Local pressure mounts against oil in Virunga
Citizens concerned about possible oil exploration in Virunga National Park are calling on the international community for its support in the fight against a foreign petrochemical company. Gathering at meetings in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) over the past two weeks, multiple groups of community activists have signed declarations asking that oil activities be stopped in Africa’s oldest national park.
Residents are worried that UK-based oil company Soco International PLC has been given a contract to explore in Virunga, which is a protected World Heritage Site. The UK government has spoken out against Soco’s operations in the park, and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has called for the cancelation of oil permits overlapping the site.
Under DRC law, activities that could damage national parks, like oil and mining, are prohibited. Currently, Soco is exploiting a legal loophole that allows for scientific activities, but more invasive exploration activities appear to be imminent. The company says that it has been given permission for seismic testing on Virunga’s Lake Edward. The lake provides fish and freshwater to 50,000 nearby residents.
Fishermen and their families fear that they will be restricted from the lake or that it could become polluted. Oil exploration in DRC’s Bas Congo province has proven to be highly damaging to the environment. It also failed to provide promised jobs. Those living near the park say they would like to better understand their sustainable development alternatives to oil.
Analysis commissioned by WWF found that if developed sustainably, Virunga National Park could grow in value to over US$1 billion per year and could be the source of 45,000 permanent jobs. As the most biodiverse park in Africa, Virunga has tremendous tourism potential from its rare species like mountain gorillas, okapis and migratory birds. Revenue from tourism is shared equitably with local communities, whereas oil profits are likely to be repatriated abroad to the benefit of Soco’s investors.