Breaking news from the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Virunga National Park and World Heritage Site is highly treasured as the most important refuge of the mountain gorilla.
Over 3.000 tourists a year visit the southern sector of Virunga National Park to admire the gorillas as well as the lava lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano. But the park has been closed for two years because of political insecurity. It was re-opened a few weeks ago.The Africa Conservation Fund (UK) signed a 10-year management agreement to manage the park in February 2011. The park currently receives most of its funding from the European Union. A Mai Mai militia attacked a park facility and killed two park rangers and a Congolese soldier in October 2012. Five of the Mai Mai militiamen died in the attack. Congolese Revolutionary Army (also known as M23) allegedly has a base camp inside the park.Virunga is currently under threat from UK oil company SOCO International plc who wants to undergo oil exploration within the park.
The director of the park since 2008 is Emmanuel de Mérode. April 15, 2014 he was ambushed by unknown men and seriously wounded.
The attack from ambush happened on the way home from the town of Goma where Emmanuel de Mérode had delivered to the state attorney documents of evidence against the British oil company SOCO.
On their company website SOCO International states:
Block V describes an area which has been delineated by the DRC Government for the purpose of oil and gas exploration. SOCO was awarded the Block V licence in June 2006 by the Government of the DRC. This award was ratified in 2010 by a DRC presidential decree, the final step in the licensing process.
Block V is an area of approx. 7,500 km2 on the border with Uganda; within Block V, SOCO’s specific area of interest is Lake Edward (approx 1,630 km2) and the adjacent lowland savannah which are both within the Virunga National Park. This region of eastern DRC is also commonly referred to as North Kivu, and as part of the Albertine Graben, the Albertine Rift and The Great Lakes Region.
It is emphasised that Block V is not located within the mountainous Mikeno Sector, home to the famous Mountain Gorillas. Block V encompasses an area of the Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site, which includes part of Lake Edward.
Furthermore, SOCO has stated it will never seek to have operations in the Mountain Gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest. This has been subject to much inaccurate media speculation.
WWF: Soco’s oil drilling in Congo national park could ‘threaten investor returns’
Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 By Charlotte Malone
Campaign group WWF has warned shareholders in oil and gas exploration firm Soco that they could see increased risk because of drilling plans in the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.The plans are coming under “increased scrutiny”, the WWF has said. The organisation claims that the activities in Africa’s oldest national park further increase investor risk, given the environmental and social sensitivities involved in operating within a World Heritage Site.
Soco refuted the claims, saying in a statement, “Soco would like to make it clear that all alleged breaches of the voluntary guidelines raised are absolutely ill-founded, tendentious and not supported by the facts.”
The WWF filed an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) complaint against the company in late 2013, which was accepted last month.
WWF accuses Soco of hiding from resident the full impact of what could potentially go wrong, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at Soco community meetings and not respecting international treaties aimed at protecting the environment.
David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, said, “Investors are understandably sensitive to their exposure of future levels of risk, and I would expect many to regard Soco’s plan in Virunga with caution. The initial stages of exploration for oil are only just starting, but it’s clear that Soco is already experiencing problems such as local community protests and the ongoing complaint has filed under the OECD guidelines.
“Unfortunately, as yet. The company appears to have adopted the approach of ‘carry on regardless’, which could threaten investor returns, as well as Virunga’s enormous environmental value.”
Operational activities have yet to commence in the area and Soco asserted it would not consider doing so until all environmental studies were fully completed. The company also added that its operations would not be located within the mountainous Mikeno Sector, which is home to Mountain Gorillas, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest.
Around 85% of the Virunga National Park has been allocated as oil concessions, although Soco is currently the only company to move forward with exploration
Statement on complaint by WWF
Monday 7 October 2013
SOCO International plc is aware of the complaint raised by the WWF to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“OECD”). SOCO welcomes the scrutiny of such a well respected 3rd party organisation and takes this matter extremely seriously. SOCO would like to make it clear that all alleged breaches of the voluntary guidelines raised are absolutely ill-founded, tendentious and not supported by the facts.
For the record SOCO has not commenced any operational activities and would not consider doing so until all environmental studies were fully completed. This will leave a considerable amount of time to continue meaningful open engagement opportunities. SOCO has already conducted a locally dedicated communications campaign successfully reaching out to over 10 local villages during 2012.
