GOMA: The quest for oil may be the latest threat to Africa’s most venerable wildlife reserve, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and already hard hit by deforestation, poaching and armed conflict.
Early in March, European Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs warned that “with oil production there would be a major risk of pollution at this site, located near the sources of the Nile.”
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental bodies, including local ones, have also voiced concern about the planned joint operation by small British firm SOCO International PLC and the Kinshasa government in part of the Virunga National Park.
The whole protected territory on the border with Uganda and Rwanda covers 800,000 hectares (two million acres) and has attained worldwide renown, notably for its rare and endangered mountain gorillas.
SOCO has stated that in July last year, its chairman Rui de Sousa met with WWF chief David Nusbaum, and proposed that they “work together to find the best way forward”.
The firm also expressed a commitment to “improving our dialogue” with all parties “about how (its) activities in eastern DRC could affect the flora and fauna of the Virunga National Park and the livelihoods of the regional population.”
Created in 1925 in the far east of what was then the Belgian Congo, the whole park was declared an “endangered” part of the global heritage by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994.
The area is exceptionally rich in biodiversity, but is located in scarred North Kivu province, tracts of which have been ravaged by successive conflicts for more than 20 years.
Poachers and logging teams have damaged the reserve, as elsewhere in Africa, but the park is also criss-crossed by rival armed groups and soldiers, while local people have taken up illegal residence.
A global protest campaign erupted after SOCO in 2010 won a contract from the Congolese government to jointly prospect for oil on a concession overlapping the park’s territory.
International resistance proved strong enough to make Kinshasa suspend SOCO’s permit the next year, until a “strategic environmental evaluation” had been conducted.
The launch of the study failed to satisfy the WWF and local organisations, which argue that such contracts and permits handed out by the state violate both Congolese law on conservation and the UNESCO convention protecting World Heritage Sites.
The WWF filed a complaint against SOCO and on February 14 welcomed a British government announcement of an independent probe into the oil company’s activities in the DRC, including alleged “threats against local activists.”
Opponents denounce the fact that SOCO has functioned inside the park for several months since the government directly associated the company with its own evaluation, thus potentially biasing the outcome.
“No drilling has been planned or is warranted at this stage,” SOCO announced in its outlook for 2014, but it said activity would include “scientific studies involving a seismic survey of Lake Edward, environmental baseline studies and social projects.”
Sceptics argue that the seismic survey is a cover for hidden oil prospection that could have serious consequences for the environment.
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