Virunga National Park, classified as a World Heritage site sits amongst the Rwenzori Mountains on the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Its spectacular features include its most well known residents, hippos and mountain gorillas. It is believed to have more biological diversity than any other protected area in Africa, no doubt in large part due to its mountain forests, wetlands, savanna grassland, volcanoes and lakes.
Created by Belgian King Albert in 1925, the park has witnessed many tragedies and harbored much crime including heavy poaching, hunting, illegal mining and more.
More recently, in 2010, the DRC government defied international criticism to allocating 85 per cent of the park to oil interests. Oil and gas exploration company Soco, an offshoot of Snyder Oil Corporation in the U.S. believes that reserves currently being explored by several companies over the border in Uganda extend into the park.
More controversially, Soco claims that the oil, which is thought to be mostly under and around Lake Edward, can be extracted from Virunga without doing environmental harm. And the company suggests that its activities can “help raise living standards for local communities to levels sufficient to reduce their pressure and negative impacts on the protected area.” So far Soco says that it has improved a road, built a medical center, and installed a mobile phone mast at Nyakakoma, one of three legal fishing villages in the park.
The DRC government, whose state oil company has a 15% stake in the enterprise, reiterated its support for the oil exploration in a statement in March. This support extends to the government agency in charge of the park, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), which issued a permit to Soco allowing the oil-exploration activity.
The ICCN’s best-known employee, de Merode, has in the past publicly voiced opposition to exploiting oil in the park. But back in the capital city of Kinshasa, his bosses have issued Soco a permit to work there — effectively an exemption from a 1969 national law banning resource exploitation in national parks — and received a fee for doing so. Under DRC law, the ICCN is permitted to issue exemptions not only for scientific studies but also for projects deemed to be in the wider national interest.
Whatever the politics in the DRC, internationally there is little support for the idea of seeking oil in an iconic national park that was elevated to the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. UNESCO warned in 2011 of the “extremely harmful repercussions of this type of activity for the outstanding universal value of Virunga National Park.”