SOCO has recently commenced environmental studies on Lake Edward. The environmental studies include fish and mollusc baseline studies and respond to concerns that have been expressed regarding the impact of potential future exploration activities in the region. These studies have been determined through close collaboration with the Congolese Wildlife Authority (also known as “Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature” or “ICCN”) who are the managers of the Virunga National Park and the Congo Environmental Studies Group (also known as “Groupe d’Etudes Environnementales du Congo” or “GEEC”) and have been approved by the Government of the DRC. SOCO has also recently commenced social projects to help to improve the basic living conditions for the local population around Lake Edward; these projects, which include the provision of communications infrastructure and medical aid programmes, were determined after a period of engagement with the local communities and local and national government.
The OECD guideline’s state that abiding by domestic law is the first obligation of enterprises and the guidelines are not a substitute nor should they be considered to override domestic law and regulation. SOCO would like to make it clear that its operations abide by all the laws and regulations set out by the Government of the DRC
SOCO’s goal is to be a positive presence wherever it has operations and it has an excellent history of operating in Africa and in South East Asia. No oil exploration activities have commenced to date.
Keep Oil Exploration Out of Virunga
Virunga National Park is Africa's oldest national park. It could soon become Africa's newest oil field.
British oil company Soco International PLC plans to explore for oil inside the park, even though the park is protected under Democratic Republic of Congo law. More than 27,000 people fish in Lake Edward and it provides drinking water to 50,000 people. But thousands more benefit from locally sourced fish, renewable energy and other park-related activities.
Oil development in the park would threaten local communities that rely on the park's natural resources and jeopardize the region's potential for long-term income from sustainable development. Virunga is too important to open up for oil exploration. Around 85% of the Virunga National Park has been allocated as oil concessions, although Soco is currently the only company to move forward with exploration.
A refuge for gorillas
The most famous residents of Virunga National Park are critically endangered mountain gorillas, of which only 880 individuals remain in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
While the habitat of Virunga NationalPark’s 200 mountain gorillas does not currently fall within an oil concession, development in the park could negatively affect their security.
Allowing illegal activities, such as oil operations, to be conducted in the park fundamentally undermines the authority of park managers, and will make it difficult for them to guard against intrusion by others seeking to exploit its land, trees and animals.
Countries renew plan to protect mountain gorillas
Posted on 07 April 2014
The three countries home to mountain gorillas have agreed on new measures to conserve the critically endangered animals, and to maximize the economic benefits they bring to local communities.
National park officials from Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have renewed their joint commitment to protect gorilla habitat spanning their shared borders, and recognized the importance of attracting tourists for lucrative gorilla treks.
Mountain gorillas are the only type of great ape in the world that are experiencing an increase in number, yet only about 880 individuals were counted at the last census. Gorilla family groups in each of the range countries have been habituated to the presence of people, and can be visited on carefully controlled tours.
“A portion of the revenue from gorilla tourism is shared with the communities surrounding the animals’ habitats.This creates a strong incentive to protect the animals and the natural setting where they live,” said David Greer, WWF’s African great ape expert. “Visitors also spend money elsewhere during their trip, and that helps the national economy as a whole.”
Insert: Are there any details available about traditional rights and compensation
payments? How is the ownership/land tenure situation in the forested park area in
view of the „illegal“ cutting of wood for charcoal burning?
In Rwanda and Uganda the tourism industry, largely linked to mountain gorillas, accounts for about 8-9 percent of total gross domestic products, World Bank data shows. Gorilla tourism in DRC’s Virunga National Park recently reopened after a period of instability wracked the region.An independent economic analysis of the parkcommissioned by WWF found that tourism in Virunga has the potential to reach an estimated value of US$235 million per year.
Insert: I cannot locate any consideration of the health risk: humans/tourists
carrying contagious diseases to the apes: even flu can be lethal if no antibodies
exist (see passage below).
Alarmingly, 85 per cent of Virunga National Park has been allocated as oil concessions. Mountain gorilla habitat has been spared, but if oil extraction were to occur, the park’s critical ecosystems and rare species could be put at risk.
WWF strongly opposes the exploration plans of UK oil company Soco International PLC, which intends to start seismic testing in the park this month. WWF is a member of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, a coalition of WWF and Flora and Fauna International.Together they work closely with the governments of all three mountain gorilla range countries.
The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) represents three major NGO coalition partners and the respective protected area authorities in the three countries providing shelter for the remaining wild mountain gorilla populations: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On the IGCP website its „mission“ is defined as „to conserve the critically endangered mountain gorillas and their habitat through partnering with key stakeholders while significantly contributing to sustainable livelihood development.
