Soco oil corporation planning to devastate Congo gorilla reserve

By John Vidal / The Guardian

The Virunga national park, home to rare mountain gorillas but targeted for oil exploration by a British company, could earn strife-torn DR Congo $400m (£263m) a year from tourism, hydropower and carbon credits, a WWF report published on Thursday concludes.

But if the Unesco world heritage site that straddles the equator is exploited for oil, as the Congolese government and exploration firm Soco International are hoping, it could lead to devastating pollution and permanent conflict in an already unstable region, says the conservation body.

Congo has allocated oil concessions over 85% of the Virunga park but Soco International is now the only company seeking to explore inside its boundaries. This year Unesco called for the cancellation of all Virunga oil permits.

Soco, whose board of 10 directors have wide experience with oil companies working in conflict areas including Exxon, Shell and Cairn, insist that their operations in Congo would be confined to an area in the park known as Block V, and would not affect the gorillas.

Soco chairman, Rui de Sousa, said: “Despite the views of WWF, Soco is extremely sensitive to the environmental significance of the Virunga national park. It is irrefutable that oil companies still have a central role in today’s global energy supply and a successful oil project has the potential to transform the economic and social wellbeing of a whole country.”

He added: “The park has sadly been in decline for many years officially falling below the standards required for a world heritage site. The potential for development just might be the catalyst that reverses this trend.”

However Raymond Lumbuenamo, country director for WWF-Democratic Republic of the Congo, based in Kinshassa, said that security in and around the park would deteriorate further if Soco went ahead with its exploration plans.

“The security situation is already bad. The UN is involved with fighting units and the M23 rebel force is inside the park. Oil would be a curse. It always increases conflict. It would attract human sabotage. The park might become like the Niger delta. Developing Virunga for oil will not make anything better.”

“The population there is already very dense, with over 350 people per sqkm. When you take part of the land (for oil) you put more pressure on the rest. Oil would not provide many jobs, people would flood in looking for work,” he said.

One fear is that the area is seismically active and another eruption of one of the volcanoes in the park could damage oil company infrastructure and lead to oil spills in the lakes. “Virunga’s rich natural resources are for the benefit of the Congolese people, not for foreign oil prospectors to drain away. Our country’s future depends on sustainable economic development,” said Lumbuenamo.

“For me, choosing the conservation option is the best option. We can always turn back. Once you have started drilling for oil there’s no turning back,” he said.

But Raymond accepted that while the gorillas were safe at present, the chances of the park generating its potential of $400m a year were remote. “It would be difficult to make the kind of money that the report talks of. Virunga used to be a very peaceful place and can be again. The security situation right now is bad. The UN is involved with fighting units. Its not as quiet as it used to be.”

Read more from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/01/congo-mountain-gorillas-virunga-wwf

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