Mountain gorillas and other endangered species in the Congo basin face a renewed threat to their survival, as the government has approved of oil drilling in two of the country’s protected national parks. Virunga and Salonga, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, are home to many endangered species, including half of the global population of mountain gorillas and 40% of the global population of bonobos. Environmental activists say that this drilling places wildlife at risk, in addition to releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
A commission of the Congolese Government met on April 27th, aiming to redraw the boundaries of Virunga and Salonga national parks. UNESCO makes it clear that exploitation of natural resources is incompatible with World Heritage status; redrawing of the boundaries would remove the status from the areas of the parks covered by drilling licenses, allowing oil companies to exploit the parks’ natural resources. This move would reclassify 21.5% of Virunga for oil drilling. The decision has caused significant international concern, with UNESCO arguing that if World Heritage status cannot protect important ecosystems, “it sends a message that the entire planet is for sale to the fossil fuel industry,” and will have devastating consequences.
The Congolese Government has defended its right to authorize drilling, saying it was aware of protecting animals and plants in the national parks. However, the country has been torn by fighting between rebel factions following two bloody civil wars and the fall of long-serving ruler Mobutu Sese Seko more than two decades ago. Rebel groups have taken advantage of this anarchy to pillage the country’s natural resources, poaching the endangered animal populations and destroying the environment. This makes the promise of a government already marred by corruption seem painfully inadequate. Now, oil companies are swooping in at this time of crisis to exploit Virunga and Salonga’s natural resources, to the detriment of the country’s wildlife and natural habitats.
Cause for concern: the previous harms of oil exploration in Virunga
Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and was founded in 1925, primarily to protect mountain gorillas. Presently, it is home to over half the global population of 880 mountain gorillas and is the most biodiverse park in Africa, boasting creatures such as okapi giraffes and forest elephants. Similarly, Salonga covers 12,900 square miles of the Congo basin, and is home to endangered animals including 40% of the world’s bonobos, dwarf chimpanzees, and Congo peacocks. Conservation efforts in the parks have been hampered in the past, in part by a political climate of civil war and militias, but also crucially by the exploitation of natural resources by multinational oil firms.
Earlier oil exploration has set a dangerous precedent for both endangered wildlife and the Congolese people. In 2010, a Presidential decree from the Democratic Republic of Congo allowed part-British oil firm SOCO International to explore for hydrocarbons. Their activities were believed to violate human rights and environmental standards, and were plagued by allegations of corruption, bribery, and links to armed rebels. SOCO’s impact assessment of the harm created by oil exploration realized the increased risk of poaching and irreparable environmental damage but continued nonetheless, highlighting the disregard of a powerful multinational for precious ecosystems.
Evidence of bribery by supporters of SOCO and the Congolese Army include paying rangers to work against the park, and allowing SOCO employees to explore protected areas. Crucially, this bribery was implicated in the attempted assassination of the director of Virunga, Emmanuel de Merode. A key obstacle to drilling and head of conservation, de Merode was critically injured by unidentified gunmen during an ambush, just hours after meeting a state prosecutor. During this meeting, de Merode submitted a report on the parks enquiry into the illegal actions of SOCO’s exploring for oil. Reports named suspects associated with SOCO International, illustrating financial greed’s blatant disregard for life.
In addition to de Merode’s report on the harm to conservation, evidence highlighted by the WWF includes reports of unlawful detention, threats to the safety of anti-oil activists, and intimidation. Charges of military violence against local people have been confirmed. Ida Sawyer, a Human Rights Watch investigator, evidenced that “many other fishermen, activists and park rangers have been badly beaten, threatened and intimidated after opposing the oil company’s work in the park.” Indeed, two fishermen were found dead hours after criticizing the activities of SOCO in the park.
Action for a sustainable future
The oil exploration was met with significant activism and international condemnation. Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary Virunga proved a powerful tool for inspiring public consciousness, whilst the WWF was instrumental in garnering public support for the withdrawal of SOCO from Virunga. As a British owned company, the government of the United Kingdom issued a severe condemnation of SOCO International. These actions garnered significant international support. However, they each fail to address the violent militias destabilizing conservation, the corruption facilitating oil exploration, and the poverty of many Congolese, who may rely on the income provided by oil exploration and poaching.
The challenge of protecting endangered wildlife from oil drilling is set in a complex geopolitical climate of violent militias, poverty, and government inadequacy. In order to achieve sustained conservation and action against oil exploration, change needs to come at the heart of the Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo ranks as the poorest country in the world, with the lowest GDP per capita. Many Congolese support drilling, believing that it will bring money to the poverty stricken country. Development of alternative sustainable industries are therefore crucial. Tourism was an important industry for Virunga, providing a significant source of income aiding conservation in the park. However, the park was closed to visitors following the kidnapping of two British tourists, and the death of a ranger during an ambush. Government eradication of militia and control of the park would be a significant challenge, but with a multitude of bonuses both to conservation and the tourism industry. Further, it could also provide income to locals, thus assisting in the alleviation of poverty. There is a need to be conscious of the unintended consequences following the withdrawal of oil companies. In such a poor country, poaching of wildlife and resources is a lucrative source of income. Therefore, there is a need for the creation and support of sustainable industries such as tourism to further protect against harm to wildlife. This way, a sustainable income will decrease interest in opportunities provided by poaching, drilling, and exploitation of natural resources.
On a global level, the uncomfortable truth is that our reliance on fossil fuels, and money raised by the taxes from oil firms means that nations may be slower to act than they should be. As seen earlier, public activism was instrumental in overturning the will of the Congolese Government and transnational corporations. Sustained activism is therefore needed to raise awareness of companies engaging in drilling in volatile environments. This may make exploration less profitable an endeavour, and less palatable for governments to fail to condemn.
Earlier oil exploration has set a dangerous precedent. Evidence of human rights abuses, and a willingness to violate precious ecosystems containing endangered mammals in search for oil will provide significant cause for alarm for activists who may foresee history to be repeating itself as the government opens the parks for drilling. International outcry was instrumental in overturning the actions of powerful multinationals and the will of a government, but only for a short time. What is needed now is sustained action at the heart of the Congo, tackling complex issues in an already difficult geopolitical climate. Without it, the fragile and fundamental ecosystems may forever be lost to the demands of the dirty oil industry, the consequences of which will devastate the world forever.
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