Africa's Oldest National Park is About to Become An Oil Field

Located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is both an important area for conservation, based on its rich diversity of wildlife, and a vital economic resource for the DRC. British oil company Soco International wants to look for oil in Virunga, even though drilling in the park would put critically endangered species at risk, and destroy the long-term economic growth of local populations.

In 2010, the Congolese government granted concessions to European companies to explore for oil in Virunga, despite the fact that oil exploration in Virunga violates both international and domestic laws. Fortunately, the government then withdrew permission in 2011. Even so, and despite international pressure, Soco International is planning to begin exploratory drilling in the park. If they do so, it will upend the livelihoods of local people, destroy a crucial wildlife habitat, and potentially worsen regional instability. Any profits from drilling would likely be limited to the international corporation and a handful of privileged Congolese citizens, none of whom live near the park.

Virunga is famous for its savannas, glaciers, forests, rivers, lakes, marshlands, and active and dormant volcanoes. The park hosts over 2,000 plant species, 218 mammal species, 706 bird species, and 109 reptile species. Its the only national park in the world that hosts mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas, and eastern chimpanzees (Virunga is home to 200 of the world’s estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas). Despite its status as a protected site, the park has already been threatened by armed poachers, deforestation, and regional conflicts.

With four national parks that are World Heritage sites, the DRC could be major destination for ecotourism. If the DRC were to stabilize politically, Virunga’s value could exceed $1.1 billion annually, and the park could be the source of 45,000 jobs. (Given the ongoing conflicts in the DRC, Virunga’s estimated annual economic value is presently only $48.9 million.)

In addition to threatening endangered species and precluding future ecotourism, pollution from exploratory drilling would directly threaten the local economy. Pollutants from exploratory drilling include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Local populations who depend on fisheries — approximately 30,000 locals benefit economically from legal fishing within the park, and an additional 20,000 benefit from economic activities linked to the fishing industry — and agriculture may lose their livelihoods if oil exploration is allowed Furthermore, exploratory wells can cause water contamination and respiratory infections. "Once you turn it into an oil field you sell it once and it's gone for good. It's going to get destroyed, polluted," said Raymond Lumbuenamo, DRC country director for the World Wildlife Fund. Local communities are unlikely to be compensated if pollution destroys the natural resources that they rely on.

Then there's the resource curse. Oil extraction often causes the prices of local goods to increase, but diverts profits to international corporations and specialized foreign workers. As a result, the lower-wage jobs that oil companies provide for locals make it increasingly hard to survive. Because oil profits tend to become concentrated in the hands of the few, oil exploration may also create a situation that's ripe for corruption. As such, oil exploration could further damage democratic institutions in the DRC, undermine efforts to end long-term conflicts, and cause a surge in activity from militant rebels in the region. Local civil society organizations fighting to protect Virunga have reported that the DRC’s military is already intimidating, arresting, and, in some cases, torturing environmental activists .

Soco International should follow the lead of French oil company Total and opt not to drill for oil in Virunga. Meanwhile, the government of the DRC should enforce local and international laws protecting the park. Justice demands that we leave Virunga pristine so that it can be managed by the Congolese people in a sustainable way that is profitable for local people for generations to come.