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Oil, wildlife, and people: competing visions of development collide in Virunga National Park

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

Read part I here.

“SOCO is pleased that we were able to work together with WWF to hopefully find a way to jointly improve conditions in Virunga National Park and for its inhabitants,” said Roger Cagle, Deputy CEO of SOCO International, on the occasion of announcing a joint agreement with WWF for the oil company to suspend its exploration activities in Virunga.

However, the statement may suggest that SOCO plans to stay in Virunga to work with WWF to improve conditions. A UK-based oil exploration and production company, SOCO has been granted oil exploration rights by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government in Block V, about half of which lies in Virunga National Park.

These mountain gorillas, near Djomba on the southern border of Block V, would be severely affected by oil drilling in Virunga. Photo courtesy of Daniel Stile
These mountain gorillas, near Djomba on the southern border of Block V, would be severely affected by oil drilling in Virunga. Photo courtesy of Daniel Stiles

Located in the eastern DRC, Virunga is the first national park created in Africa and one of the most spectacular in terms of wildlife and landscapes. It is a World Heritage Site and home to mountain gorillas, of which fewer than 900 remain. As such, SOCO’s announcement to suspend activities followed in the wake of a concerted campaign led by WWF, one of the world’s most influential wildlife conservation organizations, to “draw the line” to save Virunga from devastation by prospective oil drilling.

Much is at stake, in terms both of biodiversity and potentially billions of dollars of oil in the Albertine Graben, a geological depression that runs through much of Virunga. Oil has been found in the adjoining Uganda side, thus the probability is high it is on the Congolese side.

Part 1 of this story suggested that SOCO’s announced pullout from inside the park, hailed as a victory by WWF and other conservationists, might not end its activities in the area. When asked for this story if they planned to continue work outside the park, a SOCO spokesperson said, “…there will be contractual obligations associated with the Production Sharing Contract—such as social projects for the local communities…”.

It might seem odd that an oil corporation would be involved in social projects with local communities, but increasingly extractive industries—such as oil, gas, mining, and logging – are responding to calls to incorporate social and environmental considerations in their industrial activities. Rather than leave behind a devastated wasteland when extraction has finished, environmentalists and human rights groups are pressuring industry to plan and implement actions that end up bettering the lives of both humans and biodiversity.

Virunga National Park. The yellow line marks the boundary of the oil exploration Block V, with the Ugandan border constituting the eastern margin. Block V does not include the mountainous southern and northern sectors, in which gorillas live. Map courtesy of Click image to enlarge.

To emphasize SOCO’s commitment to this recent paradigm shift, Ed Story, Chief Executive of SOCO, commented, “Hopefully we can all get back to activities focused on both people and the environment where it does the most good for a place that we think can have a better future.”

What activities does SOCO have in mind? The planned “social investment projects” mentioned on SOCO’s website remain unspecified. The only past activities mentioned are ten meetings in 2012 with local communities and the installation of a communications mast in the small village of Nyakakoma, on the shores of Lake Edward, “…thus reducing the need to travel long distances…across unsafe and hostile territory,” according to the site. Suggesting that SOCO might also need the communication mast itself might seem churlish.

If SOCO’s only future activities are to work together with WWF for the betterment of the communities and environment in the Virunga area, it is odd no such plans are openly available.

A formal agreement between the DRC’s wildlife authority (ICCN) and SOCO, dated November 6, 2013, states in Article 3 that SOCO will spend $150,000 to carry out three “social projects”: a landholding map; a process for identifying sustainable development projects; and a program that connects conservation targets with tourism, presumably an ecotourism project. No details are specified.

When WWF was asked what their response would be if the DRC government decided to go ahead with oil exploration in Virunga, in spite of WWF’s agreement with SOCO (which did not include the DRC government’s agreement), a spokesperson replied, “… we hope we can work together with the government to promote investment in sustainable industries such as fisheries, hydropower and ecotourism that could help the park reach is potential to create 28,000 permanent jobs and serve as an economic engine for the entire country…”.

What does the DRC government say? It is their territory, after all. UNESCO, which is responsible for World Heritage Sites, reports with concern that the DRC Minister for Hydrocarbons has announced that if economically viable oil reserves are found inside the property, exploitation will go ahead.

SOCO has just concluded seismic testing in Lake Edward, exploring for the presence of oil. Photo courtesy of SOCO International.

The minister’s announcement is reinforced by the ICCN-SOCO agreement from November 2013, which states in Article 8 that if the oil exploration yielded positive results then SOCO would negotiate the formulation of a program with ICCN for drilling, whether it be for further testing and evaluation or actual exploitation.

ICCN, the Congolese government agency with the responsibility for conserving Virunga, has already agreed in effect to oil drilling in the park.

The next round between conservationists, SOCO, and the DRC government could escalate. The eastern region of the DRC has experienced instability, lawlessness and armed militias for almost two decades. A recent UNESCO assessment of the Virunga World Heritage Site noted that nine armed militias operate in the area. Illegal mining, logging, charcoal-making and poaching is endemic in the poverty-stricken region.

In May this year, WWF announced that staff members based in Goma, near Virunga, had received death threats. Angered by a WWF staff member’s public statements about the negative impacts of SOCO’s oil exploration, one caller said, “We want his head.” Another caller said that they had “missed killing de Merode,” but they would not miss the WWF employee.

Emmanuel de Merode, the highly respected chief warden of Virunga National Park, was shot four times by attackers as he drove from Goma to Virunga in April. De Merode has voiced his opposition to drilling for oil in Virunga and is on record stating, “any oil related activities are illegal” and contribute to the instability in the region. He survived that attack and returned to work in late May.

Baby Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Original photo by Cai Tjeenk Willink - cropped. Photo available under CC BY-SA 3.0Baby Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Original photo by Cai Tjeenk Willink – cropped. Photo available under CC BY-SA 3.0

SOCO, backed by the DRC government, claim that exploiting oil in an environmentally sound manner will benefit the local people and not harm the environment, if done properly. Conservationists and others maintain that SOCO is wrong, and that there are better ways of achieving social and economic development for the people in the region.

What happens in the high-stakes Virunga case may herald the future for all protected areas in Africa. If the most biodiverse and oldest park on the continent cannot be protected, in spite of numerous laws and agreements, then no national park is safe.


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