Nothing is special in the IGCP „philosophy“ neither except again of the prominent species concerned: The closest relatives of gorillas are chimpanzees and humans, all of the Hominidae having diverged from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago (ref. Wikipedia).
We are fully conscious that the habitat of mountain gorillas largely overlaps with a „conflict zone“ in the Congo ( see above) The attack at the Belgian anthropologist and director of Virunga NP is the most recent alarming indication for how much the life of the NP staff is on risk. The bravery of all the park rangers demands our highest respect. Some 150 Virunga rangers have been killed by the rebels since 1990 (according to WWF/Wikipedia): a shocking number! Approximately ten gorilllas have been shot or killed brutally with bush knifes in the southern part of the park, so far the safest retreat. "Seven gorillas killed in seven months is a horrifying statistic and a trend that cannot continue," said Kwame Koranteng, regional representative of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Program Office.
To which destination will developments take the fate of the surviving apes and humans, all the same? In the IGCP presentation only some marginal attention is directed to the indigenous people in the park and in its peripherial area. Where are their settlements, their traditional territories located? Which part could they perform in this ongoing drama? Their involvement as guardians should be regarded crucial; the Mai-Mai militia groups are community based. To which communities in the realm of the park do the rebels relate to? If to any.
It should be noted that SOCO International has initiated liaison talks with 10 villages in the Virunga park region, according to the company's website...
Armed rangers cannot bring a solution - cannot stop the rebels' frightening guns. A stable finale to the military (=civil war) and political conflict only can evolve from participating village people. In conjunction with the world public. Virunga was a significant tourist attraction before Congo's 1998-2003 war, which devastated the east of the vast Central African country, triggering a humanitarian disaster that has killed more than 4 million people.
The true natives in this constellaton are the apes; they should be kept out totally from any such human turbulences. A full revision of strategy/terms is imperative! We are not aware of any evidence why the Mai-Mai killed gorillas. Out of retaliation reasons? A balanced investigation should be given priority.
One single expatriate (as far as I understand from the press releases) was in charge of park affairs, from 2008 until he was seriously wounded by gun shots earlier this year.. Tourism has only recently commenced after two years of stand still out of security reasons. Can the world public as presented by UNO tolerate any further such shaky, rather uncertain status quo?
On stake is the survival of our closest relative besides the chimpanzee and bonobo. Only a few weeks ago the imminent danger for the Sumatran orang-utans was taken up by the Avaaz Movement. I believe in this campaign by millions of engaged supporters. Conservation as designed and pronouced by the classical representation of IUCN cannot come up with innovative approaches. Neither the WWF intervention (see WWF heading above).
How is it possible that an oil company has got the concession for exploration and subsequent exploitation in a conservation area of this prime importance and value?
How can we believe that such destructive intrusion can be straightened by raising our voices as usual in these never ending disputes that result in a continuous retreat of the conservation front? This natural treasure belongs to the most valuable world heritage we have got on planet Earth – there is no more to discover. And still we just watch the scene without at least improving what is feasible: In the following FAZ article (in German) I noticed this statement about the park director: Quite a few people in Congo point out that without his brave and inventive engagement the gorillas would not exist anymore! It shows how fragile the survival, how little secured the lifes of the gorillas have to be understood. All the millions of people out there who became aware by the media of this tragedy: how could they get involved?
The murder of Dian Fossey in December 1985 and earlier the killing (by pouchers?) of her belowed silverback Digit (cf. relevant Wikipedia articles) have never been fully investigated and were only marginally referred to in the context of the recent events.
Further above I have referred briefly to the high risk by contagious diseases carried by unconscious tourists. At least one lethal case is on record but was largely ignored in view of money revenue by tourism (cf. again Wikipedia).
How many mountain gorilla populations do exist? In case one gorilla group has been infected, how can a total epidemic in the wider realm be prevented?
To my humble opinion the main Virunga population's habitat should be maintained fully isolated as a strict no-go sanctuary. And a satisfactory modus operandi established with the local village people. A separate, marginal population that is open for tourists - including perhaps zoo-reared individuals – could be maintained in a habitat area where in the recent past gorillas existed or still exist.
