Virunga, the Congo, and Oil

An Interview with "Virunga" Journalist Melanie Gouby

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Virunga National Park – the oldest park in Africa and the most biodiverse region on the continent, home to mountain gorillas – is currently at the center of an oil controversy, which threatens its status and protection as a World Heritage site. For two years, French journalist Melanie Gouby investigated the concession granted to Soco International (UK) that allows oil drilling within the park’s boundaries. To Gouby, the story is less about the pursuit of oil, and more about a violation of “the rule of law” that harkens back to 30 years of colonialism, dictatorship, and warfare. “Not everyone in Congo government is interested in rule of law and the environment,” says Gouby. “But for a British company to use the Congo's weakness to their advantage is criminal.”

November 18, 2014 | Michael Shellenberger,

What initially motivated you to go to the Congo?

I always wanted to cover issues of justice since I grew up with a sense of social justice. The reason I went to Congo was because my first job out of university was covering the International Criminal Court in The Hague. I worked for an organization called the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that does a lot of media capacity development in Congo, Afghanistan, Kosovo, etc. They hired me to cover the International Criminal Court, and produce a radio program broadcast in DRC. All of the trials dealt with Congolese warlords. After a few years they got funding to go to DRC, where I trained Congolese women journalists in print and radio reporting. I fell in love with the place, as many people do.

What did you fall in love with?

The people are very genuine and endearing, and life has so much intensity since life and death are so close together. They know tomorrow can be a tragedy. The paradox is that people are immediate in their relations and full of joy. And it’s a really beautiful place. Goma is on Lake Kivu. Crystal clear water. Green hills. Volcanoes. It’s really gorgeous. And obviously the historical background and everything together really attracted me.

What did you do there?

I ran a newsroom with 20 Congolese journalists. We produced articles, radio programs, and we had our own web site. I worked there from April 2011 until April 2012. It was a really exciting experience since it allowed me to work so deeply with the community there. Just as I stopped doing that work, the M23 commanders rebelled again, and it became obvious that I had to stay and cover that. Not only was that a good opportunity for me as a freelancer, but I was also the only foreign correspondent based in Goma. I worked as a stringer for Associated Press and Le Figaro.

How did you come across the Soco story?

I met the people working for Soco International and started investigating the situation within the park. I already knew about Virunga National Park because it’s such a major institution. I had already done a couple of reports on tourism and the gorillas, and I wanted to do something about the oil issue.

Is there any oil and gas that’s not in the park?

There are two things. Oil was never a focus for Congo. They have one company, a French company, Perenco, that has operated on the west coast near Kinshasa for a decade. For a long time it was the only operation. Uganda started exploring in the Albertine rift area, and they found a lot of oil in Lake Albert. That pushed Congo to look into its own oil reserves, since half of Lake Albert is in Congo, and Congo doesn’t want to miss out. Around 2005 they started dividing areas into certain oil blocks and selling them to companies. Soco’s block is Block 5. Blocks 1 through 3 have been sold to other companies. Two blocks are in Lake Albert, and that’s been explored and they found oil, and Block 3 they don’t know if there is oil yet. Block 4, also in the park, was never acquired by an oil company.

Oil is not just in the park, and Congo has really just started to explore its potential as an oil country. Exploring in the park doesn’t really make sense since you have other places that are not controversial, or might be controversial for other reasons, but are not illegal. Mainly the oil is on the west coast, and there is exploration there. Lake Albert has a lot of oil, and it’s not part of the park.

Also, we didn’t make it clear in the film, but it’s not like Soco only got a concession in the park, half of their concession is outside the Virunga National Park. They could have explored outside of the park. But they decided to go right in the center of the park, and that’s illegal.

Why did Soco do that?

Because that’s the most likely place where there is oil I imagine. There’s the legal aspect, and then there's what the company sees as potential. Total, the French oil company, has Block 3, north of the park, and similarly to Soco's block it covers part of Virunga, but Total says they would never explore inside of the park. It's a question of ethics.

If it’s illegal to explore in park, why did government give contract to Soco to explore in park?

The contract that was signed does not mention anything about the park. It doesn’t say Soco can explore in the park. The contract says you are supposed to respect environmental laws. Congo is a country coming out of centuries of colonization that destroyed its political system and society, 30 years of dictatorship, and 20 years of war, and it’s not working the way it should be working with good governance, rule of law. It is governed by people with conflicting interest. Not everyone in Congo government is interested in rule of law and the environment. But for a British company to use the Congo's weakness to their advantage is criminal. Right now, for what I know the Congolese government is sitting on the fence. They are caught in a situation where they haven’t made up their mind about drilling in the park, but there is a lot of pressure on both sides.

Is there a concern the government will de-gazette that part of the park?

Yes, that’s one possibility. Soco finished its seismic study in July 2014, and are analyzing the data now. They will present the data set to the Congolese government in mid-2015. There is no precise date, but I would imagine May, June, July 2015. At that point, if the government wants to explore further, they will have to declassify the park. If they want to drill, they will have to declassify the park.

Was that part of the motivation to make the film?

Yes, absolutely. The film's goal is to expose that this British company is trying to explore for oil in one of the oldest parks in the world, protected by the highest level of national and international law.

