DRC to open mountain gorilla parks to oil drilling

  • 30 Jun 2018

Opening up parts of the Virunga and Salonga National Parks to drilling would place wildlife - especially endangered species- at risk and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing global warming.

An endangered silverback mountain gorilla from the Nyakamwe-Bihango family feeds within the forest in Virunga national park near Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, May 3, 2014. The endangered species' life is at risk following the opening of parts of the Virunga and Salonga National Parks to drilling. ( Reuters )

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) government says it has decided to open up parts of Virunga and Salonga National Parks, home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species, to oil drilling.

Earlier proposals to allow oil exploration in the parks met fierce resistance from environmental activists, who say drilling would place wildlife at risk and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing global warming.

In a statement released on Friday night, the DRC government defended its right to authorise drilling anywhere in the country and said it is mindful of protecting animals and plants in the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Around one-fifth of Virunga national park will be opened to oil drilling, according to the BBC.

More than 20 per cent of the Virunga national park would be affected by any reclassification or redrawing of its boundaries by President Joseph Kabila's government who in doing so is working to remove the protected status around the area, according to Global Witness, the anti-corruption charity that uncovered the plans. 

In their report called "Not for Sale: Congo's Forests must be Protected from the Fossil Fuels Industry," Global Witness investigates the Democratic Republic of Congo government's attempts to reclassify swatches of the UNESCO protected World Heritage Sites in order to allow oil exploration to take place. 

They point out that in contravention of Congo's oil law, the details of the contract remain unknown. This lack in transparency from a country already embroiled in political crisis raises concerns about the prospect of oil work in the fragile ecosystem.

This is not the first time Kabila's has gone against environmentalist opposition, so it came as no surprise that he went ahead with allowing drilling in the endangered region. Recently this year, Kabila singed a mining code into law despite fierce opposition from international mining companies. 

Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila addresses a news conference at the State House in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 26, 2018.(Reuters)

The 7,800 sq km sanctuary, established in 1925, is also home to eastern lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, okapis, lions, elephants and hippos. 

The cabinet said in a statement that it had approved the establishment of interministerial commissions charged with preparing plans to declassify sections of the parks, including 1,720 sq km, or 21.5 percent, of eastern Congo’s Virunga.

This announcement comes hours after the parks of Africa threatened by oil development were the focus of a special session of the 42th session of the World Heritage Committee in Manama, Bahrain. 

Virunga sits on the forest-cloaked volcanoes of central Africa and is home to over half the global population of mountain gorillas. British company Soco International performed seismic testing there but let its license lapse in 2015.

Salonga covers 33,350 sq km of the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks.

This news comes as alarming considering that the population of mountain gorillas, one of the world's most endangered species, has just recently increased by a quarter to over 1,000 individuals since 2010, according to wildlife authorities. The drilling in the region would once again be putting them at risk.

Gihishamwotzi, 18, an endangered silverback high mountain gorilla from Sabyinyo family, rests atop trees inside the forest in the Volcanoes National Park near Kinigi, northwestern Rwanda, January 9, 2018.(Reuters)

That is despite the threat posed by poachers and armed groups in the Virunga Massif, a spine of volcanic mountains in the western Rift Valley straddling eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, where most of them reside.

Partly because they are so rare, the mountain gorillas are a major source of tourist revenue for the region, and their habitat supports other rare species found nowhere else such as golden monkeys.

But they are under constant threat of encroachment by farmers in one of Africa's most densely populated rural regions, and hunting for bush meat or bizarre trophies sold abroad.

The region also suffers from rising instability and violence, with at least 12 rangers killed in clashes with armed groups and poachers in the past year.

Just recently, the Save Virunga organisation which describes themselves as "a global initiative to protect Virunga, Africa's Oldest National Park, from oil exploration and exploitation" tweeted that extractive industries are not compatible with World Heritage status. 

They have not commented on this announcement from the Congolese government specifically, although they express their sentiments against oil drilling in Virgunga on their website. 

Their website reads, "Virunga should be a place where no oil extraction and pollution occurs, a place where people develop sustainable livelihoods based on healthy and intact ecosystems."

The Save Virunga organisation have also ranked oil as the #1 threat to the Virunga park, the communities and to the ecosystem.

Environmentalist groups are yet to speak up about the issue but people have gone to twitter to express their angry sentiments towards the decision. User have referred to the decision as "selfishness" and blamed the Congolese government for its "poor management." The South African people news community called it a "sad day for gorillas."