Virunga still under siege: Oil disaster looming for Africa’s Oldest National Park

Virunga still under siege: Oil disaster looming for Africa’s Oldest National Park


The name alone inspires myriad emotive images: heart of Africa, endangered gorillas, impenetrable jungles, iconic wildlife, vivid cultures, political corruption, genocidal wars, mineral riches, desperate poverty and now, oil.

This drama and wonder is embodied in the microcosm of Virunga National Park, a small but crucial part of the Democratic Republic of Congo bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s first protected area and hosts the planet’s most diverse range of terrestrial ecosystems.

Virunga was once paradise. It survives today against shocking odds. But many predict that, if oil is extracted, Virunga will become a hell on earth.

Cat Holloway, for the African Conservation Foundation, explores how drilling for oil in Virunga could change everything – and not only in Africa. 

Virunga is home to a quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, the largest population of hippopotami and the endangered okapi, endemic to Congo’s forests. Virunga spans savanna and rainforest, hot springs and snowy summits, active volcanoes and lakes supporting more than 50 species of fish as well as migratory and perennial birds such as the outlandish shoebill stork. Virunga’s 790,000 hectare habitat was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979.

But Virunga is also home to human beings. According to a 2013 WWF commissioned report on Virunga’s economic value, more than 3 million people live within a days’ walk of the park boundary and 97% of those households depend on timber and charcoal from forests for energy production. Around 20,000 people and even more head of cattle live inside the park and Lake Edward’s water and fish stocks supports 50,000 people. Virunga has been at the centre of brutal recent rebel uprisings as well as providing a haven for refugees from the Rwandan genocide. Park wardens face relentless pressure from poachers, pastoralists and militant groups such that, in just 15 years, 140 park rangers, armed environmental soldiers, have died defending Virunga. Across the DR Congo, almost 6 million people have died since war broke out in 1996 – the bloodiest war since World War II. But a conflict barely acknowledged by the rest of the world.

Virunga National Park epitomizes the struggle between human development and nature conservation. Even as the noise of civil war quietens, the clamour of seismic today tests clears a path for the oil industry to prevail over wildlife preservation. But, against the odds, many refuse to abandon Virunga’s vision as a place of peace and sanctuary for all those who depend upon it.

Black Gold

“All over the world, the lives of people are affected and the destinies of nations are determined by the result of oil explorations.” Nigerian OPEC minister Chief M.O. Feyide said in his 1987 speech Oil in World Politics.

DR Congo’s destiny depends on the results of oil exploration being carried out right now in Virunga National Park by the British oil and gas company, SOCO, at the enthusiastic invitation of the government of the DRC. But detractors and critics of the plan abound from the fishing settlements around Lake Edward to the meeting halls of the United Nations where one question is posed: What would oil drilling really do to Virunga?

SOCO is a comparatively small oil company with a business strategy that gambles on big returns from risky locations in which it is cheaper to operate. This in contrast to oil giant, TOTAL, who has pledged not to exploit resources within Virunga’s boundaries – or indeed any World Heritage listed territories. The DRC and SOCO were steadfast in their goal to find oil in the iconic conservation area. They claimed oil would bring economic prosperity and, consequently, political stability to the fragile, recovering region.

“We’re going to evaluate the quantity of the deposit. If it’s very significant we’ll compare the value of the park with the oil… We’ll see whether we’ll respect the park or not. It’s up to us,” said DRC hydrocarbons minister Crispin Atama Tabe to Reuters in 2012.

SOCO promotes a strict anti-corruption policy of “openness, transparency and cooperation” and assures shareholders on its website that engagement with the Lake Edward and Virunga community has been “very positive”. However, SOCO deputy CEO, Roger Cagle, recently told National Geographic correspondent, Jon Rosen, that “the timbre and clamor of the people who are against this boggles my mind.”

On June 11, one month from the scheduled end of SOCO’s seismic exploration phase in Lake Edward, the company announced it would cease operations – after testing was complete. The announcement happened in partnership with conservation group, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who applied particular pressure with a formal complaint against SOCO under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Guidelines (OECD) for Multinational Enterprises. The company’s commitment came following mediation between the two parties as part of this complaint process.

Conservationists declared a massive win. But many locals and activists knew that, in fact, nothing had changed. SOCO neither altered any of its activities, nor did it repair any of the damage done to community relationships during the company’s controversial involvement around Lake Edward. But they successfully aligned themselves with a well-known international conservation organisation and diverted negative public attention away from their operations by placing the responsibility for future decisions on the DRC government and UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

Virunga is already (since 1994) on the World Heritage Committee’s “danger list” due to detrimental poaching, human encroachment, overfishing, civil war and illegal harvesting of fuel wood. If the results of the seismic survey reveal a likely oil bounty, this would provide much needed ammunition for the DRC government to argue the merits of reducing the boundaries of the national park to or even to have Virunga’s World Heritage status stripped. This would leave the region even more vulnerable to the pressures and pollution of oil extraction. Currently the main obstacle to oil drilling in Virunga is the World Heritage Convention that prohibits oil exploration in a World Heritage Site due to risks to the environment and local communities.

