Congo’s Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa and the Salonga National Park, home to endangered Gorillas have been handed over by Congo’s President to a UK oil company, Soco, to be destroyed for oil exploration.
Last month, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) triggered international outrage when it confirmed that it was considering opening up two of its national parks to oil exploration. It said a committee would put together plans to declassify parts of Salonga and Virunga in a bid to increase oil production.
Both national parks are renowned UNESCO world heritage sites. Salonga is Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve and contains several endemic endangered species. Virunga is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas and is home to hundreds of the critically endangered mountain gorillas.
The parks are home to bush elephants, critically endangered mountain gorillas and the Bonobo – an endangered ape.
Both parks are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with Salonga National Park covering 36,000 sq km (13,900 sq miles) of the Congo Basin – the world’s second-largest rainforest after the Amazon.
The news was therefore understandably met with great concern among environmentalists as well as several questions. Why is the Congolese government doing this? What will happen next? What can be done? Why has the AU remained silent?
The government has defended its right to authorize drilling anywhere in the country, and said it was mindful of protecting animals and plants in the two UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The cabinet said it had approved the establishment of commissions charged with preparing plans to declassify sections of the parks, including 664 square miles, or 21.5 percent, of eastern Congo’s Virunga.
The first important thing to recognize is that, despite its actions, the Congolese government has no interest in actually developing the oil sector. The main reason for this is that doing so would take time and investment, while political careers in the Congo are short and unstable.
Those in power are also aware that such sources of revenue could end up in opponents’ hands or might have to be extracted in a politically-hostile part of the country.
A second important feature of the DRC’s oil sector to note is that it is highly presidentialized. All major state actions come from the presidency or a minister according to the president’s priorities. Other officials have no substantial influence. This means that putting pressure on lower tiers will not produce results.
This arrangement allows the president to maintain tight political control of oil-related revenues and rents. For over a decade, for example, Kabila did not want the blocks overlapping Salonga National Park to become productive.
Part of the reason is that this could benefit Jean-Pierre Bemba, arguably his greatest political rival. A key associate of Bemba had a direct financial involvement in the block, though this may no longer be the case, and progress would likely bring profits to Bemba’s fiefdom of former Equateur province as well as his associates and other regime outsiders from the region.
There is nothing about this that spells development, rather these actions are born out of greed and corruption. The AU must act now, not only to save the heritage sites and wildlife, but the people of Congo and Africa in general.