The Serengeti, Kruger — to most westerners, these are the iconic parks of Africa, resplendent in waist-high golden grasses and pulsing with elephants, lions, rhinos and giraffes. But in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, lies a less known park, Virunga. It is Africa’s oldest and most diverse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But now, this “Yellowstone of Africa” is threatened by a handful of oil companies that own concessions in the protected area.
If the name Virunga, doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because the park has suffered through the same cyclical violence as the rest of the country over the past 25 years, and has often been closed to tourists. Anyone visiting the park in the last few years has almost certainly had their tour guided by a group of M23 rebels. Tourists do still come to the park despite its closure and precarious security, though, because Virunga is home to over 200 mountain gorillas, more hippos than any other park on the continent, and the rare and almost mystical-looking okapi which looks like a horse that put on zebra pants and knee-high white socks.
In a new report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, Dalberg Global Development Advisors, estimate the potential value of the park — if protected from oil exploration — is over 1.1 billion dollars and an additional 45,000 jobs for local people within the park. This value however, which includes fishing, hydropower, tourism, and the carbon sequestration of the forests, would inevitably be jeopardized if oil exploration and exploitation went ahead.
In 2006, the DRC government signed a production sharing agreement with the UK-based Soco International PLC for an oil concession of 7,500 square kilometers, the majority of which is within Virunga park boundaries. While other oil companies granted concessions have publicly pledged to stay out of the park, Soco has indicated that it intends to go ahead with exploration in the lowland savanna area around the park’s largest lake, Lake Edward — the center of local fisheries.
“The process of finding, extracting and transporting oil is a messy business,” said Allard Blom,, managing director of the Congo Basin for WWF. “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.
There’s also concern that seismic surveys and exploratory drilling might lead to increased volcanic activity in the park which boasts eight active volcanoes. In 2006, 30,000 people were displaced in Indonesia after a volcanic eruption triggered by oil and gas drilling.
“The park has tremendous value as is, which is only not being achieved because of the current security situation,” said Blom. “You don’t need to drill to make money off this area and drilling isn’t immune to the security issues which affect tourism, it will just lower the value of this place for anything other than fossil fuel extraction.”