Friday, May 9, 2014

Oil exploration in Virunga National Park

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Guest lodge at Virunga National Park.

Virunga National Park is the jewel of the African rainforest. It is perhaps the most biologically and geographically diverse area on the planet. Its borders contain a vast array of species and lakes, as well as tropical forest, savannahs, and volcanoes. A UNESCO World Heritage Center, this park has come to represent the African forest that supports the planet.

And it's in trouble.

Aside from the continuing African World War that is being fought inside its borders, a corrupt charcoal trade that is toppling its trees, and rampant poaching that's endangered its unique species, Virunga National Park has another rival: SOCO International. This park -- that is intended to be some of the most protected land on the planet -- sits on top of a store of oil. And yes, SOCO set its sites on drilling there. They are exploring as we speak.

If you care about climate, you care about Congo.

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It feels a little odd to redact a man's head, but I'm not sure if the photo will put him in danger. Danger is imminent all over the park, in fact, more than 130 rangers have been killed since the war started a decade and a half ago. Those rangers die increasingly because they are protecting people in the park -- not wildlife.

Last month, Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park, was ambushed and shot in his car as he was driving from Goma to Rumangabo. He was shot four times over his stomach and legs. There isn't enough information available to reach a conclusion about what happened, whether it was a random attack or a deliberate message from any of several parties who do not like the aggressive conservation strategies he's implemented to preserve the park.

De Merode survived, and issued this statement where he discourages speculation about the attack.

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The southern tip of Virunga National Park is located just north of Goma, DRC. Northward, it shares a border with Uganda. This is a region that is brutally affected by the DRC civil war, in fact, the war is playing out inside the park. De Merode tells this story in a TED talk circa 2011:

So, what about the oil?

In 2010, the DRC government opened 85% of Virunga National Park to oil exploration. Right now, SOCO International is the only concessionaire actively working in the park. Most of the oil is thought to be underneath Lake Edward, which is the Great Lake next to Uganda on the park map above. In an excellent article about the park, Fred Pearce tells us that SOCO claims they can extract this oil without harming the environment, and will increase living standards for the people living nearby:

More controversially, Soco claims that the oil, which is thought to be mostly under and around Lake Edward, can be extracted from Virunga without doing environmental harm. And the company suggests that its activities can “help raise living standards for local communities to levels sufficient to reduce their pressure and negative impacts on the protected area.” So far Soco says that it has improved a road, built a medical center, and installed a mobile phone mast at Nyakakoma, one of three legal fishing villages in the park.

We might cry "hooey" on SOCO's claims. Hooey or no, it's important to recognize two things:
  • The park can be used to generate sustainable economic sectors without drilling for oil, in fact, the park already has strategies toward green development in place. Tourism and renewable energy are two ways this park can genuinely improve standard of living for local communities in ways that support continuing, positive change there.
  • If Virunga National Park cannot be protected, neither can the rest of the rainforest in Democratic Republic of the Congo. The reason this danger is vitally important is clear from the map below:
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The Congo Basin is one of Earth's lungs.

The map above was generated by Mongabay. Mongabay provides a lot of useful information, including a larger, more readable version of the map, about ground cover distribution and deforestation, so please have a look. And here are some fun facts about the Congo rainforest:
  • The Congo Rainforest is the second largest in the world. The largest is the Amazon Rainforest.
  • The Congo River (located entirely inside Democratic Republic of the Congo) is the second largest river by volume in the world. The largest is the Amazon River.
  • More than 60% of the Congo Rainforest lies inside of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
What to do about a rainforest ravaged by war halfway across the world?
Action List!!! (US centric)
-- If you have the means, contribute to Virunga National Park. If you can't contribute, watch the videos here and tell all you can about the danger to the park. Donating money and raising consciousness are absolutely the most effective actions you can take to support efforts to mitigate.
-- Learn all you can. Start with the links here, and read on. Also, stay tuned for further updates.  
-- Understand that this is a critical time for the DRC government. The next two years will tell if they are a constitutional government or not. In 2006, the DRC passed a new constitution that includes women's rights, among other useful features. One of those is tenure of office for the president. In 2016, the current president must step down according to the current law. Our State Department is urging him to follow the constitutional law.  
-- Write to the US Department of State, particularly Secretary Kerry and Special Envoy to Eastern Congo Russ Feingold. Tell them that you support sustainable development projects rather than oil drilling in Virunga National Park.  
-- There is a new documentary about the park, Virunga, that is screening at limited locations now. If it is showing near you, see if you can get a group to the screening. If not, the link contains a tool you can use to request a screening in your city.

Here is yet another film about Virunga National Park:


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