Créé en 1925, et étendu sur 790.000 hectares, la Virunga est le plus ancien des parcs nationaux d’Afrique. Photo/Gorilla Doctors
Créé en 1925, et étendu sur 790.000 hectares, la Virunga est le plus ancien des parcs nationaux d’Afrique. Photo/Gorilla Doctors

Virunga National Park: Controversy about oil exploitation

English translation by community member irenelucia

Should oil be mined in Virunga National Park or not? It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This question is at the heart of lively debates among Congolese politicians, local and international NGOs, economic experts, and even governmental institutions.

The Congolese government aims to steer the country towards development in the medium term. To do so, the authorities of the DRC want to draw upon the country’s natural resources, among which are hydrocarbons. Certain oil deposits are found in sites of great biological and ecological value, like protected areas. The country’s laws –– notably the laws about the environment and nature conservation ––, as well as international laws ratified by the DRC, forbid extractive activities in these kinds of site. The case of Virunga National Park, in the east of the DRC, illustrates this contrast well.

In December 2007, the Congolese government granted oil concessions (Blocks III, IV and V) to European multinationals. Together, these concessions cover about 85% of Virunga National Park. The British oil company SOCO International PLC, which holds the license to Block V, is the only one to have conducted oil exploration. This block covers the entire part of Lake Edward that falls within Virunga National Park. Reacting to this allocation of oil blocks, national and international environmental and human rights organizations, as well as some partners of the DRC, mobilized to call for the total cancellation of these oil licenses.

What are our criticisms of this governmental decision?

“The production sharing contract signed by the DRC violates Congolese laws, like the law on nature conservation and the law concerning basic environmental principles that prohibits any extractive activity in a protected area; it also violates international laws signed by the country,” stated René Ngongo, President of the Environmental Committee of the DRC’s Economic and Social Council (quotation translated).

For Pascal Muko, of the NGO EST working in North Kivu, the oil mining project in Virunga National Park is an outright provocation of local communities, whose survival depends on the site. “We were not informed beforehand of the existence of a production sharing contract to Block V between our government and the SOCO oil company. The CLIP principle was not respected. The local community, depending on these natural resources, should have consented to this project before its implementation. This project was imposed on us. The life of the community that lives around Lake Edward is not negotiable. Never has there been oil mining without pollution in the world. We think that rational management of Virunga National Park would bring the government more revenue and for longer than oil mining, which doesn’t last more than 30 years,” concludes Pascal (quotation translated).

Despite all of these objections, the oil company obtained different authorizations, and in addition to aeromagnetic and aerogravimetric tests, it carried out seismic testing, with the supervision of an environmental and ecological monitoring committee established by the Minister of the Environment.

To compensate for their loss of income during the seismic testing, a sum of 187,000 USD was supposed to have been given to the fishers that were forbidden access to Lake Edward. “During SOCO’s oil exploration phase, we were prevented from accessing Lake Edward,” sighs Silvain Nganduli, a fisherman from Vishumbi, a fishing village in Virunga National Park. “Imagine what we had to endure with our families during this time without an alternative activity [to fishing]. And the compensation promised to our fisheries was never received”(quotations translated). Like Silvain, more than 50,000 people living in fishing areas around Lake Edward depend on its resources for their survival.

In October 2013, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) filed a complaint against SOCO with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), stipulating that the oil company did not respect the standards of social responsibility for international businesses. Following that complaint, in June 2014, SOCO pledged not to drill in Virunga National Park, unless the Congolese government and UNESCO authorized them to. “Certainly, SOCO suspended its activities, but as long as the oil license is not revoked, the threat of drilling will continue to hang over Virunga,” worries Gervais Kyambula, coordinator of the NGO MERVI(quotation translated).

Statements by Congolese politicians for a possible reclassification

In an interview with the BBC in March 2015, Prime Minister Matata Ponyo expressed the government’s willingness to negotiate with UNESCO to declassify a part of the Virunga National Park for the benefit of oil extraction.

Last August, the former Minister of hydrocarbons, Crispin Atama, said on Radio Okapi that SOCO suspended its activities to let the government –– the owner of the ground and of the underground, with permanent sovereignty over the park –– negotiate with World Heritage (UNESCO).

These statements by Congolese politicians show the government’s will to develop the resource. On the other hand, civil society actors that are opposed to oil exploitation are worried about the risk of changes to the current boundaries of Virunga National Park around Lake Edward. These boundaries would be modified for the benefit of oil extraction. “Such a change would result in disastrous consequences on the ecosystems and the economic opportunities that the park develops through the Virunga Alliance,” declared René Ngongo(quotation translated). UNESCO opposes oil extraction in the park. Since it was first suspected that there was oil in the park, UNESCO has repeatedly opposed the project, deemed incompatible with the status of the site.

