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portrait of a mountain gorilla, Virunga National Park. © Karel Bartik/shutterstock.com
portrait of a mountain gorilla, Virunga National Park. © Karel Bartik/shutterstock.com

Protecting Virunga’s mountain gorillas

June 2014

The location:

Virunga National Park (official website), a 7,800-square-kilometre (3,000 square miles) National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979.

It is a place of unique biodiversity. Tropical forests, marshes, savannahs, active volcanoes, lava lakes, even glaciers, are home to a quarter of the world’s estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas, and to more than 200 other species of mammals found only in Congo.

In recent years, poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population. Congo is war-torn country, the third poorest in the world, agonized by intense fighting between the army and a number of rebel groups. Thousands of refugees from the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda unwillingly add to the pressure on the government and the environment.

On one hand:

The inspired park director and superior of 274 park rangers, Emmanuel de Merode, and his ambitious plan to bring sustainable development and economic growth to the area. He acts on his plans to create tens of thousands of jobs with sustainable fishing, hydropower generation and ecotourism. Studies commissioned by WWF have since shown that the park could indeed support up to 45,000 people if ‘peaceful’ industries like the ones aimed for by de Merode were developed. [1]

On the other hand:

The British oil company Soco International which in June 2010 received a licence to search for oil in Block V, an area of 7,500 square kilometres, more than half of it within the national park.
The park director’s budget: 4 million euros, stockmarket value of Soco in London: 1.6 billion. [2]

The battle:

Since the concession, Soco came to show how ‘ruthless a Western company can operate in Africa’ (Der Spiegel [2]). Corruption and bribery [4], using militia as pawns against the park director’s plans [2], promises to the local population (streets, schools, jobs, hospitals,…) – the works. The stage was set for yet another ‘act of environmental savagery’ (The Guardian [3]).

The good news:

The locals remained doubtful, the protest became international, leading conservation groups collected the signatures of more than 700,000 people online. The pressure on Soco grew, it began negotiation talks with the World Wildlife Fund, and in June 2014 Soco ”bowed to pressure from the British government, UNESCO and high-profile individuals including Richard Branson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and US financier Howard Buffett.’ [1] ‘The company has also agreed not to explore other world heritage sites.’ [3] It seems the gorillas are ‘safe from their destructive cousins a little longer.’ [3]

Watch this trailer for the award-winning documentary ‘Virunga’:

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Remaining doubt:

This is a significant victory for the cause of conservation, but read the words carefully. In its statement, Soco declared ‘to commit 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.’

‘We will complete our existing operational programme including completing the seismic survey on Lake Edward which is due to conclude shortly. […] The conclusion of this phase of work will give the DRC government vital information it will need in deciding how to proceed in Virunga national park.’

…and Soco insists on keeping the licence for the plot until it might be sold. And that is what Soco normally does anyway, perform the seismic surveying and then sell to the highest bidder.

‘Are not incompatible’ means are ‘compatible’. In other words: If the Congolese government should decide – against the now wakeful eye of international sustainability expectations – that oil is good, Soco could still sell the deeds.

Update March 2016:

Five months later, the NYT wrote that ‘World Wildlife Fund executives now acknowledge that the battle over Virunga is hardly over. SOCO has yet to relinquish its operating permits or commit to an unconditional withdrawal.’

But according to Soco, the environmental battle is now won. The company states on its website:

‘SOCO publicly set out its withdrawal programme from Block V in June 2014. In line with this public commitment, SOCO’s operations inside Virunga National Park ceased on 22 July 2014 and elsewhere in Block V on 11 August 2014. […] In June 2015, SOCO reiterated its commitment to leave Block V, stating that the timeline for this was tied to the Company’s contractual obligations in DRC.
‘SOCO’s humanitarian aid, provided in medical, water purification and communications facilities, has been transferred to the local communities for the benefit of the people.
No exploration drilling has taken place in Block V. No drilling commitment has ever been made and no oil exploitation plans exist for Block V. Block V is not located within the mountainous Mikeno Sector, home to the famous Mountain Gorillas. SOCO has publicly stated since 2011 that it would never seek to have operations in the Mountain Gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest.’

Since then reshuffled to the website of the renamed company: Pharos. Here is their version of the events (Feb 2020)

A more sober chronology can be found at globalwitness.org

sources
1 John Vidal 2015. Soco halts oil exploration in Africa’s Virunga national park. theguardian.com, 11 June 2014.
2 Juliane von Mittelstaedt 2014. Der Schatz von Virunga. Der Spiegel, 17/2014, 84–90.
3 Ian Birrell 2014. Virunga is saved but Africa’s wildlife is being encircled sliver by sliver. theguardian.com, 13 June 2014.
4 John Vidal 2015. UK oil firm ‘paid Congolese officer who offered bribe to Virunga park ranger. theguardian.com, 10 June 2015.
5 Jeffdrey Gettleman 2014. Oil Dispute Takes a Page From Congo’s Bloody Past. nytimes.com, Nov. 15, 2014.

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