilla live on Mt. Tshiaberimu, north of Block V, and chimpanzees are scattered in various places within the block.<br></br>
<p><img src= width=600 alt=
Silverback male at Bukima Patrol Post tented camp. Photo by: Innocent Mburanumwe/Creative Commons 3.0.

Ever since word got out that an oil company had started exploration in Virunga, conservationists have protested the oilmen’s presence. Even billionaires Richard Branson and Howard Buffett, bolstered by the moral authority of Nobel Peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, concluded in a joint op-ed in the Huffington Post, “It is … difficult to understand how oil exploration in a fragile region like Virunga is a plan that is in the Congolese people’s best interests.”

WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) International has led a coalition of conservation groups with an energetic campaign: “Virunga: Africa’s most beautiful and diverse oil field? Help draw the line.” An online petition garnered 750,000 signatures opposing SOCO’s intervention. Belgium, Germany and the EU Parliament are also opposed to any oil exploration in the park, and UNESCO, which oversees the World Heritage sites, has called for cancellation of SOCO’s concession.

WWF filed a complaint against SOCO with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), claiming that the company was violating good-practice business guidelines, as well as DRC law. Congolese legislation governing national parks, passed in 1969, prohibits “excavations, earthworks, surveys, sampling of materials and all other work liable to alter the appearance of the terrain or vegetation,” except in the context of scientific research. In this case, SOCO calls its seismic surveys “scientific research.”

SOCO finally gave in to international pressure and on June 11 made a joint announcement with WWF that an agreement had been reached. WWF would drop its OECD complaint and SOCO would suspend operations.

“Today is a victory for our planet and for good practices in business… This is the moment for the international community to support DRC and help us bring lasting change that will ensure Africa’s first national park remains the mother park of Africa,” Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, said last week.

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park. Photo by: Cai Tjeenk Willink
Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park. Photo by: Cai Tjeenk Willink/Creative Commons 3.0.

SOCO’s statement, however, suggested that the victory may be short-lived. Not only will SOCO continue its “…operational programme of work in Virunga which we anticipate will conclude within approximately 30 days of the date of this statement,” but “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.”

The door is still open for SOCO to continue work if the DRC and UNESCO agree. The DRC government has shown its commitment to SOCO’s exploitation of the petroleum resources in the Albertine Graben in numerous statements and signed agreements, particularly an eight-page memorandum of understanding between the Congolese wildlife authority (ICCN) and SOCO, signed in November 2013.

The memorandum puts SOCO’s activities and results directly under the personal control of Pasteur Cosma Wilungula Balongelwa, ICCN’s Director General, including the $15,000 a month that SOCO is paying ICCN for the right to access the park.

“Our agreement with WWF focuses the need for the DRC Government and UNESCO to also reach an agreement on the best way to combine development and the environment,” said Rui de Sousa, Chairman of SOCO.

This appears to put the final decision on whether SOCO can continue to work inside Virunga on UNESCO, since the DRC government has already agreed that “such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”

In any case, approximately half of Block V is outside the boundaries of Virunga National Park. Nothing in the agreement with WWF is stopping SOCO from continuing work there, across an imaginary green line.

This story does not stop here. See Part 2 coming shortly.


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