Out with oil: New hope for Virunga National Park

Oil companies pose a threat to the future of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo but cases for sustainable development approaches to park management as an alternative means to developing the region economically, present greater long-term social, economic and environmental benefits for the region.

Democratic Republic of Congo. Shores of Lake Edward in Virunga National Park. Photo courtesy MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh/ Flickr
Democratic Republic of Congo. Shores of Lake Edward in Virunga National Park. Photo courtesy MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh/flickr

Written by Lonnie Kehler; Updated by Tanya Bruggemann

Through the World Heritage Convention UNESCO seeks to identify and preserve natural and cultural heritage sites that have incalculable value. Unfortunately, 55 established World Heritage sites are listed as “in danger”, and Africa has more than its fair share at 17. The high number of affected African sites reflects particular challenges of the continent, notably civil unrest and war.2 The Virunga National Park in the DRC and Uganda, Africa’s oldest national park, is one of those sites.

Instability in the region has had devastating consequences for the park, for its wildlife and for those who look after it. The park and its rangers are threatened by poachers and rebel groups, and now another threat, in foreign oil companies interested in exploration within park borders, has been developing over the last few years.

Although British oil company SOCO bowed to international pressure and agreed to stop exploration prospects in the park in 2015, developments across the border in Uganda present an ongoing risk. Since the start of SOCO’s interest in the park, plans for sustainable development projects within the park have taken traction. Such efforts have been instrumental in demonstrating why a sustainable development approach to park management is conducive to producing benefits for both communities and wildlife, without the risks associated with oil exploration.

Threats to Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park was founded in 1925 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. From the swamps to the snowfields of the Rwenzori Mountains, to savannahs on slopes of volcanoes, Virunga is packed with an exceptional diversity of habitats. The 790,000 hectare park contains an outstanding biodiversity of species, most notably precious species like the rare okapi (forest giraffe) and globally threatened populations such as the mountain gorilla.3 Approximately 880 mountain gorillas are left in the world, and Virunga is home to over half of them.4 Virunga harbours more types of bird and mammal species than any other park in Africa and over 2,000 plant species have been identified in the area.5

In the 1970s around 6,500 visitors, per year, were welcomed into the park. By the 1980s, Virunga began to suffer terribly as the Congo slid into political chaos.6 Since then, park protection has become a dangerous and sometimes impossible task. The large amount of bush areas serve as perfect camping grounds for militant groups such as the M23 rebels – a breakaway group comprised of mutineers from the Congolese army.7 Poaching has drastically reduced wildlife populations, including hippopotamuses that went from a population of 29,000 in the 1970s to approximately 2,400 today.8 An astonishing 150 park rangers have been killed by militants or poachers, giving the job a near soldier-like level of danger.9

In an appalling turn, poachers and rebel fighters are now only part of the problem that park rangers and administration face. In 2010, the DRC government defied international criticism and allocated 85% of the park to oil concessions. Consequently, oil companies have become an added threat to the park’s existence.10 British petroleum company SOCO claimed that oil could be extracted from Virunga without inflicting any environmental harm, while also raising living standards for local communities, but opponents disagreed.11 Conservationists argued that oil exploitation could pollute Virunga’s Lake Albert, Africa’s seventh largest lake, where 50,000 families fish for their livelihoods, and that it could also destabilise the region by exacerbating conflict between rival groups.12 The lack of clearly defined borders between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda, in the Great Lakes region, could re-ignite clashes if exploration moves forward.13

Oil exploration is a risky and unnecessary venture considering the available alternatives that could, not only, provide economic benefits, but also do so without the environmental and social gamble.

