The government of Uganda has finally given a green light to extract oil and gas resources in the Greater Virunga landscape which is iconic to endangered species. On the other hand, the DR Congo government has opted not to extract oil and preserve the Virunga landscape due to the combined effort shown by the international community that has been fought to keep Virunga intact. Subsequently, SOCO a British company has withdrawn interest in undertaking exploration activities in the part of Virunga in DRC.
It can be remembered and traced that in March 2011, the DRC Environment Minister Jose Endundo rejected an environmental assessment submitted by SOCO and announced that the government would now be conducting its own environmental assessment into oil exploration in Virunga, as well as the entire border region. SOCO denies the fact that drilling in the area could damage the park’s ecosystem and increase political tension in the area. Despite the DRC government’s decision, SOCO continues to drill on the Ugandan side of the border.
However, Virunga area is a home to Mountain Gorillas that are referred to as endangered species and tourism potential guided by its natural beauty. Moreover, Virunga is a source of critical ecosystem services than as an oil testing ground. Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Edward, for example, is responsible for a third of all visits to Uganda’s national parks that draws majorly international tourists who contribute to around 8% of Uganda’s GDP. Oil exploration for that matter is likely to lead to a significant fall in number of tourists. It is estimated that Gorilla tourism currently fetches about $10m (UGX34b) annually.2
This area is sitting in parts of Queen Elizabeth National Park and it is referred to as Ngaji block where oil extraction will take place. The Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest and most bio-diverse park covering 7800 square Km that stretches from Virunga Mountains in the South, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North to eastern DRC, bordering Rwanda and Uganda.
On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth National Park is part of the only remaining migratory corridor of all the wild animals between Uganda and the DRC. Lake Edward is at the heart of a chain of lakes, including Lake George and Albert. These lakes are connected by Kazinga Channel that feeds into the catchment of River Nile that flows into Lake Albert.
Lake Edward is a vital source of food for over 200,000 people and its water feed the Nile and Congo rivers as well as the wider Great Lakes region. Therefore, any oil and gas extraction activities in this area could lead to significant damage to the region and the broader ecosystem including people and animals that depend on it. In 2015 and 2016, there were over 60 local and international organisations namely; Jeunesse du Monde République Démocratique (DRC), Greenpeace, Global Witness and Rainforest Foundation UK are among others that have been calling both the Uganda and DRC governments to refrain from all oil-related activities in the Greater Virunga National Park. There have been quite a number of debates on if oil extraction can co-exist with conservation and tourism. The Ugandan government officials call for oil extraction whereas the conservationists call for the protection of natural habitat and skip oil exploitation. It has been reported that there are fears that oil extraction would scare aware the wildlife and change the face of the landscape of the Virunga with massive pollution thereby exacerbating poaching.
Robert Tumwesigye, Chairperson of Pro-Biodiversity Conservation was interviewed by the Gerald Tenywa of the New Vision and said that; conservation offers a lot of benefits. The tourism revenue is a small part of the benefits. The pollination of crops by bees and butterflies increases productivity of farmland and this will not take place in a depleted environment. The production of hydroelectric power will be compromised if the catchment of the lakes and the rivers are destroyed. The fisheries will be affected in case of an oil spill. We should engage the international community to leave the oil in the ground but get compensation because conservation produces global benefits.
With the activities associated with oil exploitation such as disruptive seismic tests, forest clearing, deep underground drilling, or the laying of vulnerable oil pipelines; these activities seem to be damaging and far away from being green to rich biodiversity areas such as Greater Virunga. I think, these kind of activities are illegal to Heritage sites, aren’t they? However, I am not sure about the findings of strategic environmental impacts assessment considered before giving green light to this activity in this sensitive area. These misunderstanding should be resolved with participatory and transparent EIA/ SEA and the reports from the study should be made public.