Last Friday, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo of the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that his government intends to pursue oil exploration in the nation's Virunga National Park. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Virunga is technically protected from such invasive exploitation by international convention, meaning that Kinshasa will have to declassify part or all of the park to get at its oil. Many worry that such a move could undermine the safety of the park's ecosystem, the wellbeing of citizens in the region, and the integrity of UNESCO protection worldwide—the program has only delisted two sites in its history, the latest in 2009.
"It would not be a minor modification of the park limits," Leila Maziz, UNESCO's coordinator for Congo-region projects, told the Guardian recently. "It would be a major modification that would impair the universal value of the park."
At the time of writing, local UNESCO reps say the DRC government hasn't issued a formal request to declassify the park, although Ponyo claimed on Friday that he'd started to discuss the matter with organization officials. In January Ponyo told investors that if he ever did approve exploration, he'd probably tweak the park's borders, and this month the Guardian claimed to have acquired a letter proving that the government had been considering how to change the preserve's contours since July 2014.
Virunga, a 3,000 square mile nature preserve on the eastern border between the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, is home to many environmental zones and at-risk or critically endangered animals. Its most famous residents are 300 mountain gorillas, about a quarter of the remaining global population. Long recognized as one of the most unique and biodiverse parts of Africa, it first became a protected conservation zone while under Belgian rule in 1925 as the Albert National Park. That protection was retained upon independence (although the park's name changed in 1969), and in 1979 it got a boost from UNESCO, listed as a World Heritage site one year into the designation program's existence .
Yet the Virunga has been under threat for decades, listed by UNESCO as an at-risk site since 1994. That year, refugees from the Rwandan Genocide streamed into the park, destroying the land for sustenance and setting up camps and militant centers throughout the region. This influx jumpstarted the Congo conflict, also known as Africa's World War, which has claimed about 6 million lives, mostly thanks to violence and destabilization on the eastern border where Virunga sits. Throughout the conflict, militias have periodically overrun park facilities, forced out conservationists, abetted or allowed in poachers, and generally fucked with Virunga—in 2012 some rebels were even giving ad hoc gorilla tours to visitors to fund their insurgency. As of this year, warlords in Virunga have killed about 140 park rangers (of a 400-man force).
This crisis was exacerbated in the 2000s by renewed international interest in the DRC's untapped oil potential. Most early exploration occurred on the opposite side of the country, but in 2006 Kinshasa carved out three oil blocs that include pieces of land in Virunga adding up to 1,500 square miles of protected territory, or half of the park. As of 2007, the national Ministry of Hydrocarbons had awarded two blocs to the French firm Total and British outfit Soco International, respectively, leaving the third unclaimed. Total promised in 2011 (a year after their permits came into action) not to explore in the park, but Soco decided to kick the tires on its land, clustered around the fragile Lake Edward and not far from the home of the DRC's mountain gorillas.
From then until 2014, as Soco carried out basic tests to check the land's oil richness, claims started popping up that they were using private security firms and paying off Congolese soldiers to brutalize locals and park rangers and run roughshod over the park. These claims were highlighted in Netflix's 2014 Oscar-bait documentary Virunga on conflict and oil in the park. Despite denying the accusations in the film, last summer Soco ceased exploration in Virunga pending changes in the park's status made by the DRC regime. Many claim that this cessation was disingenuous and that clandestine exploration has continued, but on its face this was a big win for the health of the park. The film galvanized international support for the site by using hidden cameras and investigative reporting to shine a light on the allegedly unethical dealings surrounding the land.
The glimmer of hope provided by the film was desperately needed. Between war, development, and general chaos, by 2008 many thought Virunga was fucked beyond repair. Elephant populations, for instance, had shrunk by 90 percent and only 350 of the region's 27,000 original hippos remained, not to mention the more mysterious overexploitation of land and illegal deforestation occurring on top of that poaching and slaughter.
Yet the film, coupled with statements this month from the UN claiming that Congolese forces had finally cleared the park of rebels and news of slowly returning trickles of tourism, made it seem as if Virunga would have space to breathe and recover.
Now, by indicating that they intend to somehow strip the park of some or all of its UNESCO protections and restart the worrying process of oil exploration, Kinshasa has thrown the future of the barely reprieved Virunga into question once more.
Officials claim that this is necessary for the wellbeing of locals, as oil exploration can bring in far more wealth than conservation and tourism. They argue that they can find a way to extract oil and use that wealth to develop marginalized parts of the country without harming Virunga.
"The necessity is to find a middle ground to see how to preserve nature," Ponyo recently told the BBC, "but also to gain profit from resources so that the communities living there can see their living conditions get better."
Yet given the country's track record of corruption, paying off warlords and officials to allow careless resource exploitation sans benefit to locals, many are less than convinced by Ponyo.
"The Congolese government and Soco have often tried to argue that the revenues from oil exploitation in Virunga will help to drag the population there out of the terrible poverty in which they live," Nathanial Dyer, a Congo campaigner at Global Witness, an anti-corruption outfit that's been monitoring developments in the park, told VICE. "[But] Congo has vast mineral wealth and major international oil and mining companies have been present in the country for many years. However the lack of a transparent system of taxation and expenditure in Congo means that this natural resource wealth has not benefitted the majority of Congolese. Instead it has enriched major multinational companies and politically-connected businessmen."
"There is no reason to believe that this pattern will change in Virunga. Any oil production will benefit the oil company financially and could do untold damage to Virunga's ecosystem and local population."
Dyer and others also fear that the Virunga case could make or break UNESCO protection.
"If we fail to protect Virunga," says Dyer, "that sets a precedent for other protected areas threatened by extractive industry multinationals [to be exploited as well]."
Many Congolese seem to be aware of the risks of environmental degradation. But in a country desperate for cash and development to pull itself out of decades of strife, anything seems worth a try. And many local officials find it ridiculous that people from the developed world would tell them to protect gorillas rather than do whatever they can to lift their nation up and out of poverty and chaos, given Europe's pre-modern environmental track record.
"You, Europeans, you have eaten all your animals," Joseph Pili Pili, a member of the DRC's Ministry of Hydrocarbons, recently told the BBC, "and now you ask us to turn our backs on money the country desperately needs, the people desperately need, to protect animals?"
It's a tragedy all around, and a very hard argument to have, unless someone can show Pili Pili a nice financial rundown proving his country stands to gain more by keeping Virunga intact and pushing oil companies out. If someone has hard evidence on that, please contact the Ministry of Hydrocarbons as soon as possible—the gorillas need your spreadsheets.
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