New documents seen by Global Witness have revealed that Democratic Republic of Congo’s government is attempting to reclassify swathes of two UNESCO-protected World Heritage Sites –Salonga and Virunga National Parks – to allow oil exploration to take place.
work in these protected national parks would be devastating for their unique
ecosystems, putting several rare and iconic species at risk, as well as being
in violation of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, to which Congo is a
signatory. These new moves to open up the parks must be halted immediately.
A special commission of ministers and civil servants from Democratic Republic of Congo met on 27 April to push though plans to redraw the boundaries of Salonga and Virunga parks, thereby removing protected status from areas that are covered by oil licences. The invitation to last Friday’s meeting of the inter-ministerial group, aptly named ECOFIRE, (Commission Interministerielle Permanente du Economie, Finance et Reconstruction) includes reference to only one agenda item: the declassification of Salonga and Virunga National Parks.
“If we cannot protect even UNESCO World Heritage Sites from oil exploration, where in the world is safe from the fossil fuel industry? The potential damage to these rare and valuable ecosystems is enormous. The Congolese government should be seeking to extend protection of these areas rather than selling them off to the highest bidder,” said Pete Jones of Global Witness.
Related documents seen by Global Witness include letters signed by Congo’s Oil Minister arguing for the need to open up these protected sites to oil exploration and laying out the legal framework for attempting to do so. The proposals ride roughshod over Congo’s UNESCO commitments and are incompatible with the parks’ World Heritage Status.
In February Congolese President Joseph Kabila authorised exploration inside oil blocks that partially overlap Salonga. Salonga is home to up to 40 percent of the world’s bonobo population, while Virunga provides a vital habitat for many protected species including hippopotamus, elephants and some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.
In 2015 UK-listed oil company Soco International obtained a licence to operate inside Virunga. The company was confronted by concerted local and international opposition to its operations. In mid-2015, Global Witness 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. In November 2015, Soco announced that it had ceased to hold its block in Virunga
The Congolese government must immediately stop all attempts to declassify national parks and UNESCO sites. They should also publish all contracts signed with oil companies as well as details of any payments they have received in relation to these contracts.
Peter Jones, Campaign Leader, Corruption Investigations
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