Report: European oil exploration threatens Congo world heritage site

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Africa’s oldest national park is in danger of environmental destruction because of mushrooming oil concessions that now cover some 85% of its territory, according to a new WWF report by the consultants Dalberg.

Virunga National Park in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a Unesco World Heritage Site and treasure trove of biodiversity, offering a home to critically endangered mountain gorillas, dormant volcanoes and permanent glaciers.

But an exemption in the Congo’s Conservation of Nature law for “scientific activities” in protected areas is being exploited by the UK-based Soco International PLC through a local subsidiary.

Tony Long, the director of WWF’s European policy office, said that this could threaten forest clearance, environmental degradation and a loss of biodiversity.

“Current and past investments are in danger of being wiped out if oil exploration is allowed to happen,” he said. “Safeguarding this legacy means the EU should uphold the integrity of the Park and fully support the DRC government in developing sustainable energy alternatives.”

The European Commission has provided financial support for Virunga’s conservation for a quarter of a century.

Developed sustainably, the park could add €830 million to the Congolese economy each year and generate 45,000 permanent jobs, according to the new report, ‘The Economic Value of Virunga National Park’.

It says that investments in hydropower, the fisheries industry and ecotourism could positively transform the UN World Heritage Site.

By contrast, in places such as the Bas Congo and Niger Delta, oil spills, pipeline leaks and gas flaring have contaminated the air, water and soil with toxins.

“Pollutants from exploratory drilling include oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Exploratory wells may provide a path for surface contaminants to come into contact with ground water,” the report says.

“Exposure to these pollutants can cause health problems, such as an increase in respiratory infections or poisoning from contaminated water.”

Anti-social playgrounds

Areas cleared for oil drilling can also be playgrounds for illegal forces such as loggers, poachers and warlords.

WWF is using the report’s launch today (1 August) to call for the Congolese government, international administrations and shareholders to force oil companies to stop all exploration and drilling activities in Virunga.

The French company Total and the South African firm Sacoil have also been granted oil concessions by the Congolese government. But at its annual meeting on 17 May 2013, Total’s chairman, Christophe de Margerie, announced a “commitment to respect the current limits” of Virunga and all Unesco World Heritage Sites.

To date, Soco is the only company that has indicated an intention to prospect for oil in the park.

In an emailed comment to EURACTIV, the chairman of Soco International's board, Rui de Sousa, wrote that changing the park's borders was an issue for the Congolese government alone.

"Despite the views of WWF, Soco is extremely sensitive to the environmental significance of the Virunga National Park," he said. "Development and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive."

A Unesco World Heritage Site is a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument or building) that is listed as of special cultural or physical significance.

The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Programme administered by the Unesco World Heritage Committee.

Under certain conditions, listed sites can obtain funds from the World Heritage Fund.

The programme was created under the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was adopted by Unesco on 16 November 1972. Since then, 189 nations have ratified the convention.

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