Oil Exploration suspended in Virunga World Heritage Site

By Ruth Hendry - 18 Mar 2011 19:19:0 GMT
Oil Exploration suspended in Virunga World Heritage Site

Virunga National Park is Africa's first National Park. It has an astonishingly high biodiversity and is home to many rare species including chimpanzees, forest elephants and the endangered eastern gorilla. Virunga National Park is also listed on the UN's list of World Heritage Sites in danger. Sadly, several companies have designs on the park's potential oil reserves.

SOCO and Dominio, UK-listed companies, have indicated that they would like to drill throughout Virunga to investigate the oil reserves that may exist there. This would be devastating in a notoriously precarious region. Conservationists fear that drilling will increase tension in a politically volatile area in addition to damaging the park's fragile ecosystem.

However, there is a small chink of light at the end of the tunnel. The environment ministry of DRC has halted SOCO's initial foray into the region, saying that their Environmental Impact Assessment was ''premature and superficial''. A statement was issued today declaring they would suspend any activities related to oil exploration in Virunga until the potential impact of such a project is thoroughly assessed.

Minister Jose E.B. Endundo has said that he will not allow SOCO to carry out any work within the park - for now. The DRC government are initiating a ''thorough and transparent Strategic Environmental Assessment'' to decide whether oil exploration could ever be considered in such a biodiverse and precious park.

In a WWF press release, Allard Blom, Director of WWF's Congo program said ''Allowing oil exploration in this iconic park would set an extremely dangerous precedent that even the most precious places on earth are open for oil and gas development.''

It must be hard for the government of a developing nation such as DRC to resist the charms and considerable money of Big Oil. However, WWF's research suggests that well-planned economic development, which protects Virunga's natural assets, will help the country and its people. Poorly managed, non-transparent or illegal development will do little to help the well being of local communities and it will undermine park management. Hopefully, DRC's government will learn lessons from oil exploration in the Niger Delta - a catastrophe that has destroyed the lives of local people and the region's unique wildlife - and say NO to drilling in the Virunga.