In the dense woodlands enveloping the extinct Virunga range of volcanic mountains live an estimated 880 mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species found nowhere else on earth. The Virunga mountain range borders three countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, each of which has formed a national park to protect the ecological security of the region – Virunga National Park in the DRC, Volcanoes National Park in Northern Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in South Western Uganda. In recent years poaching, human encroachment, war, disease, habitat destruction and the illegal wildlife trade have decimated the mountain gorilla population, but thanks to committed conservation efforts the number of mountain gorillas is steadily increasing.
Four of the world’s six great apes call the African Continent home. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) all of the great apes that inhabit Africa are either endangered or critically endangered and are declining with the exception of the mountain gorilla. Success of conservation efforts have however, come at a steep price. In Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, over 140 park rangers have been killed protecting wildlife within Africa’s oldest and most diverse nature reserve since 1996. The plight of East Africa’s mountain gorillas and the park keepers paid to protect them was captured in a documentary entitled “Virunga” which played at Hot Docs this past April and was recently released on Netflix. Virunga calls attention to the wide array of socio-economic factors that are currently undermining the ecological integrity of the Park, with the film focusing primarily on Soco International, a British oil and gas exploration firm that began oil exploration in the National Park in 2010. Two months after the documentary premiered the British oil company announced that it would halt its exploration in the world heritage site. The decision also came after legal action initiated by the World Widelife Fund and public condemnation from high-profile social activists including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson.
Other critics of Soco remain suspicious of the firm’s announcement, arguing that it does denote significant changes in The Congolese National park and was merely used to placate public opinion. In essence, Soco only agreed to remain outside of Virunga’s boundaries if together Unesco and the Congolese government agree that drilling for oil is unsuitable within a park with World Heritage status. Global Witness, an International NGO that monitors natural resource exploitation called the announcement a ‘ruse,’ given that the company has yet to fully commit to pulling out of the park. The decision to grant the company access to oil rights within the park ultimately rests in the hands of the Congolese government. If the DRC government authorizes access to Soco within the park’s boundaries it will set a precedent that will jeopardize the stability of national parks within the DRC and the entire African continent as a whole. The battle to ensure ecological interests in Virunga National Park are prioritized ahead of economic ones is a battle Africa can’t afford to lose.
In terms of Mountain Gorilla conservation, the presence of Soco within the park will without question reverse the progress that has been made in terms of the species preservation. On top of this, many fear that the quest of oil will act as a catalyst for conflict, as rival factions compete for control over areas within the park, not to mention increase corruption. International Crisis Group in support of this states, ‘Renewed oil interest in the DRC represents a real threat to stability in a still vulnerable post-conflict country’ which it wrote in a report entitled Black Gold.
Moreover, much of the oil that is in Virunga is believed to lie beneath Lake Edward, the source of the Nile. An oil spill in the lake that feeds the World’s largest river could as Jeffrey Gettleman from the New York Times points out ‘could contaminate water that tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, rely on.’ Oil exploration in Eastern Congo is yet another example of how the country’s wealth of natural resources continues to feed a cycle of exploitation, war and environmental and human destruction rather than helping spur socio-economic development. In the past 20 years, the park has been at the heart of intense fighting between the Mai Mai, M23 and FDLR rebel armies all of whom have used minerals such as tin and tantalum to finance their armies. Drilling for oil within the park will only make matters worse.
Last May I had the great privilege of experiencing the beauty of the area surrounding Virunga while participating in a Gorilla Trek in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in neighbouring Uganda. The beauty of the park and the gorillas that call it home are ineffable and something I will never forget. I watched Virunga at Hot Docs a few weeks before I departed and was in the region when Soco announced that it had decided to remain outside the park boundaries. In hindsight, I am amazed that I was so naïve to buy into the company’s rhetoric.
In the next upcoming months those of us who are passionate about environmental justice and sustainable development must remain vigilante surrounding the decisions made in respect to Soco’s oil exploration in Virunga. Emmanuel De Meroda, a Belgian prince and the director of Virunga National Park has a different vision for Virunga, one founded on sustainable development and environmental preservation. Such plans include developing ecotourism, creating fisheries and three new hydro-electricity plants that not only employ thousands of local community members but also produce the products they need.
Allowing Soco to drill for oil in the heart of one of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet is almost unthinkable. In the Western context it would be like having an oil rig in the middle of Moraine Lake, or in the case of Britain right next to Stonehenge. These double standards continue to be applied to African countries with zero remorse for their human and environmental implications. Virunga must remain as it is and as it was originally set out to be – a National Park and a Unesco world heritage site which works to safeguard the ecological integrity of the region.