SOCO pledged one million dollars in “social programmes” and listed among its contributions to the Lake Edward community repairs to roads and the installation of a communications mast. The company stated a firm belief that drilling for oil in Virunga would raise living standards in local communities by creating jobs, “upskilling” the population and establishing “regulation and governance infrastructure”.

However, history has proven the opposite is likely. The Resource Curse (or Paradox of Plenty) describes the phenomenon of countries with the most abundant natural resources having the lowest economic growth. Specifically, countries exploiting rich reserves of non-renewables like minerals and fuel have the poorest populations. The DRC still depends on aid for about one-third of its GDP, despite vast mineral wealth that has been tapped for several hundred years.

According to the latest Africa Progress Report (2013) which lists DRC as a victim of the resource curse, “natural resource wealth should strengthen economic growth, provide governments with an opportunity to support human development, and create employment. In practice, it has often led to poverty, inequality and violent conflict.”

Brussels-based think tank, The International Crisis Group (ICG), whose mission is to prevent conflict worldwide, warned in 2012 that drilling for oil in war-torn Eastern DRC represents a “real threat to stability” and would “exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics”.

ICG cited the lack of clearly defined borders between DRC and Uganda and Rwanda in the Great Lakes region as likely to re-ignite clashes when exploration commences.

“Exploration is taking place in disputed areas where ethnic groups are competing for territorial control and the army and militias are engaged in years of illegally exploiting natural resources,” states the ICG report, Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?

“Given that the Kivus are high-risk areas, oil discovery could aggravate the conflict.

“Moreover, confirmation of oil reserves in the Central Basin and the east could feed secessionist tendencies in a context of failed decentralisation and financial discontent between the central government and the provinces.”

The ICG report recommended various reforms and a moratorium on oil exploration until unstable eastern areas are secured. It said the DRC government was ignoring the problem and failing to communicate with neighbouring governments.

“In a context of massive poverty, weak state, poor governance and regional insecurity, an oil rush will have a strong destabilising effect unless the government adopts several significant steps regionally and nationally to avert such a devastating scenario.”

First Casualties

Some say war has already erupted. On April 15, 2014, armed men shot and seriously wounded Virunga National Park director, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian national who is passionately against oil drilling in Virunga. Although who shot de Mérode and why is yet to be established.

The first casualties of clashes between DRC/SOCO and those opposing oil exploration and extraction in Virunga have been truth and freedom of speech. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation found that several park rangers and activists have been detained by authorities and threatened or assaulted after criticizing plans for oil exploration in Virunga.

Within a week of de Mérode’s shooting, three anti-oil activists reported receiving threatening text messages including: “Don’t believe that just because we failed to get your director that we are going to fail to get you.”

And: “You think that by writing you’re going to prevent us from extracting oil. You are going to die for nothing like de Mérode.”

The HRW investigation revealed that anti-oil campaigners and conservationists have reported receiving similarly menacing phone calls. Farmers participating in an organised protest march demonstrating against SOCO’s plans were detained and beaten and had computers confiscated. A Lake Edward fisherman, who addressed a public meeting to warn residents around the lake that fishing could be closed in some areas while seismic testing went ahead, was summoned to the DRC National Intelligence Agency.

“They told me I was behaving badly, and they said it was a matter of the state. I shouldn’t act like a hero, and I risk having my head cut off,” the fisherman/activist said.

According to HRW, victims and witnesses allege the Congolese government and military officials are responsible for the threats. But Virunga rangers have claimed in the HRW report that SOCO representatives tried to bribe them to promote SOCO’s plan to local people and help “facilitate the company’s activities”. In a film documentary, Virunga, released just days after the attack on de Mérode, footage from 2012 shows SOCO contractors attempting to bribe park staff to gain access for SOCO operations. SOCO heads say the company has nothing to do with reported threats, violence, or bribery, and has vowed to investigate the incidents.

A Virunga National Park investigation found that a SOCO representative paid a senior park official several thousand dollars over several months to support SOCO’s activities. The official told park rangers that they would be fired if they did not support SOCO. Findings from this three-year investigation were submitted to a Congolese prosecutor in Goma on April 15, hours before de Mérode was shot.

Energy versus Environment

Apart from the closeness of oil operations to sensitive areas such as active volcanoes and mountain gorilla forests, if Virunga loses protection as a National Park or World Heritage Site, then so do the gorillas, okapi, elephants, chimpanzees and hippos. When the air, water, soil and food are polluted, the entire ecosystem faces collapse.

If such dire predictions sound overstated, consider the impact of oil drilling in the Niger Delta, a region that provides stark warning to DRC after five decades of oil industry. Approximately 1.5 million tons of oil has been spilled within the Niger Delta region, most of which was only partially cleaned leaving some areas “wastelands”.

