Oil threat to Virunga's mountain gorillas

| 13th December 2013
Elephant and buffalo in Virunga National Park. Photo: Radio Okapi via Flickr.
Elephant and buffalo in Virunga National Park. Photo: Radio Okapi via Flickr.
Soco International PLC, a British oil company, plans to explore for oil in Virunga - Africa's oldest national park, in DRC-Congo. Local WWF campaigner Raymond Lumbuenamo reports on the threats to Mountain gorillas and other precious wildlife.
After Virunga has survived so many threats, our fear is that oil exploration could destroy it forever.

Located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Virunga is a unique region of diverse landscapes including as snowy-peaked volcanoes, rainforest and savannah.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it is also home to a vast array of species such as hippos, elephants and the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Of 880 mountain gorillas that survive in the wild, around 200 are in Virunga.

So to me as a Congolese man, Virunga is the mother park. It is full of wonders found nowhere else. As Africa's first national park, founded in 1925, it gave birth to conservation on the continent.

But now Virunga is at risk from oil exploration. London-based Soco International PLC has secured huge oil concessions within the Park. The impacts from exploration alone would be substantial - and far greater yet if oil production follows.

The Park has already suffered from poaching and the wider conflict in the region that followed the Rwandan genocide. Over 150 Virunga rangers have died in the line of duty since 1990.

Thanks to the dedication and courage of its rangers and staff the Park, and its biodiversity, have survived and even flourished. By 2011 safety in the area was restored and the visitor count soared to 3,000.

Yet Soco is determined to press ahead with its oil exploration plans. And to that end it has withheld vital information about the potential impacts of its exploration activities.

Despite its expressions of environmental concern, Soco has also ignored multiple requests from WWF to release publicly its mitigation and rehabilitation plan, which outlines over 30 possible impacts on Virunga's people, plants, animals, air and water.

That's why, in October 2013, WWF filed a complaint against Soco alleging multiple breaches of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. WWF is also requesting an investigation by the UK government into environmental and human rights concerns over Soco's oil exploration.

We believe that the company's failure to properly disclose the risks that its operations could pose to people, animals and the environment has been a critical missing element in community dialogues - and has violated international corporate social responsibility standards.

Environmental risks to Africa's most biodiverse park include habitat loss, invasive species, poaching and pollution. This alone is troubling considering that over 50,000 people depend on Virunga's natural resources for their food, fuel and fresh drinking water. 

Even more alarming are the possible direct threats to the health and economic wellbeing of my fellow citizens. Soco notes that its operations could lead to the loss of fishing jobs and revenue. The fishing industry currently employs 27,000 people who have no other way to make ends meet.

After Virunga has survived so many threats, our fear is that oil exploration could destroy it forever.

Also possible are outbreaks of respiratory diseases and increased cases of sexually transmitted diseases, resulting from the influx of cash-rich oil workers. These threats are only from the initial exploration phase; we believe that drilling and extraction could lead to spills or sabotage as seen in other oil sites.

Soco prides itself on holding community consultations yet has held back for years knowledge about the damage oil could cause in this area, which has already suffered so much. OECD says that companies should be transparent with crucial information and give communities a chance to express their views.

However local people say Soco has created an atmosphere of intimidation by using security forces to quiet dissenting voices. One fearful local resident told us:

"What I fear most is that when the company first came, it did use the government forces to have communities accept the project. Rather than explaining the project to the civil society, the population, they were only imposing and telling what they had already planned."

Residents deserve to know the truth about oil and that they have alternatives, so, by filing the OECD complaint, WWF is making public what Soco has kept from them. We will not be silenced and we will not let the people be deceived.

Oil exploration in Virunga is dangerous and must be stopped. After Virunga has survived so many threats, our fear is that oil exploration could destroy it forever. Investment should be made - not in oil, but in bringing peace, security and long-term sustainable economic development to eastern DRC.



Raymond Lumbuenamo is Country Director of WWF-Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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