The case for sustainable development

A sustainable development approach to park management is a much better alternative to oil exploration and could provide benefits to wildlife in Virunga and surrounding communities. Fortunately, the park administration agrees. According to Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s chief warden, 100,000 jobs could be created within the next five to eight years by investing in the park’s natural resources in a safe, productive way without involving oil.14 One small project funded by the European Community has already provided locals with benefits. A 400 kW hydroelectric pilot plant was built in 2013 and is currently providing electricity to thousands of homes in Mutwanga, a town located in the park’s northern sector.15

Park administration is not the only body that sees the value in sustainably developing Virunga’s resources. The Virunga Alliance was created in April 2014 to work on developing the park’s natural resources on a larger scale. The private sector, civil society groups, major donors, park administration and local and national authorities have collaborated and will invest tens of millions of dollars to tap into Virunga’s abundant hydrological resources.

An additional fund has been set up to stimulate investment in agri-industry, sustainable fisheries and tourism, and will facilitate the execution of the three-phase economic development plan that is currently underway.16 Building on from the Mutwanga pilot project is the 13.6 MW Matebe Power station in Rutshuru which came online in December of 2015 and is projected to facilitate the creation of 12,000 jobs and kick start the green economy.

Furthering efforts to transition to sustainable energy, The Virunga Alliance has received an injection of $39 million USD by Howard G. Buffet towards the completion of two more hydroelectric plants North of Kivu.17 Park authorities hope to see 100% of net profit reinvested in community development programmes to improve infrastructure, schools and health clinics and create jobs in the community.18 It is highly doubtful that SOCO intended that 100% of its profits remain in the DRC.

If peace comes to the DRC, eco-tourism activity could also become a renewed source of income, given the strong appeal of Virunga’s landscape and wildlife diversity, and provide further justification for leaving oil in the ground. Kenya’s tourism industry brings in around US$ 1 billion a year and Merode suggests that Virunga could someday make Kenya’s tourism revenue look pale in comparison.19 However, it is important to acknowledge that the DRC is still dealing with tremendous instability issues, most notably the combined attempt of the UN and Congolese troops to disarm the region’s dominant rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). But while regional insecurity could hinder sustainable development initiatives, it is also possible that such initiatives, by providing an increasing amount of economic opportunity, could potentially help to ease armed conflict.

Out of an average 2,000 FDLR fighters, over 700 have turned themselves in.20 It is reasonable to suggest that this number could increase with additional job opportunities in the region since the life of a rebel fighter may become less appealing with growing economic opportunity. Sustainable development projects have, at the very least, the potential to contribute to weakening rebel groups and easing conflict,  making it a better alternative to oil exploration from this point of view as well.

A reversed decision

With the sustainable development initiatives in motion, it comes as a huge relief that SOCO agreed to halt oil exploration in Virunga National Park. The decision can be largely attributed to immense international pressure to stop oil related activity in the area. In 2011, UNESCO warned of the “extremely harmful repercussions of this type of activity for the outstanding universal value of Virunga National Park” and called for the DRC to stop all oil activities in the park.21 SOCO has also been condemned for its activities by the WWF, who was involved in the legal mediation of the decision, along with the British government, high profile individuals such as Richard Branson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, US financier Howard Buffet, and 700,000 people who signed petitions.22

The international outrage sparked by SOCO’s oil ventures in Africa’s oldest and most diverse national park and the resulting reversed decision is significant in two major ways. Firstly, it is evidence that oil activity in Virunga is a highly risky and an all-round bad decision. Secondly, it is a great example of the effectiveness that concerted international pressure, applied by various actors, has, to force the private sector into more responsible behaviour.

It is important to note that Virunga is not completely in the clear, yet. Oil companies still hold exploration licences that cover the majority of the park and could seek to develop resources at any time. Uganda’s recent actions may also push the Congo to continue with exploration efforts but if so, hopefully well outside the borders of the national park. In February of 2016, the Ugandan government began the process of allocating exploration licences to companies in areas of Western Uganda. Each of the areas contain a portion of protected land. There is concern that mining activities around Lake Edward and Queen Elizabeth National Park will effect Virunga’s biodiversity, given the ecological continuity of the two adjacent parks.23 However, considering the strong backlash against SOCO’s activities in Virunga and the recently passed resolution of the EU parliament for the protection of the national park, there is reason to be hopeful that other oil companies will decide to hold off activity in and immediately around the park in the future, and if not, face criticism heavy enough to halt their activities.

