LAKE EDWARD, Democratic Republic of Congo — It is not just war threatening the future of Africa’s oldest and most diverse park.
Oil is too.
“A more recent pressure which is of very great concern for the future of the park is petrol. There is a belief that there are large oil deposits under the park,” said Emmanuel De Merode, director of Virunga National Park, home to the storied mountain gorilla.
“Mineral extraction and the oil industry can be very positive, if it’s extremely well-managed. But it’s a very sensitive industry,” he added.
Elsewhere in Africa, he said, there are “very strong examples of poor practice with catastrophic results, where very little is returned to the local economy in the long term and there is enormous environmental damage.”
A report on oil exploration in Congo published by the International Crisis Group last summer warned that a major oil find “would exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics” in the eastern part of the country.
“In a context of massive poverty, weak state, poor governance and regional insecurity, an oil rush will have a strong destabilizing effect,” the report warned.
The oil company involved insists it will have a positive social influence and limited environmental impact. But local people who rely on farming Virunga’s fringes or fishing the waters of Lake Edward fear that oil will destroy the both environment and their livelihoods.
Questions are also being asked about the basic legality of oil exploration in Virunga.
Paging through a well-thumbed copy of Congo’s 1969 Constitution, Mathieu Cingoro, a Goma-based legal advisor to the Congolese Wildlife Authority, said the law is simple and clear.
“It is a protected area. There is no law authorizing oil extraction in the park. It is forbidden [for the company] to enter the park,” he said.
Cingoro has documented three incidents where he said officials from British oil company SOCO International entered the park illegally, once by air and twice overland. Cingoro said that when they entered by road they traveled with armed guards, thus posing a challenge to the authority of the park’s rangers.
SOCO denies any wrongdoing, and points to both its contract with the Congolese government and a decree granting exploration rights issued by President Joseph Kabila.
But Cingoro said both documents were illegal under Congolese law and international law. The former prevents exploitation of resources within national parks. The latter has protected Virunga as a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
“Is there a company which has broken the law? Is there an authority that has broken the law? Yes there is,” Cingoro said.
The London-based oil and gas explorer was granted exploration rights in 2010 for Block 5, a 2,895-square mile concession that includes a large part of Virunga.
In 2011, Congo’s then environment minister, Jose Endundo, suspended exploration in Block 5, citing SOCO’s environmental impact assessment, which he described as “premature, cursory and falling short of the standards we have a right to expect.”
But the president overturned the decision and issued a decree granting SOCO the right to begin aeromagnetic surveys across all of Block 5, including the 58 percent of the concession that falls within Virunga.
An uprising by Rwanda-backed rebels in eastern Congo, however, curtailed SOCO’s activities.
The company remains hopeful that oil reserves here may emulate those across the border in Uganda, where spectacular finds totaling more than 2.5 billion barrels have been made in recent years, transforming industry appraisals of East Africa’s potential.
SOCO says it will “never seek to have operations” in the mountain gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest. But environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and even the UK government, oppose any activity by SOCO in the park.
“The UK opposes oil exploration within Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO as being in danger. We have informed SOCO and urge the Government of DR Congo to fully respect the international conventions to which it is a signatory,” the UK government said in a statement in September.
If oil does emerge from the Virunga, some Congolese aren’t convinced the resulting wealth will benefit them.
“Do you think we will ever see this oil? They will be extracting it to send to their home counties,” said Janet Maskia, a 47-year-old mother of four who makes a living as a subsistence farmer. She grows beans and cassava on a quarter-acre plot in the village of Kahunga on the park’s edge.
“If they find oil it will increase the risk of war. Look at Libya!” added Ntaherwa Tembeya, the village chief who keeps up with current affairs by listening to his radio. “It will not benefit us here, it will go to the white man’s continent. All we want are jobs, and to farm.”
Roger Cagle, a senior SOCO executive, told GlobalPost that the company has consulted with local people and has been largely welcomed.
“We have carried out an extensive local communications campaign to help familiarize local communities with our proposed activities,” he said. “The vast majority welcome us as a potential catalyst for positive change.”
Cagle added that the environmental destruction already visited on Virunga by decades of deforestation, poaching and war would render “inconsequential by comparison” any adverse affects caused by SOCO’s oil activities.
But in fishing villages like Lunyasenge, a hamlet of mud and thatch huts nestled between a pebble beach and the lightly wooded hills that are the backdrop to Lake Edward’s western shore, residents were skeptical.
Innocent Kakule and the 600 other fishermen living in Lunyasenge rely on the lake for their survival. Kakule said he was 38 but looked at least a decade older. He wore cracked leather brogues and a shimmering turquoise Rodeo-style shirt with black piping. Sitting on a plastic chair in the village boatyard where a young man chiseled away, fashioning a canoe from a tree trunk, Kakule explained his concerns.
“We make our living from fishing and it is good enough,” he said. “We have heard about the oil project but we fear that it will stop us fishing and that it will pollute the waters.”
In the fishing town of Vitshumbi, two hours boat ride from Lunyasenge, residents said they had heard just enough of SOCO’s plans to be worried. In a succession of interviews people said they feared the lake would be polluted and their livelihoods destroyed.
They laughed at the idea that oil might bring local jobs.
“We have no education, no skills, what job can there be for us?” asked one young man. They feared, based on bitter experience, that Congo’s endemic corruption would stymie any hope of development.
“We fishermen do not agree with this oil exploration because it will cause pollution. And when the water gets spoiled the fish will also die,” said Francois Kasereka who started fishing Lake Edward in 1960 when he was 13-years old. “For us: no fish, no life.”