UNESCO director Irina Bokova received in March “worrying information” concerning the resumption of oil exploration in the Virunga National Park by Soco International. Similar concern was expressed on March 28 by the Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders during his meeting with President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa. José Endundo, the Congolese Minister of Environment who ordered the suspension of all exploration works in the Park in March 2011, changed his mind abruptly last September and authorized an airborne magnetic survey. However, ground exploration is still prohibited, said the Minister in a letter to the World Heritage Committee in which he insisted that such authorisation for airborne magnetic surveys does not allow Soco’s staff to enter the park.
According to the memorandum of the meeting between the Minister of Environment and representatives of Soco last March, the ban was not respected. Soco did some construction work inside the park and introduced equipment while its staff has been moving around under military escort. Clearly Soco is hoping that sooner or later this prohibition will be lifted. Fishermen demonstrated against oil exploitation in the Park, which they fear could to pollution of Lake Edward. Soco answered organizing demonstrations in support of oil exploitation inside the Park by people from Vitshumbi and Nyakakoma villages, who were promised jobs and schools.
In his letter to UNESCO, Endundo claims that the purpose of allowing Soco to carry out airborne magnetic survey over the Virunga Park is only to assess the presence of hydrocarbons but he gives the government assurance that the oil will never be exploited. He suggests that in return for that sacrifice, the International Community should give compensations to the local population, taking the example of Ecuador. There the government decided to halt mining in Yasuní National Park if it could generate 50 percent of the anticipated $7.6 billion revenue through other means. In Congo the stakes are far more important. In February 2011, the quantity of oil discovered on the Ugandan side was estimated at 2.5 billion barrels, which represent a bonanza of $200 to 300 billion. One can assume that a similar Eldorado can be found on the Congolese side. Who could afford to foot the bill of such huge compensations? Since President Kabila has awarded a permit to Soco and its partners in June 2010, if explorations are halted, Soco may ask for compensation of the expenditures incurred up to now.
It also remains to be seen if Belgium and UNESCO can match the influence and the financial power of other important players such as the French Total and Italy’s ENI, eyeing blocks 3 and 4. Blocks 3, 4 and 5 absorb 85% of the Virunga National Park. Last July, Total promised the World Wildlife to restrict prospection to the Northern area of block 3, thus avoiding the Park. The French transnational claims to share WWF’s view that exploitation within the Virunga Park would violate Congolese law and be incompatible with its World Heritage status. At the same time, the company did not conceal that if drillings in the Northern area of the Park are promising, it would consider further exploitation inside the Park.
Meanwhile, ENI is still waiting for the award of bock 4 by Presidential Decree. The Italian company says it would not carry out exploration work within the Park. But all will depend from the balance of power and influence within the Congolese government between the Ministers of Environment and Hydrocarbons. The WWF fears that oil companies may eventually obtain some waiver which would enable them to carry out explorations in protected areas.
The oil lobby has strong local supports. At the end of 2010, the 41 MPs from the North Kivu caucus at the National Assembly wrote to José Endundo to voice their support to Dominion Petroleum and Soco which jointly own Block 5. In the MPs’ opinion, Congolese law in favour of nature conservation contravenes UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 which proclaims the peoples’ right to freely dispose of their natural resources. These MPs argue that the exploitation is justified because in neighbouring Uganda oil companies are operating freely in Queen Elizabeth Park and in Mount Ruwenzori National Park.