Oil exploration could be devastating to Africa’s most iconic national park — and its people.
The British company SOCO International has recently begun surveying for oil in Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Africa’s eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Virunga is home to a significant portion of the world’s roughly 880 remaining mountain gorillas. Although extracting oil from Virunga is prohibited by current DRC and international law, SOCO maintains its efforts are preliminary, exploratory, legal and designed to bring economic benefits and jobs to the people of DRC.
Our collective experiences in Africa and our direct knowledge of these specific circumstances compel us to another conclusion. This week the documentary Virunga premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and offers a vivid and troubling account of SOCO’s activities in a country where natural resources, conflict and human suffering are too often intertwined.
It is difficult to exaggerate the ecological and symbolic value of Virunga National Park. Established in 1925, it is Africa’s oldest national park, and at nearly two million acres, it is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth — containing more mammal, bird and reptile species than any other protected area on the African continent. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1979 because 190 countries agreed it deserved the world’s special protection.
It is also impossible to exaggerate the abject poverty and suffering of the people of the DRC, and most especially the one million people who live within one mile of Virunga’s borders. DRC, particularly the east, is incredibly rich in mineral wealth yet it consistently ranks at the bottom on every global measure of human development. Conflict and instability are the norm, and have been for decades, thanks to scores of armed groups sparking periodic violence and unrest. An estimated five million or more people have perished from conflict and its consequences over the last 15 years. Lasting peace will only come when there is a better alternative: economic development that benefits the many, not the few.
The three of us have long histories of supporting the protection of Africa’s unique natural resources, wildlife, habitats and its people. We have enormous respect for the role private investment can play in development. We see an opportunity in Virunga and elsewhere to go beyond traditional aid to help local economies grow. Notably, there is a well-considered economic plan for the region called the Virunga Alliance that the park’s own chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, has developed and the park’s director general has endorsed. It is already showing impressive progress.
So when we hear of an outside investor claiming that this time will be different and “the people” will benefit from their country’s riches, forgive us if we disagree, especially as these explorations are illegal according to DRC and international law. The more likely scenario is a handful of people will get rich from SOCO’s activities. The vast majority of Congolese will continue to suffer, and the world will be complicit in initiating the slippery slope of subjugating a World Heritage designation for profit.
While carefully planned development of natural resource extraction has the potential to transform the Congolese economy, successful implementation requires a new way of doing business in DRC. It requires transparency and adherence to the law.
The UK government, to its credit, has been unequivocal in its opposition to oil exploration in Virunga, urging SOCO to respect DRC’s laws and urging the DRC government “to fully respect the international conventions of which it is a signatory.” The UK government is right to hold the actions of a UK company accountable when those actions will have a devastating impact on vulnerable populations and critically endangered species, regardless of where they live. We urge the global community to embrace this same basic premise. We are not just saying “no” to development; the Virunga Alliance plan includes development of renewable natural resources from the park to create thousands of jobs and invest profits back into park operations while supporting critical infrastructure development for local communities. In fact, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation has supported the construction of three clean, carbon-neutral hydropower facilities. The electricity will attract investments in agribusiness. Already one of these ventures has attracted a palm nut oil processing plant and a papaya enzyme extraction facility. The Alliance is also working to develop ecotourism, much as Rwanda successfully did after the genocide.
In a region where huge numbers of people have little hope for a brighter economic future, these are the kinds of development plans that trigger a virtuous cycle. Legal wages diminish the appeal of activities such as illegal poaching of endangered species or destruction of forests for fuel. When people have a shared interest in an asset, they will protect it. Virunga National Park is a unique asset that could, if utilized correctly, be an economic development engine. We believe it is important for the Congolese to chart a development path that benefits the majority, not a privileged few, and above all else, enforce its own laws.
The government of DRC bears ultimate responsibility for promoting its people’s best interests, and we welcome every opportunity to support such efforts. It is, however, difficult to understand how oil exploration in a fragile region like Virunga is a plan that is in the Congolese people’s best interests.
The 190 countries — including the DRC — that have pledged to adhere to the World Heritage Conventions have an obligation to speak up now and enforce the commitment made 35 years ago to protect Virunga, an “irreplaceable source of life and inspiration… that belongs to all the peoples of the world.”