Is Africa’s Oldest Park Finally Safe From Oil Drillers?

In a surprise move, British oil giant Soco International PLC said this week that it would stop exploring for oil in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The announcement came after years of campaigning by the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups who claimed that the risks posed to the park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — far outweighed the potential profits of oil exploration.

In October, the World Wildlife Fund (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). Last month, while WWF and Soco were in the midst of mediation guided by the U.K. government, Soco began conducting seismic testing in the park to the dismay of conservationists.

But now the company is reversing course, after an intense week of mediation in London and pressure from the British government, UNESCO, and public figures such as Richard Branson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Howard Buffett. WWF also collected nearly 800,000 signatures petitioning the company to stop its operations in the park. WWF has agreed to drop its case against Soco in return for the company’s withdrawal.

Mountain gorilla mother with her baby. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Mountain gorilla mother with her baby. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

“Today is a victory for our planet and for good practices in business. This success is the work of government officials, activists within DRC and supporters worldwide who joined together to help remove the most immediate threat to Virunga,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International in a statement on the group’s website. “Now is the time for the DRC government to reaffirm its conviction that Virunga has outstanding universal value for all humanity by cancelling all oil concessions overlapping the park as requested by UNESCO.”

Soco has agreed to wrap up its seismic testing over the next 30 days and to not conduct any other operations in the park unless the U.N. cultural body and the Congolese government say it would not jeopardize Virunga’s World Heritage status. The oil firm also agreed to stay out of other UNESCO sites.

Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, established back in 1925, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. 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, almost mythical looking 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 [fossil fuel exploration] for the outstanding universal value of Virunga National Park.”

An Okapi, sometimes referred to as a “forest giraffe.”
An Okapi, sometimes referred to as a “forest giraffe.”

This victory for the park has been years in the making. 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 was within Virunga park boundaries. While other major oil companies granted concessions, such as the French firm Total, publicly pledged to stay out of the park, Soco time and time again indicated that it intended to go ahead with exploration in the lowland savanna area around Lake Edward, the center of local fisheries.

As seismic testing began last April, violence erupted in the park. The park’s chief warden was shot, and two WWF staff members received death threats for speaking out against oil exploration.

In 2013, a report commissioned by WWF estimated that Virunga could be worth $1.1 billion per year if developed sustainably through ecotourism, fisheries, and hydropower, rather than being given over to potentially-damaging oil extraction. The report also highlighted the potential for the creation of 45,000 permanent jobs without harm to the environment.