Briefing | Jan. 19, 2016

Protecting Virunga National Park from oil companies

Africa's oldest national park is under threat - 60 NGOs sign call for action.

Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet. For the past three years Global Witness has been driving a major international campaign to stop oil companies drilling in Virunga and the surrounding area. We’ve also been campaigning to ensure that UK listed Soco International’s activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo are properly investigated by the relevant authorities. The Congolese - Ugandan border runs through the heart of this natural wonder and despite some victories Virunga is still under threat from oil exploration in the Congo and Uganda – where the government plans to allocate an oil licence in Lake Edward posing a direct threat to Virunga.

Map of Lake Edward

Lake Edward sits across the DRC and Uganda border, surrounded by national parks. 

Virunga is a highly vulnerable ecosystem, one of the sources of both the Congo and the Nile rivers, and a vital habitat for many protected species including hippopotamus, elephants and some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Two hundred thousand local people also depend on Lake Edward, which is at the heart of Virunga’s ecosystem, for their livelihoods and their daily meal.

Speculation that commercial quantities of oil lie below the surface of Lake Edward, has resulted in repeated attempts by governments and companies to open up the area for oil drilling. Sadly these attempts are ongoing. Any oil activities in this area could lead to significant damage to the lake, the broader ecosystem and the people and animals that depend on it.

Campaigning to protect Virunga 

In 2012, we published previously unseen permits that appeared to give Soco the green light to conduct a broad range of exploration activities, including seismic surveys inside the park. Since then we have been campaigning to prevent oil drilling in Virunga and to hold Soco to account for its activities in the park.

In September 2014 we published the report ‘Drillers in the Mist’, which showed how Soco and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence fostered by government security forces in eastern Congo, as they sought access to Virunga for oil exploration.  In June 2015 we published cheques showing that Soco had paid tens of thousands of dollars to a Congolese military officer accused of bribery and of brutally silencing opponents of oil exploration in the park. At the same time we produced a timeline of the key events, accusations and denials throughout Soco’s presence in Virunga. Soco is a UK public company and its executive directors are American citizens who are employed through a US subsidiary. Global Witness is therefore calling on the UK Serious Fraud Office and the US Department of Justice to fully investigate the claims of bribery and intimidation made against Soco and its contractors, and to hold any wrongdoers to account.

In late 2015, Soco announced that it had ceased to hold block 5 in Virunga. It is unclear whether the company has sold its rights to another company or whether the Congolese government plans to re-allocate the licence.

UNESCO has declared oil exploration inconsistent with World Heritage Status but Global Witness is concerned that the Congolese government may seek to re-draw the boundaries of the park to allow oil activities inside Lake Edward.

A new threat from Uganda

Now Virunga faces a new threat from an oil exploration licence in Uganda. On the 26th of February 2016 the Ugandan government will accept bids for six oil blocks in the west of Uganda. Each of these blocks includes parts of protected areas but one is of particular concern: the Ngaji block. Ngaji covers Uganda’s half of Lake Edward and large parts of Queen Elizabeth National Park, immediately adjacent to Virunga.  This area forms part of the same continuous ecosystem as Virunga and UNESCO has written to the government of Uganda to express its concerns about the decision to allow drilling there.

Sixteen companies have been shortlisted by the Ugandan government to bid for the oil blocks on offer, including Ngaji. Global Witness conducted investigations into these companies and raised questions about the suitability of some of them.

Documents seen by Global Witness indicate clearly that the Congolese government would see drilling on the Ugandan side of Lake Edward as a major motivation for pushing ahead with drilling on their own side. The EU Parliament has passed a resolution on the protection of Virunga National Park calling for EU member states to help prevent oil activities in the park and neighbouring areas. It cited the Ugandan allocation as a significant risk that could cause irreversible damage to the park.

Virunga is a unique ecosystem of global significance which must be protected. Global Witness is calling for the Ngaji block to be removed from the bidding round and for UNESCO and the governments of Congo and Uganda to reach an agreement to prevent drilling in the Virunga area.

You might also like