The Virunga Park – Lush green hills, anti-government rebels, poachers (and anti-poaching rangers), an oil company, endangered gorillas, highest species diversity and – oh yes – locals just looking for a little bit of economic development. They all come together in one of the most beautiful places on earth, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The park is Africa’s oldest national park, founded in 1925 and recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site by 1979. Virunga is known for it’s wildlife rich network of forest, savannas, rivers, lakes, marshland, active and dormant volcanoes and permanent glaciers. Over 2000 plant species have been identified in the area, 10% of them endemic to this area; 218 mammal species, 706 bird species, 109 reptile species and 78 amphibian species. It’s the only home in the world of three types of endangered great apes: mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas and eastern chimpanzees.
The Virunga National Park was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by the World Heritage Committee twenty years ago in 1994 due to the consequences of war and an influx of refugees which led to widescale deforestation and poaching at the site. The human population in the fishing village near Lake Edward has increased several fold. Anti-government rebels are a security problem, e.g. 12 employees of the park has been killed and the Director of the Park has been shot and seriously injured.
This leads to the fact that the park was closed for a long time for tourism but has been opened recently.
What’s the story?
In December 2007, the DRC government granted oil concessions to SOCO International PLC called Block V covering an area of 7,500 km² of which 85% lie within the park. The government has granted other concessions within the park to the French form Total and to the South African firm SacOil, which are now operating in Block III. However, they respect the boundaries of the park and will not explore within the park boundaries.
To date, SOCO International PLC is the only oil company that has indicated that it will explore for oil within park boundaries. SOCO’s area of interest is the Virunga lowland savanna area around Lake Edward and the lake itself. Soco is a FTSE 250 listed company that operates in the DRC Congo under the subsidiary, Soco Exploration and Production DRC Sprl.
Local communities (mainly fisherman who rely directly on the lake’s resources) supported by international (e.g. WWF) and local NGOs (Virunga Park Alliance) opposing the planned development. A statement against the development from Richard Brenson, Howard G. Buffet and Desmond Tutu reflects the support of the international civil society. Disagreements and conflict is increasing; e.g. people got arrested during demonstrations. This issues received major public interest. Last week the documentary Virunga premiered at the Tribecca Documentary Festival and reflects SOCO’s activities in a country.
During the last couple of months WWF published statements about possible impacts and SOCO responded. Here are a few, who reflect that many issues are not clarified yet and scientists could jump in immediately to contribute to a better understanding:
WWF’s statement: SOCO International PLC is the only oil company that has indicated that it will explore for oil within park boundaries. If Soco finds commercial viable oil reserves then it is likely to proceed to exploration or may sell the asset on to another oil company. An economic report (by Dalberg Global Development Advisor) states that Virunga Park’s value has the potential to be as much as US$1.1 billion per year and could be the source of more than 45,000 jobs through tourism, fishery, hydropower, medicine, education and research. This potential oil exploration would bring a new and unacceptable level of risk for Virunga’s environment, communities and potential economic value.
SOCO’s response: The only planned activity continues to be the scientific studies involving a seismic survey of Lake Edward, environmental baseline studies and social investment projects (done by a Congolese environmental consulting company OKAPI). No drilling has been planned or is warranted at this stage. SOCO is extremely sensitive to the environmental significance of the Virunga National Park. This is reflected in the strict step-wise process that is uniquely characteristic of the Block V project. Unlike standard oil exploration licence projects, the approval of the DRC authorities is required for each phase of the project and emphasis is placed on environmental monitoring studies and social investment during the early phases.
The Virunga National Park was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by the World Heritage Committee twenty years ago in 1994 due to the consequences of war and an influx of refugees which led to widescale deforestation and poaching at the site. This would make it very difficult to open this area to tourism. The human population in the fishing village near Lake Edward has increased several fold and fish populations are impacted already.
WWF’s statement: Possible localized environmental impacts during exploration which might endanger biodiversity (e.g. gorilla population), water quality, habitat for fish populations:
- reduces the accessible lake areas for fisherman
- clearing land of vegetation
- developing access routes (also for poachers and illegal loggers)
- creating sewage and solid waste
- noise and light pollution
- pollution from exploratory drilling include oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds
- exploratory wells may provide a pathway of contaminants from surface to ground water
SOCO’s response: “It is emphasised that Block V is not located within the mountainous Mikeno Sector, home to the famous Mountain Gorillas. This has been subject to much inaccurate media speculation. Furthermore, SOCO has stated it will never seek to have operations in the Mountain Gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest.” A fish and mollusc baseline studies on Lake Edward completed in Oct 2013, respond to concerns that had been expressed regarding the impact of potential future exploration activities in the region. A baseline study of hippopotami was conducted shortly afterwards.
Hamana’s opinion: No information on the outcome of environmental baseline studies are available to the public. Social impact assessment has been done for only a few communities and the economic impact of the social investment projects is unknown. The consulting company, which conducted the studies is not reachable, their company webpage is currently out of order. No studies are available to support the statement that deforestation and overfishing is a current problem in the park.
WWF’s statement: Possible environmental impacts during extraction:
• Pollution from oil spills, gas flaring and waste dumping. This would require good management plans and legislations, which are very difficult to implement in an unstable environment. (Legislation (e.g. Draft Hydrocarbon Bill or Environmental Code) is not very detailed on requirements for environmental and social impact assessments and makes no mention of best practices to avoid environmental pollution)
• Creation of economic imbalance and increase in conflict (rebels, border conflict) within the local communities (e.g. North Kivu), which means further destabilization of the area
• Drilling might affect the size and frequency of volcanic eruptions
• A good example is the widespread pollution of the Niger Delta (UNEP Report, 2006)
SOCO’s response : NONE
Hamana’s view: Although there is evidence from other areas (like Niger Delta) that pollution, unstable situations and economic imbalance, it is difficult to project the future of the Virunga Park. First of all, siencitifc experts need to conduct a high quality baseline assessment,w hich is accessable to the public. Secondly, are there any examples out there for good management practice (including implementation in such an unstable environment).
If exploration will happen, scientist need to monitor the current sitution (and the impact later on) in Lake Edward and the surrounding Virunga Park, they need to provide these data to the public and make scientifc findings understandable to the public and to policy makers.
Do you have any other suggestions or do you know of any scientific information? Lets collect all what we have.