THREATS TO THE SURVIVAL OF THE VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK LINKED TO OIL INTERESTS
(Posted 10th June 2014)
The threats to the Virunga National Park and individual staff appear to continue unabated following the assassination attempt on Chief Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode in mid-April this year. Shot several times, as he was enroute back to his office from a reported meeting with prosecutors in Goma, where he is said to have handed over a dossier on the involvement of an oil company prospecting inside the park, a meeting the prosecutor’s office later said never took place, Merode survived and has since resumed his duties at the park amid more and more reports of increased coercion of staff and threats against their and their families’ lives.
SOCO, the British oil exploration company in the cross hairs of the conservation fraternity, predictably issued a statement soon after the shooting, disowning and disassociating themselves from it and denouncing all forms of corruption but stories emerging from the ground suggest a different reality for those in the frontline of defending the park’s integrity and character. TOTAL, the French oil giant, has already made a public announcement last year that they would not prospect inside the Virunga National Park, home to some 200 of the remaining mountain gorillas in the wider Virunga area, which includes Uganda and Rwanda. Rich in biodiversity, which goes way beyond the primates, has half of the park’s territory been included in the so called Block 5 which was awarded by the Kinshasa regime to SOCO for oil prospecting. This was done in total disregard of the fact that the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which prohibits any commercial exploration and exploitation of resources above and underground, unless sanctioned by UNESCO under very strict guidelines and constant supervision. Lame excuses that ‘scientific research’ is permitted under the UNESCO rules is thought to be far-fetched as the spirit of such a clause is meant to be for true scientific research on flora and fauna and not for commercial research such as finding potential oil sources, leaving the company and the regime with more egg on their faces. And it is those exploration teams, and their security details, which are alleged to have constant run ins with rangers and local communities, using coercion and threats and reportedly singling out park rangers known to have strict ethical standards, individuals who forego a bribe and rather arrest suspects. Threats made by mobile phone from anonymous numbers go hand in hand with written and verbal messages delivered, all clearly warning people to stay out of the way of the oil prospecting. Growing consensus is that SOCO will find it increasingly difficult to disassociate itself from such blatant arm twisting and strong arming of locals and rangers, as they are the ultimate beneficiaries should the threats work, which thankfully, for now, they do not.
Thankfully have international media started to pick up the story and are looking into the deeper background of the problems surrounding the Virungas, and while the culprits who shot Merode may never be found and their identity and those of the masterminds behind the assassination attempt may remain in the shadows and they might never be brought to justice, the people on the ground, in particular the conservation fraternity, have their mind made up who the main suspects are. It comes as no surprise that it is a four letter word which is springing up left right and centre when discussing the shooting, a damning indictment of both the regime and those seeking riches at the expense of bio diversity, conservation and local community development all of which Merode and his team have written in stone by their daily actions. Watch this space for breaking and regular conservation news from the wider Eastern African region.