The answer was a forgone conclusion to UK MP John Mann when he asked in Parliament which the public would prefer to save – their Members of Parliament or endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga National Park.
‘‘Members have already raised the attempts by SOCO, a UK-based oil exploration company, to plunder the reserves in the Virunga national park. I do not wish to be trite, but it is a fact that there are more parliamentarians in Britain than mountain gorillas in the wild. If we balloted our constituents on which they would like to preserve for the future, I suspect that parliamentarians would lose out, and lose out heavily’.
A discussion about the terrible social conditions in the central African region of the Great Lakes (including Lakes Victoria, Albert and Edward in the Gt Rift Valley) considered a future for the Virunga built on sensible use of the natural resources – timber, hydropower and low impact tourism – which can generate income and help build stability in this war torn region.
MP John Mann considers that: ‘The preservation of such natural borders and the wildlife they contain is therefore ethically right and economically sensible for the long term—for tourism and livelihoods in 50, 100 or 150 years, not just the profits for SOCO or whatever in the next 10 or 20 years. Such preservation is critical to these countries’ competitive advantage, but also to minimising conflict now and in future. That should be seen as part of our foreign policy and international development work, and be given much higher strategic priority.’
Our Government reiterated its opposition to oil exploration in the Virunga:
‘UK continues to oppose oil exploration in Virunga national park. …We urge the companies to act appropriately and the DRC Government to respect the international conventions to which it is already a signatory…. Investment needs to be responsible and sustainable…. I have lobbied in the DRC, making clear the UK Government’s position verbally and in writing ‘. Mark Simmonds, UK Minister for Africa.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo urgently needs stability and security, so the UK Foreign Office is working with other countries and the World Bank to improve accountability of the authorities in the DRC. This includes raising concerns about the proposals to change the law to allow oil exploration within internationally designated areas such as the Virunga World Heritage Site.
We’re in regular contact with politicians across the globe to increase attention to the importance and value of the Virunga to both the local communities and the wider world. We need Virunga to be appreciated as an attribute to the DRC, not a potential oil well.
Virunga National Park is Africa’s first and most biodiverse park. But a threat looms over this incredible place: a UK oil company is looking for oil. Soco are undergoing exploration as we speak, on the basis of a special permit received from the DRC government; if they find oil, we believe there’s no holding them back to go into full scale production.
In 2006, the DRC government signed a production sharing agreement granting an oil concession to Soco. This concession, called ‘Block V’, covers an area of 7,500 square kilometres, more than half of which lies within the boundary of Virunga National Park.
Although Soco’s permissions to begin exploring for oil in ‘Block V’ originate from a government-backed decree, current Congolese law prohibits any extractive industries within the country’s national parks. They are only able to carry out their current activities by exploiting a legal loophole that allows for “scientific research”. Therefore, in order to ultimately permit oil development, the DRC government is considering removing Virunga’s status as a national park.
This is why; in our efforts to protect Virunga it is crucial that the DRC government is engaged on the highest levels, in order to revoke all authorizations for companies to explore for oil within park boundaries and to declare permanent protection of Virunga.