On May 3, the NGO, Global Witness revealed that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) government is planning to allow oil exploration in two of their national parks. The government plan to reclassify land and remove protected status would enable oil drilling within two UNESCO-protected World Heritage Sites– the Salonga and Virunga national parks. Earlier in February, President Joseph Kabila authorised oil licenses for swathes of land in Salonga national park, the world’s second-largest rainforest. The new reclassification of park borders would remove protected status from areas that are covered by oil licenses, providing an incentive for international oil companies to enter uncharted and remote areas. Virunga has become a battleground for conflict against conservationists and armed rebels, as well as poachers and oil companies.
The Congo’s Oil Minister, Aime Ngoy Mukena, is defending the country’s right to oil exploration within their territory and argues the need to open up protected land to oil drilling to develop its hydrocarbons sector. It’s estimated that oil reserves in Virunga could be worth $7 billion. Despite the natural wealth of their environment, local populations benefit little from the abundance of resources. Locals instead are dependent on the forests, and 200,000 people also depend on Lake Edward, which is a part of Virunga’s ecosystem. It is clear that oil exploration would restrict access to the park’s land and resources, therefore, disrupting the livelihoods of a great number of the DRC’s citizens.
The oil exploration proposal undermines the Congo’s conservation commitments and is in violation of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, which the Congo is a signatory. Peter Jones, an investigator with Global Witness, said, “The potential damage to these rare and valuable ecosystems is enormous. The Congolese government should be seeking to extend protection of these areas rather than selling them off to the highest bidder.” Oil exploration will have a devastating effect on the park’s ecosystems, threatening rare species, such as the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Virunga National Park is one of the world’s most biologically diverse places and is home to half of the world’s remaining population of 1000 mountain gorillas. Other risks associated with oil development are deforestation, fragmentation of habitats, the increased livelihood of poaching and pollution from oil spills.
Political instability, weak governance, civil unrest and poverty are contributing factors that threaten conservation efforts. Virunga is located in eastern DRC, an area that has suffered from ongoing armed conflict and violence since the mid-1990s. It is one of the most dangerous conservation sites in the world, with attacks claiming the lives of 175 victims since 1996. Congolese forces as well as anti-government rebels and militia’s, from neighbouring countries Rwanda and Uganda, regularly clash over control of minerals and oil within Virunga’s boundaries.
The government’s plan comes after a recent violent attack against park rangers. On April 9, an armed militia ambushed and killed five park rangers and a driver in Virunga. The rangers work to protect the park and its wildlife against poachers and commercial oil exploration. They are frequently attacked or killed during a confrontation with armed groups, and this is the third attack this year against members of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation.
In the past, oil prospecting has fuelled violence in eastern DRC. In 2014, Soco International, a British oil company was granted permission to explore for oil in Virunga. There was widespread condemnation among local communities, and UNESCO and western governments also opposed Soco’s plans. The company bribed armed rebels and benefited from violence instigated by government security forces as they attempted to access the national park. Activists and park rangers who protested against Soco’s operations were arrested, and some were assaulted. Virunga’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, survived being shot in April 2014, shortly after reporting Soco’s operations to the regional public prosecutor. This created hostility against park rangers and groups attempting to exploit the park’s resources, including rebels, poachers and oil exploration supporters. Soco then abandoned oil exploration when opposition grew too strong. The government’s renewed plans could create a resurgence in violence.
A WWF report calls for long-term development, local economic initiatives, conservation and political stability to ensure the Congo’s national parks are protected against oil exploration. Virunga is more valuable as a protected area, and the sustainable management of the park’s resources will help diversify the economy. Direct uses, such as tourism, sustainable fisheries and hydropower could provide the region with 45,000 jobs. Community-based initiatives could help deter locals from joining rebel groups or criminal gangs, thus preventing violence.