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Congo’s rainforests and mountain gorillas face oil exploration threat

The Congolese UNESCO site, home of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, faces exploitation by British oil company

The Virunga National Park is home to some 200 mountain gorillas (pic: flickr, thestitcherati)

 

By Sophie Yeo

The Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is under threat from oil exploration.

British oil company Soco International intends to undertake an exploration of the park for oil, in spite of the fact that it is both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The park is also home to about 200 critically endangered mountain gorillas. According to the DRC Ministry of Environment, it contains “more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area in Africa, and possibly the world.”

It also has an important role to play in climate change mitigation, due to its role in generating rainfall. Deforestation would lead to changes in the rain patterns of the region. The loss of natural forests is responsible for 15-20% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions globally.

In 2007, the DRC government granted oil concessions to a handful of companies, covering 85% of the land in the park. Of these, Soco is the only one that announced its intention to explore for oil within the park boundaries.

Last year, another of the companies granted concessions, Dominion Petrolium, transferred its 45.75% interest to Soco, while the French oil company Total agreed to not to prospect for oil in the area in response to calls from UNESCO and the UK government to respect any international conventions relating to the National Park.

The law in the DRC currently prohibits any activities incompatible with the protection of nature, but Soco has managed to gain its authorisation through exploiting the loophole that allows “scientific activities” in protected areas.

Economics

To try to convince the government and stakeholders to prevent further oil exploration from going ahead, WWF have released a report which calculates the economic value of the park when maintained as a sustainable resource.

“Our core argument is that the DRC government essentially has a choice,” says George Smeeton, a spokesman for WWF.

He told RTCC, “They could go ahead and allow oil drilling in the park, or the alternative is using the park sustainably, so we tried to put numbers on what value the park has being used as a sustainable resource.”

The report finds that the current value of Virunga is approximately $48.9 million, but that in a more stable situation, the park could increase in value to more than $1.1 billion per year. This value would be made up through factors tourism, fisheries and carbon sequestration.

Smeeton says that the report is important in convincing governments and particularly investors that putting their money into further gas and oil exploration would be a mistake.

Specifically he says it’s vital to explain the “carbon bubble” theory that if the world is going to stay beneath the 2C warming limit, much of the fossil fuel reserves held by companies are essentially impossible to exploit, and therefore massively overvalued.

“If you’re talking about investing in oil and gas exploration in increasingly risky areas like Virunga National Park or in the Arctic, what is driving that is investors who are putting up the money,” he said.

“If the world is serious about tackling climate change, and policies are going to be put in place to try and cut carbon emissions and force a shift in investment away from high carbon fuels to renewables, then actually they’re risking those investments, risking having stranded assets, and risking pumping money into a bubble which is going to deflate rapidly in the not too distant future.”

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  • emptyend

    I think investors know all about the risks – I am one of them. What I find impossible to understand is why the WWF persists in misrepresenting a preliminary assessment of possible resources as being injurious to gorillas living tens on miles away and why the WWF refuses to recognise that is the responsibility and right of the elected sovereign government in the DRC to decide whether or not to allow any further work to assess whether there may be any meaningful resource there.
    The WWF do not help their case one iota by misrepresenting the situation.

    • Jade Simmons

      Even though the assessment is preliminary, it is naive to think that any kind of oil exploration would not be detrimental to the mountain gorillas or the surrounding environment. Mountain gorillas have a large home range and one study by Robbins&McNeilage (2003) showed that in Bwindi National Park Uganda that the home range across the 3 year study for the mountain gorillas was a combined 40.2 km2. In addition noise disturbances from the exploration will also potentially cause edge effects reducing further the area available for the mountain gorillas. The WWF does not refuse to understand the role of governing bodies in such matters but simply reveals how such companies are underhandedly trying to undermine international legalisation such as UNESCO world heritage sites to benefit themselves. The WWF try their best to ensure all the facts are laid out (unlike many lucrative companies) for the public to come to their own conclusions, They also do very well at educating the public in regard to international wildlife conservation and potential threats however it does seem like they may need to work harder with some people.

      .

      • MadDutch

        This is the second time I have had to say this;

        Do you know about the catastrophic decline of the hippo population, and of the failure of the WWF, the self appointed custodian of the Park and its wildlife (which presumably includes hippos), to prevent it?

        The WWF is exposing itself to an unfit for purpose challenge. Less time wasted posturing to the media with flawed and unscientific claims, and more time devoted to mammals which have the misfortune to be less attractive than gorillas, is needed.

        A change of management could help encourage a more ethical mindset.

      • MadDutch

        Jade Simmons, I am challenging you to show this forum how the assessment is detrimental to the gorillas or the environment. I ask because I suspect you do not know what you are posting about. You could start by describing the actual assessment,