Congo’s Virunga gorilla national park under threat by oil companies

The government of the Congo DR has reaffirmed its dubious pedigree of being at best lukewarm towards conservation and at worst opposed to it for the motive of profit, when news broke that a preliminary oil exploration license was given to SOCO International for initial seismic tests and exploration drilling. The Kinshasa based regime had last year attempted to appease the global conservation fraternity, when news of their plans broke through insider leaks and whistleblowers, that absolutely no activity would be licensed before a comprehensive environmental impact study had been produced, only to now stand accused of having made deliberately misleading statements to garner favour with the international community keen to see Congo DR respect conservation treaties and best global practice. Conservation sources inside Eastern Congo have swiftly pointed out that to their knowledge UNESCO has not been informed nor granted permission following a laid down procedure the Congo DR government has to initiate to undertake any commercial activities inside the UNESCO World Heritage site while Congos own laws and regulations on environmental matters has been ignored and sidelined in favour of receiving massive concession payments now allegedly due to the cash starved regime in Kinshasa.
It is understood from impeccable sources in Goma that the company intends to establish at least one major base camp inside the Virunga National Park, one of the four mountain gorilla parks inside the border triangle of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo DR to the dismay of conservationists and in particular the various NGOs dealing with gorilla conservation.
The company is known to have advanced such frivolous arguments in the past that the presence of drilling and exploration teams would increase security, a submission instantly dismissed as an outrageous misrepresentation of facts, as any human presence in the park, other than strictly regulated tourist visitors, is seen as counterproductive to conservation efforts. A further massive intrusion into the fragile ecosystem, already disturbed enough by the regular presence of militia groups has raised the added spectrum of yet more peripheral activities counterproductive to conservation. There are fears that poaching will immediately increase and that the constant coming and going of vehicles to and from the various camps will make illegal activities easier to conceal.
Individuals contacted overnight, who deal in particular with the protection of gorillas, have expressed shock and disbelief that the Congo DR government could grant exploration licenses for this biodiversity hotspot, and denied SOCOs claims of widespread and intense consultations having taken place with concerned stakeholders including the transboundary cooperation partners.
Said one on condition of total anonymity: This constitutes a massive setback to efforts to conserve the environment for the mountain gorillas in a tripartite way. The three countries wildlife management bodies have been working hand in hand to reduce poaching, like with recent joint patrols between Rwandan and Congolese rangers, because of the massive increase in the detection of snares inside the park on the Congolese side. If an oil company or more are allowed inside the park it will disrupt the habitat of the gorillas. Population numbers have stabilized over the past years but only due to a big effort driven by the Rwandans and Ugandans. The gorillas continue to be a critically endangered species. Oil exploration is known to have big side effects. Even in Uganda the drilling companies were regularly accused of fueling poaching near their camps where a significant increase in poaching was seen. There at least is a rule of law but in Eastern Congo we still are faced with militias and regular fighting, illegal mining promoted by vested interest groups so oil exploration is just another nail in the coffin now. As you know I am quite involved here with gorilla conservation on a multilateral basis for the Greater Virunga area and this is raising alarm bells everywhere.
While in Rwanda later in the week this correspondent will follow up on the story with contacts in Kigali and Ruhengeri / Musanze to explore what options are left to wildlife managers and their colleagues in the conservation NGO fraternity and how international bodies, like UNESCO can be brought into a coalition to halt this assault on one of the worlds most scenic and diverse ecosystems. Watch this space as yet another saga evolves where the environment is assaulted in favour of development and progress now catch phrases for a card blanche to let the big business and vested interest juggernaut steamroll over environmental and conservation concerns.