Two World Wildlife Fund (WWF) staff members have received death threats for speaking out against oil exploration in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
WWF reported on Monday that unidentified callers had threatened the personal safety of two of their employees who work in Goma, DRC.
“We want his head,” was one of the specific threats made to WWF. Another caller said that while they had missed killing the park’s chief warden, they would not miss WWF’s employee.
WWF reports that threats and intimidation have been on the rise since the park’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode was ambushed and shot multiple times last month.
The recent violence and threats of violence come as the U.K.-based oil firm Soco begins a month of seismic testing around Lake Edward in the park. The park is no stranger to conflict, the militia groups like the Hutu-led Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Tutsi M23 group are known to control parts of the park. One hundred and fifty two park rangers have been killed in the past twenty years.
Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, established back in 1925, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. However, in 2006, the DRC government signed a production sharing agreement with the U.K.-based Soco International PLC for an oil concession of 7,500 square kilometers — the majority of which is within Virunga park boundaries. Some oil companies that have been granted concessions, such as the French firm Total, have publicly pledged to stay out of the park. Yet Soco has indicated that it intends to go ahead with exploration in the lowland savanna area around Lake Edward, the park’s largest lake. Lake Edward is also the center of local fisheries.
The DRC government has a 15-percent stake in the project.
The park is home to one quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas, and the largest known population of hippos as well as the rare Okapi. It is believed to have more biological diversity than any other protected area on the continent.
In 2010, UNESCO publicly warned of the “extremely harmful repercussions of this type of activity for the outstanding universal value of Virunga National Park.”
WWF has also been one of the most outspoken critics of Soco’s plan to exploit the park’s oil resources.
In October, WWF formally complained to the U.K. government that Soco’s plans to explore in Virunga violated business guidelines laid out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). WWF and Soco are supposedly in the midst of mediation guided by the U.K. government, but the companies decision to go ahead with seismic testing has been seen as undermining the foundation of the talks.
“The process of finding, extracting and transporting oil is a messy business,” Allard Blom, managing director of the Congo Basin for WWF told ThinkProgress back in August, as the organization was publishing a report showing that the value of the undeveloped park was over $1 billion. “Just look at what happened in the Niger Delta and the systematic air, water and soil contamination that plagues the area. These companies aren’t hiring locals to do this level of work, no one but the company and some government officials appear to profit and the industry fuels violence as much as anything else, in these politically unstable areas.”
“You don’t need to drill to make money off this area and drilling isn’t immune to the security issues which affect tourism,” added Blom, “It will just lower the value of this place for anything other than fossil fuel extraction.”