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Baby Mountain Gorilla, Virunga National Park. Photo: Bradford Duplisea - www.duplisea.ca.

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Virunga National Park. Photo: Bradford Duplisea - www.duplisea.ca.

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UNESCO demands - end oil drilling in Virunga

The Ecologist

19th May 2014

A UNESCO mission to Virunga, home to 200 Mountain gorillas, has demanded an end to oil exploitation in the National Park, which it describes as 'extremely threatened'. London-based Soco International began seismic testing in the Park last month.

It will be important to urgently address the threats to the integrity of the site and in particular halt new encroachment and ensure that no oil exploitation goes ahead inside the property.

The United Nations agency that oversees World Heritage Sites has issued an urgent appeal for the end of oil exploration in Virunga National Park.

After a field mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) property, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported its concerns over the prospect of petroleum extraction in the park, which is home to the greatest variety of plants and animals in Africa:

"The fact that the State Party is pushing ahead with oil exploration inside the property and that the Minister for Hydrocarbons has announced that if economically viable oil reserves are found inside the property, exploitation will go ahead, is of extreme concern.

"Any oil exploitation inside the property would seriously affect its integrity. It is recommended that the Committee welcome the statement by TOTAL that it will not explore for oil inside natural World Heritage sites and reiterate its appeal to the company SOCO to make a similar commitment."

Seismic testing is already under way

London-based oil company Soco International PLC began seismic testing in the park's Lake Edward last month despite repeated objections from the UK government.

"Soco is putting in jeopardy the future of 50,000 families that depend on Virunga's Lake Edward for their jobs, food and fresh water. Drilling could destroy forever this extraordinary place that has survived so much", said Zach Abraham of WWF International.

"The world should not stand by and allow Africa's oldest national park to become its newest oil field. Soco should abandon its plans to explore for oil in Virunga and come into compliance with corporate social responsibility standards before the issue goes before the World Heritage Committee."

On UNESCO's 'World Heritage in Danger' list

Virunga was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1979 as one of the first properties recognized in Africa as having outstanding universal natural value that should be preserved for future generations.

The Park is best known for its population of critically endangered mountain gorillas and for its active volcanoes. WWF has worked on forest, freshwater and wildlife conservation in Virunga for 40 years and supports its heroic rangers, of which more than 140 have died in the line of duty.

The threats to the park, including oil, will be discussed at the World Heritage Committee, which meets next month in Doha, Qatar. At the meeting, the committee will take into consideration recommendations from its expert bodies and issue a decision.

Last year the group called for the cancelation of Virunga's petroleum exploration permits. A draft committee decision for this year repeats that call and urges state parties to the World Heritage convention "to do their utmost to ensure that the mining or petroleum companies established on their territories do not damage World Heritage properties."

A proliferation of threats

Virunga is also at risk due to

  • Poaching of wildlife, which remains a significant problem, mainly affecting populations of large mammals in the savannas;
  • Difficulties in securing the 650 km long boundary of the Park;
  • Massive influx of 1 million refugees occupying adjacent parts of the Park;
  • Widespread depletion of forests in the lowlands, with approximately 4% of the property now occupied by agriculture and human settlements;
  • Continuing security problems, with at least 9 different armed groups active in and around the property.


Last month Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode narrowly survived being shot four times in an ambush.

Potential for recovery

"Given the threats and the limited progress in implementing the corrective measures", the UNESCO mission concluded that the Park remains "extremely threatened". But its report adds:

"However, as no single species has been lost, and in particular given the connectivity with the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, the potential for recovery is still present.

"Nevertheless, it will be important to urgently address the threats to the integrity of the site and in particular halt new encroachment and ensure that no oil exploitation goes ahead inside the property."

 

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