Do you have any idea how much oil is there?

That’s an interesting question. My opinion is that there is no oil. Lake Edward is partly in Congo and partly in Uganda. The part that is in Uganda has been explored already by another oil company, and they drilled a well and it came out dry. So there are really few chances there is oil in Lake Edward and Virunga. 

So then are you not worried? No oil no worries?

First, to drill an exploratory well is a huge deal in terms of environmental impact, even if they don't end up finding oil. It's like building a factory at the heart of the most biodiverse place in Africa. And then, exploring for oil and drilling is illegal because of the park's status. For me the story is not so much about the environment itself. It's about the rule of law. If you allow drilling and violate the rule of law, that’s tremendously damaging. The heart of the conflict in Congo is the lack of state authority and governance and the absence of rule of law. That’s why there’s a conflict in the DRC. For a British company to violate the law and say it’s okay to do that, it reinforces the idea that you can act with impunity in Eastern Congo. It weakens further state authority. The rangers are civil servants who represent the Congolese state. For a British company to violate the law, and go against the rangers who are supposed to enforce the law, just plays into the conflict dynamics.

Can DRC exploit its oil resources while protecting the park?

The area where Soco wants to exploit is right in the middle of the park, it is Lake Edward and the adjacent savannah, and that area has the greatest biodiversity of the park, possibly of the entire African continent. There are elephants, lions, hippos, buffalos, hundreds of birds and fish species...You can’t just take that place out of the park, and keep the rest. World Heritage Site status doesn't work like that, and it begs the question, what do we mean by “protection”?

But if the issue is only state authority, would you then would be okay if the government de-classified, or de-gazetted the park?  

You need to have a debate, a democratic process taking place. If Congolese are okay with that, then yes, that’s their right. But you need to have a proper democratic process before you make the decision to declassify the park and allow for oil exploration. In light of the way things have happened so far, that democratic process has not taken place and is now compromised.  If Congolese authorities, following a democratic process, and a sufficient national debate, in the media, in consultation with local communities, decide that it is in the best interest of the country to explore for oil, that is their right. But it has to be done in a democratic way. And given that Soco has already gone into the park despite the law, and the lobbying they have been doing in Kinshasa, I don't think they are respecting that democratic process.

What do the locals think about drilling in the park?

The local population I’ve been talking to have been clear in their understanding of the history of natural resources being exploited and them not benefiting. It’s always the more powerful people who benefit from it. They have no illusion that oil will be any different. An oil industry in North Kivu would not bring jobs for the local population and revenues would go directly to Kinshasa. DRC doesn’t have very good track record using its public money. So people are legitimately worried that the money would disappear into other people’s pockets. Then you’ve got a situation where you are replacing the potential for a local economy with something that will not create any jobs, and will create dependency on the state.

Is that a problem specific to oil or to all development in the region?

Well I'd imagine no one would think a project is a “development” project if it's destroying the potential for a flourishing local economy! We're not talking about conservation vs. development here. It really is two different models of development confronting each other. We know the oil model is broken, not just because of climate change, but also because it never benefits the local population. The Virunga National Park has the potential to create nearly 100,000 jobs in the next decade thanks to tourism and rural eletrification programs the park is already implementing for communities living around its boundaries. That is real development.

Is that the area where the mountain gorillas are?

No, the mountain gorillas are in the Virunga Mountains, not in the plain. The mountains are a volcanic area, and for that reason there can’t be oil in that area. So it's not like Soco is being mindful of the gorillas, it's just that it is geologically impossible for oil to be there. The gorillas are not in any direct danger from oil exploration, but if the oil project goes ahead, because of the implications for the park, they will be directly affected.

Has UNESCO said they would take away World Heritage status with drilling?

Yes, oil exploration and drilling is incompatible with World Heritage Site status as per the UNESCO convention.

How did Emmanuel de Merode get the job as park director?

In 2007, you had this terrible episode where the former park director was corrupt and involved with people running the charcoal trade, and was turning a blind eye. People who were behind the charcoal trade massacred several gorillas to destroy the park. There was an investigation into the massacre, which established that the park director was involved. He was fired, and the park authorities asked Emmanuel to take over. He had been working there as a consultant, and coming up with all of these ideas to revive the park, and the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) asked him to take over.

Is there a strategy to bring modern energy to people living near the park?

Access to energy and development is key to protecting Virunga. The Virunga Alliance program is about how they are going to make conservation work with the local people around. They just finished building a hydroelectric power plant north of the park, very well designed, that is nested in the mountain, and is very small, and doesn’t retain water, just uses the flow of the current, and generates energy for the local village, and that’s thousands of people, and that already has had tremendous impact for local businesses.

There is a soap factory because of the sustainable electricity supply, and that’s about 400 jobs. It also means that local palm oil farmers can get a higher price for their crop, so they won’t need to farm as much land. That means there is less pressure on the park because farmers won't try to expand their fields into the park. So this is a holistic approach to conservation. That was a pilot project, it worked and now the park is going to expand that to other areas around the park, building a grassroots economy based on the protection of the environment. It's revolutionary, but they need to be given a chance.

 

Photo Credit: GRN (left); Orlando von Einsiedel / Virunga (right)


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