Insert -About the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, is dedicated to saving mountain gorilla lives. With so few animals left in the world today, the organization believes it is critical to ensure the health and well being of every individual possible. The organization's international team of veterinarians, the Gorilla Doctors, is the only group providing wild mountain gorillas with direct, hands-on care. The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project partners with the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center to advance One Health strategies for mountain gorilla conservation. www.gorilladoctors.org
Insert - About the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center
The UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, home of the Mountain Gorilla One Health Program and a center of excellence within the School of Veterinary Medicine, is composed of 13 epidemiologists, disease ecologists and ecosystem health clinicians and their staff working at the cutting edge of pathogen emergence and disease tracking in ecosystems. It benefits from the expertise of 50 other participating UC Davis faculty members from many disciplines who are involved in the discovery and synthesis of information about emerging zoonotic diseases (those transmitted between people and animals) and ecosystem health. Its mission is to balance the needs of people, wildlife and the environment through research, education and service. www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/whc.
Molly Feltner, MGVP Communications Officer
My personal concern relates to the lack of certain antivirus immunal systems in the blood of. isolated ape and human communities. For instance, the small tribal communities in the remote Mount Bosavi region of Papua New Guinea suffered deadly epidemics after contacts with the outside world. An estimated 25 % (according to another source 40 % ) of the inhabitants were killed by flu and other virus diseases (measles): fairly harmless infections for us, but lethal for the local small village communities lacking the respective blood antibodies.
Emmanuel de Mérode managed to reduce illegal activities in Virunga, according to the FAZ article (see below) Certainly these facts should be valued as a great achievement! But does'nt this indication also illustrate that until then not all was done that could have been done, to improve the conservation situation ? Now, after the almost fatal experience of the ambush, the plan to protect mountain gorillas is being renewed (see headline above) – do we really have to wait for more attacks in order to take more efficient action?
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon
Berggorilla-Schützer in Kongo Attentat auf Direktor des Virunga Parks
FAZ - 16.04.2014
„Papa Emmanuel“, wie ihn seine Ranger nennen, gilt vielen in Kongo als Held. Mit seinem Einsatz hat er sich jedoch auch einige Feinde gemacht – zuletzt eine britische Erdölfirma. Wer steckt hinter dem Attentat?
Es gibt in Kongo nicht viele Ausländer, die Heldenstatus genießen. Der 43 Jahre alte Belgier Emmanuel de Mérode aber ist so einer. Seit 2008 leitet der Anthropologe den für seine Berggorillas weltberühmten Virunga-Nationalpark im Osten Kongos und hat in dieser Zeit die Wilderei eingedämmt, den illegalen Holzeinschlag stark verringert und, wenn nötig, auch blutrünstigen Rebellenführern Honig ums Maul geschmiert, solange sie nur „seine“ Gorillas in Ruhe ließen.
Es gibt nicht wenige Leute in Kongo, die behaupten, dass es die Primaten nicht mehr geben würde ohne den ebenso mutigen wie fintenreichen Einsatz des belgischen Adligen. Am vergangenen Dienstag wurde „Papa Emmanuel“, wie ihn seine Ranger liebevoll rufen, bei einem Überfall nahe der Regionalstadt Goma schwer verletzt. De Mérode war auf dem Rückweg von Goma, als Unbekannte das Feuer auf sein Fahrzeug eröffneten. Er erlitt einen Bauchschuss und einen Schuss ins Bein. Nach einer Notoperation in einem privaten Krankenhaus in Goma wurde sein Zustand am Mittwoch als ernst, aber nicht mehr lebensbedrohlich bezeichnet.
De Mérode hatte unmittelbar vor dem Überfall der Staatsanwaltschaft in Goma ein umfangreiches Dossier über die Machenschaften einer britischen Erdölfirma übergeben, die sich seit geraumer Zeit um Förderkonzessionen in dem zum Weltkulturerbe gehörenden Virunga-Nationalpark bemüht und dabei ausgesprochen robust vorgeht. Ob der Überfall mit de Mérodes Ermittlungen gegen das Ölunternehmen in Zusammenhang steht, ist indes offen. Der Belgier hatte sich auch viele Feinde bei der sogenannten Holzkohlemafia gemacht, die im Park illegale Köhlereien betreibt.
Die Nachricht von dem Mordversuch konnte jedenfalls nicht zu einem schlechteren Zeitpunkt kommen: Zwei Jahre lang war der Park für Touristen geschlossen, weil sich dort abermals Rebellen und kongolesische Armee gegenüberstanden. Seit drei Wochen ist er wieder geöffnet und lockt mit Sonderangeboten.
Compiled from various published sources
for the book in preparation: In the Name of Conservation,
by ECOCULTURE, Dr. Thomas Schultze-Westrum,
GR 64010 Prinos