Already, during the 34th session of World Heritage, the decision-making body of the Convention, in Brasilia, UNESCO was concerned about what consequences a potential oil extraction could have on the park’s ecosystems and biodiversity. Since then, and up until today, the World Heritage Committee has continually reiterated its requests to the Congolese government to revoke all oil exploration licenses inside the park.

When contacted, Luis Rodriguez, in charge of UNESCO’s World Heritage program in the DRC, reaffirmed the World Heritage Committee’s position, namely: oil and gas exploration and extraction are incompatible with the site’s World Heritage status; the site’s exceptional universal value must be strictly preserved. The Congolese people hold diverse opinions on UNESCO’s position on this.

The violation of Congolese laws and international conventions puts Congolese authorities and the entire country in an uncomfortable situation with regards to affected communities, civil society, and different partners and investors. If those who are supposed to uphold the law do not do so, then we are not far from falling into arbitrariness and instability.

“Virunga Park is a World Heritage site in the DRC. It is unacceptable to prevent the country from proceeding if it is just to evaluate the quality, quantity, and value of its resources,” economic expert Al Kitenge told InfoCongo (quotation translated). “When you know the value of your resources, you are in a position to raise capital to develop the country. That is the responsibility of Congolese politicians, who are accountable to Congolese citizens and not to NGOs. In Arctic waters, Western countries are currently testing to see how they can extract shale gas. This reality can be juxtaposed onto the Congolese reality,” he added (quotation translated).

Oil in Virunga, a divisive issue with several twists and turns

Much ink and much saliva has been spilt over the oil issue in Virunga. The case has seen several twists and turns, some of which could be seen as dillydallying on the part of the Congolese government. In 2010, SOCO launched the first preliminary investigations into oil exploration in Block V, without having first conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment. That same year, the conclusions on and proposals for its study of Block V were rejected by the ICCN (trad. Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) and then by the Ministry of the Environment. In 2011, following concerns expressed by UNESCO with regards to this project, the DRC suspended oil exploration in Virunga National Park.

In 2012, despite this pressure, the Congolese government granted SOCO a certificate of environmental acceptability for its campaign to acquire aeromagnetic and aerogravimetric data. The government’s reversal was perceived badly, which fueled diverse comments from stakeholders. The Virunga problem revealed discord even within governmental teams.

To illustrate, two departments of the Matata II government showed their divergent views on the Virunga oil problem in the press. The minister of the environment declared to Agence France-Presse that he is not favorable to oil in Virunga, whereas the minister of hydrocarbons reaffirmed the government’s desire to continue exploration on Radio Okapi.

Virunga National Park, driving force for development

Created in 1925 and spanning 790,000 hectares, Virunga is the oldest African national park. It is notably known for the chance to observe mountain gorillas in a natural setting and to climb the Nyiragongo volcano and the Ruwenzori mountains. Its diversity of habitat –– going from swamps and steppes going all the way to the snowfields of Ruwenzori, over 5,000 meters high, past the lava plains and the savannahs on the slopes of volcanoes –– makes this park an exceptional site, hosting a very large variety of plant and animal species. According to supporters of oil exploration, the Congolese government could use oil revenues to develop the country and thus reduce poverty and social inequalities.

The government of the DRC has never denied that Virunga is the most beautiful park in the world, able to attract lots of tourists and contribute to the Congolese economy. The government had the chance to assemble technicians who know methods and techniques for oil exploration and, as necessary, oil extraction, without destroying biodiversity. “Is reconciling protection and oil production only possible elsewhere, and not in the DRC?” asked the Honorable François Nzekuye, interviewed by Radio Okapi in Kinshasa (quotation translated).

Environmental groups criticize certain political leaders for only taking into account short-term interests.

The lifespan of an oil well ranges from 20 to 40 years. Must we really sacrifice this jewel of the earth for an unsustainable oil extraction project? It will not –– contrary to what many say –– create jobs, especially since the refining will not be done in the DRC. A few sentinels, a few drivers will be hired, but only a small slice of the Congolese population will benefit from this oil. When we talk about the economy, we must also talk about sustainability. The projects currently being implemented by the Virunga Alliance constitute a sustainable response for North Kivu province and its communities.

Not all oil reserves are suited to be extracted today, but we must know their value and we must be able to decide how to use them. The first option should be the constitution of securities to raise capital to contribute to the country’s development. If we know and have certified the value of our reserves, we can be sure –– even without extracting oil –– to borrow money to develop the country. And that is the responsibility of Congolese politicians.

The government should wait for the Strategic Environmental Assessment to be completed on the northern part of the Albertine Rift –– requested by the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development in 2011 since it can provide recommendations on the region’s best oil options.

Apparently, the question of oil extraction is a divisive one. This case will make it possible to define the future of nature conservation, and better yet, the future of the DRC’s protected areas. Between the short-term economic needs and the long-term conservation of natural resources, which is the country’s best option?


By Angélique Kasumbule and David Akana


Topic Environment