Congo approves oil drilling in natural parks

By Prince Kurupati

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has approved the much-maligned decision to allow oil drilling in two natural parks Virunga and Salonga National Parks, two parks that are home to bonobos, mountain gorillas and other rare primate species.

Towards the end of 2017, there were rumours that the Kabila administration was seriously considering opening up natural parks in the country to oil drilling. Government officials who were interviewed at the time vehemently denied the rumours but the announcement by the government last Friday demonstrates that the rumours were indeed true.

In a statement, the government said the Congo Cabinet had sat down and deliberated on the issue and came to a conclusion that to allow “the establishment of interministerial commissions charged with preparing plans to declassify sections of the parks.” The statement went further to state that 1,720 square-kilometres, or about 20 percent, of eastern Congo’s Virunga, will be opened up for oil drilling.

Both Virunga National Park and the Salonga National Park are Unesco World Heritage Sites. Virunga National Park is the oldest national park on the continent and it is home to over half the global population of mountain gorillas. The national park is located in the forests that have central Africa’s dormant volcanoes.

Salonga National Park is one of the biggest national parks on the continent covering 12,900 square miles of the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest. Salonga is home to rare species in Congo peacocks, dwarf chimpanzees, forest elephants and bonobos.

When the rumours of the possible opening up of the Virunga and Salonga national parks broke out at the end of last year, the rumours were met with met with fierce opposition from environmental activists. Many environmental activists both from the country and outside have already voiced their concerns over the development.

Environmental activists say that by opening up these national parks for oil exploration, the government of Congo is putting at risk the life of endangered species that live in the parks. They are convinced that once oil exploration starts, the government in conjunction with the oil exploration companies will not be considering the lives or safety of wildlife but will be more concerned with making profits.

Furthermore, environmental activists argue that by opening up the national parks for oil exploration, the government of Congo will significantly contribute to the global warming problem that has led many African countries to experience drought.

While the government of Congo has already stated that it will be opening up the national parks, it has not stated the companies that will explore the national parks nor has there been an oil company that has announced or showed any interest in exploring the parks. Soco International, a British company once performed seismic testing at the Virunga National Park but its license lapsed in 2015.

Currently, Virunga National Park is closed to visitors following the kidnapping of two British tourists and the death of a ranger in May this year. The park is expected to open its gates to visitors starting in January 2019.

Defending its decision, the government of Congo said it was mindful of protecting animals and plants in the two Unesco World Heritage sites.

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