Victory for Virunga? British oil company agrees to end its operations in Africa’s oldest national park
Virunga National Park’s conservationists and activists are celebrating a victory today after British oil company SOCO International plc (SOCO) agreed to end its controversial operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But the devil is in the details and many believe the war against drilling for oil in Africa’s oldest national park has just begun.
In a joint statement with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), SOCO has committed "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."
This means that if UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee elects to downgrade Virunga’s World Heritage Status and/or reduce the park’s size by changing the borders, then SOCO might re-open for business in the crucial and iconic wildlife area. Virunga’s future is on the agenda for discussion at next week’s World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar.
Is it really a victory?
Regardless, the oil company will still complete their existing seismic survey on Lake Edward this month. If results show oil is present in profitable quantities, this will inevitably provide ammunition for the DRC and industry to use in any effort to remove Virunga’s World Heritage listing. SOCO has consistently stated that no Block V drilling commitments have ever been made to the DRC and that their exploration phase would "give the DRC government vital information it will need in deciding how to proceed in Virunga."
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.
Also, SOCO may choose not to operate in Virunga, but instead sell their Block V concession to another company. About half of SOCO’s Block V oil concession zone is outside Virunga – and the risks to people, peace and nature do not suddenly disappear at a park boundary.
Does SOCO finally admit that their intentions are to drill for oil, or sell the concession to another oil company?
Oil exploration and extraction was resolutely opposed by local and international environmental groups. WWF filed a complaint against SOCO under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. More than 750,000 local people signed a petition against drilling in the park, 80% of which is covered by DRC oil concessions awarded to various companies. The British Government stridently criticized SOCO’s oil exploration within Virunga 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 added pressure on SOCO - as did high profile figures including Sir Richard Branson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Conservationists may have won a battle, but Virunga is still under siege.
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, for the African Conservation Foundation, explores how drilling for oil in Virunga could change everything - and not only in Africa.