Concluding remarks

Political instability and poaching are still very real and pose significant obstacles for park rangers and administration. Although the oil threat is only one portion of the total package of challenges, it remains significant and related future developments remain uncertain. The case of SOCO’s withdrawal provides hope that, through continued pressure and environmental activism from the international community and park advocates, the region’s governments can be persuaded that sustainable park management projects could yield far greater returns for both countries. Eliminating the environmental risks that come with oil development means that efforts can rightfully be focused on developing Virunga’s natural resources in a responsible way. The fact that local communities have already begun to benefit from sustainable development project initiatives, demonstrates that economic benefits can be realised without oil exploitation and that Virunga’s diverse habitats and wildlife populations can have a better chance of recovering and being preserved, well into the future.

NOTES:(1)   Lonnie Kehler is a Research Associate with IOA, with a particular interest in technological innovation and the intersection of environment and social justice. Contact Lonnie through IOA on info@inonafrica.com. Edited by Nicole Lombard.
(2) ‘Sites in danger’, African World Heritage Sites, http://www.africanworldheritagesites.org.
(3) ‘Virunga National Parks’, UNESCO, http://whc.unesco.org.
(4) ‘Mountain gorilla population grows’, World Wildlife Fund, 13 November 2012, http://wwf.panda.org.
(5) ‘Congo’, Wildlife Conservation Society, http://www.wcs.org.
(6) ‘About Virunga National Park’, Virunga National Park, http://visitvirunga.org.
(7) ‘Q&A: DR Congo’s M23 rebels’, BBC News, 5 November 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news.
(8) Bruce, J., ‘Hippo Hippo Hooray! Hippopotamus Population Recovering from Poaching’, Nature World News, 8 November 2016, http://www.natureworldnews.com.
(9) Howard, B. C., ‘Rangers Killed in Africa’s Oldest Park Push Death Toll to 150’, National Geographic, March       2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/.
(10) Pearce, F., ‘In a troubled African park, a battle over oil exploration’, Yale Environment 360, 1 May 2014, http://e360.yale.edu.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Vidal, J., ‘Soco halts oil exploration in Africa’s Virunga national park’, The Guardian, 11 June 2014, http://www.theguardian.com.
(13) Holloway, C., ‘Virunga still under siege: Oil disaster looming for Africa’s oldest national park’, African Conservation Foundation, 16 June 2014, http://www.africanconservation.org.
(14) Basu, T., ‘How Africa’s oldest national park can benefit both gorillas and locals’, National Public Radio, 7 November 2014, http://www.npr.org.
(15) ‘Park launches Virunga Alliance for peace and development’, Virunga National Park, 11 April 2014, http://virunga.org.
(16) Ibid.

(17) ‘Spotlight On Virunga As The President Inaugurates Two Hydroelectric Power Plants In Eastern Congo’, Virunga National Park, 17 December 2015, https://virunga.org/.
(18) ‘Park launches Virunga Alliance for peace and development’, Virunga National Park, 11 April 2014, http://virunga.org.
(19) Basu, T., ‘How Africa’s oldest national park can benefit both gorillas and locals’, National Public Radio, 7 November 2014, http://www.npr.org.
(19) McCormick, T., ‘Will Congo’s rebels finally come in from the cold?’, Foreign Policy, 10 July 2014, http://www.foreignpolicy.com.

(20) Long, N., ‘UN: Over 700 Rwandan FDLR Rebels Surrendered in 2015’, VOA News, 30 December 2015, http://www.voanews.com/.
(21) Pearce, F., ‘In a troubled African park, a battle over oil exploration’, Yale Environment 360, 1 May 2014, http://e360.yale.edu.
(22) Vidal, J., ‘Soco halts oil exploration in Africa’s Virunga national park’, The Guardian, 11 June 2014, http://www.theguardian.com.

(23) ‘Protecting Virunga National Park From Oil Companies’, Global Witness, 19 January 2016, https://www.globalwitness.org/ .