A UN published report, The Adverse Impacts of Oil Pollution on the Environment, stated:

“Unfortunately, the history of oil exploitation in Ogoni (in Nigeria) is like the history of oil pollution as the commencement of oil exploration and exploitation was followed almost immediately with the three major causes of oil pollution namely, the impact of the seismic survey, gas flaring and oil spills.”

The report details the “complete destruction of ecosystems”. Mangrove forests disappeared, over taken by noxious nypa palms, the rainforest was replaced by roads and building development, wildlife was driven away or killed and farmlands left barren. Toxic crude covered plants rendering them unable to photosynthesize while microbial organisms which form important groups in the food web were also destroyed.

More than 70% of the water in the Niger Delta contains the carcinogen Benzo(a)pyrene at levels above the World Health Organisation save level for drinking water. This means that the level in sediments on which fish and other aquatic creatures feed is even higher. Consequently, people eating the marine animals are ingesting even greater concentrations. The Ogoni people have experienced an increase in cancer, respiratory illnesses, gastro-intestinal disorders and skin disease as well as nutritional problems from poor diet.

When oil spills or when there is an effluent discharge or acid rain, it seeps into the ground and becomes mixed in the underground water system. This underground water moves into streams and wells supplying communities.

Closer to Virunga, oil extraction has polluted Bas Congo through broken pipelines, gas flaring and waste dumping. As reported in WWF’s report, The Economic Value of Virunga’s National Park, an oil spill in Nzenzi Siansitu’s swamp and river system left a 1.5m thick slick of coagulate oil on the water’s surface. The decimation of several fish species near toxic waste dumps in Kongo and Tshiende led to protest marches. Locals also complained of chronic coughing and infections from gas flaring claiming that two out of four people who die in Moanda (the location of Bas Congo’s coastal oil terminal) die of lung problems.

Drilling close to Virunga’s eight volcanoes could cause more volcanic activity if an Indonesian parallel applies. In 2006, 30,000 people were displaced and 10,000 homes destroyed after an eruption that 74 geologists agreed was caused by oil and gas drilling when a well failed. That volcano is expected to continue erupting for 25-30 years.

A representative from a Farmers Alliance Union near Virunga called Bas Congo “an unprecedented environmental disaster” after he visited a tanker and found dried vegetation and fish that “stunk like oil”

“The Virunga National Park, this wonder of our world, is our pride, our source of life. We will never agree to this environmental destruction on a large scale.”

Beyond Virunga

Outside Africa, the powerful nations and individuals who support the park’s preservation are so many that it seems Virunga is no longer the domain of the DRC or even of Africa. Virunga plays a vital global role.

SOCO’s Roger Cagle infuriated Belgian MP, Georges Dallemagne, when he wrote in a letter that Virunga was already so ravaged by war, poaching and deforestation that any adverse effect of oil exploration would be relatively insignificant.

Dallemagne replied, outraged that a company that claimed to act responsibly would use such reasoning.

“The current fragility of the park requires absolute abandonment of any additional risk to its future,” Dallemagne wrote.

There are five World Heritage Sites in DR Congo and all of them are on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger. Almost one quarter of all of Africa’s World Heritage Sites are also on that list. UNESCO has stated that oil extraction is “incompatible” with Virunga’s World Heritage status and called on the DRC government to cancel oil permits within Virunga’s boundaries. UNESCO (former) Director General Koichiro Matsuura said Virunga has “outstanding universal value” and needed the “entire international community to ensure its protection”.

Indeed, Virunga’s World Heritage status may be the only hope for the people and wildlife of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Free from the threat of oil, Virunga can be a continuing source of hope for the people of DRC… with proper investment this park can become a leading economic driver for its communities,” said Raymond Lumbuenamo, Country Director of WWF-DRC.

“This is the moment for the international community to support DRC to help us bring lasting change that will ensure Africa’s first national park remains the mother park of Africa.”

Orlando von Einsiedel, producer of the documentary film, Virunga, points out that only 0.05% of the world’s surface is a World Heritage site.

“If we can’t protect those, what does it say for the Great Barrier Reef, for Yellowstone, for Yosemite?”

Virunga – Official Trailer 2014 from Grain Media on Vimeo.


Can all the desperate and varied needs be met in Virunga? Park director, Emmanuel de Mérode believes so. In the Virunga Alliance – a long term plan to develop sustainable energy, agriculture and fishing alongside tourism – he has the support not only of his countrymen but also of influential donors such as billionaire Howard Buffet. Buffet funded a $20 million 12.6 megawatt hydroelectric plant to provide low-cost electricity to the region as well as provide income to the park.

Buffett admits this is “high-risk philanthropy”. Two other investors backed away and Buffett paid the entire bill. But, with difficult experience in Rwanda and Sudan behind him, he believes the Democratic Republic of Congo has no choice if it wants to save Virunga from the onslaught of guerrillas, poachers, charcoal traders and Big Oil.

It’s a war,” Buffett said. “It’s a war to save something you can’t replace anywhere else in the world, and it’s a war to try to bring peace to millions of people who have suffered as much or more than anybody else in this world.”

Author: Cat Holloway
Guest Conservation Reporter