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Guerrillas, gorillas and oil: A toxic mix?

Possible oil reserves underground, potential violence all around, DR Congo's famed Virunga hangs in balance

Democratic Republic of the Congo

RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of Congo — Emmanuel de Merode knows exactly when his passion began. He was a curious young man with a dream of becoming a park ranger when he first saw the mountain gorillas, giant beasts with an intelligent, surprisingly disarming nature.  

He was smitten. 

A mountain gorilla takes a break from a lunch of tree branches to check out the visitors snapping photos a few feet away.
Evelyn Iritani

“Every time you go into a group of gorillas, you’re blown off your feet,” said de Merode, who is now the director at Virunga National Park, home for 220 of the endangered animals. “It’s like being married to somebody you adore. Whether you’re 20 or 90. It’s the same thing with the mountain gorillas.”

Howard Buffett shares that passion, and the American philanthropist has joined de Merode in an unlikely partnership aimed at transforming Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage site in one of the world’s deadliest war zones, into a generator of jobs and tax revenues. The Virunga Alliance, as it is called, is a 10-year plan built around tourism, agri-business, fisheries and energy.

Already a daunting task, tensions have been raised considerably by the introduction of oil to this highly volatile situation. No one knows how large the reserves are beneath the park, but lucrative discoveries in neighboring Uganda have sparked a regional feeding frenzy.   

In 2010 the Congolese government approved licenses for oil concessions that cover 85 percent of Virunga National Park. Critics argue that those licenses violate Congolese laws. However, the government is considering passage of a new oil code, which would replace its 1980s-era hydrocarbon policy. The draft code includes a provision that would allow drilling in protected areas like national parks if an environmental assessment is completed and the government deems it in the public interest.

The hydroelectric plant uses water from Virunga National Park, providing much-needed electricity for industry in Mutsora, a town of over 30,000 people.
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Buffett concedes this is high-risk philanthropy. When two other prospective investors backed out of the project, he agreed to pay the entire $19.6 million bill to construct a 12.6-megawatt hydroelectric plant that will bring low-cost electricity to the impoverished region and provide income for the park. He is also funding the hiring of 200 new rangers, including the park’s first four female rangers.

“Let’s prove this can be done in the middle of conflict,” said Buffett, 59, the eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and a leading supporter of conservation, agriculture and economic development projects in Africa’s Great Lakes region. “If they blow up one of our bulldozers, we’ll get another bulldozer.” 

After years of trying to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems in places like Sudan and Rwanda, Howard Buffett is convinced this ambitious effort is the only way to save Africa’s oldest national park from a deadly mix of armed guerrillas, poachers, illegal charcoal traders and, most recently, Big Oil. 

“It’s a war,” he said. “It’s a war to save something you can’t replace anywhere else in the world, and it’s a war to try to bring peace to millions of people who have probably suffered as much or more than anybody else in this world.” 

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Soco International, the largest concessionaire, is poised to move forward with seismic testing in Lake Edwards, which is its current focus of interest. The London-based oil and gas developer has promised not to operate in Virunga’s mountain gorilla habitat, the Virunga volcanoes or the equatorial rain forest.

Soco’s chairman, Rui de Sousa, insisted in a July press release, “development and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive,” citing Vietnam as an example where oil has been a catalyst for positive change. 

But the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Britain, Belgium, Germany and the EU Parliament are opposed to any oil exploration in the park, and UNESCO, which oversees the World Heritage sites, has called for cancellation of Soco’s concession. More than 600,000 people have signed a petition to make the park a no-go zone for drilling.  

A bull elephant bathing and drinking in Virunga’s Lake Edward.
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The British government is reviewing a complaint filed by the WWF that accuses Soco of violating Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) environmental and human rights guidelines in Virunga. Soco denies any breach of OECD rules and has said its operations comply fully with the laws of the DRC.

The introduction of drilling rigs, pipelines and roads present a danger to an already fragile ecosystem, said Allard Blom, managing director of the WWF’s Congo Basin project, who fears the park would become more accessible to poachers and illegal loggers. Another key worry is the prospect of an oil spill in Lake Edward, the source of food, water and income for more than 50,000 people, mostly fishermen.

“The impacts of oil exploitation extend much farther than the immediate area of extraction,” he said, pointing to the serious environmental problems and black-market activities that were triggered by the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta, Africa’s largest wetland.

A 2012 report by the International Crisis Group warned that an oil rush in central Congo could have a “significant destabilizing effect” on the vulnerable country and could “aggravate conflict” and “feed secessionist tendencies.”

Faced with this global barrage of criticism, Total SA, the French oil giant, recently agreed not to pursue oil in Virunga or any other World Heritage site.  

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Tourism is the key to unlocking the park’s potential, de Merode said. Virunga, which encompasses soaring glacier-topped volcanoes, giant lava lakes and lush tropical forests, is home for some of the world’s rarest wildlife, including the elusive okapi and a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas. The gorillas make their home in the Virunga Mountains, which straddle the border of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.

Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga.
Evelyn Iritani

“The idea of developing tourism is not a pipe dream,” de Merode said, pointing out that Rwanda now brings in close to half a billion dollars a year in tourism revenue, mostly from gorilla treks. “It’s a major strategic interest for the future of the country.”  

That won’t be easy. The 3,000-square-mile park is in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is ground zero of a bitter civil war that has claimed 5 million lives since 1996.  

Since the start of the war, more than 130 of the park’s rangers have been killed on duty, most of them by rebels or poachers. In January a ranger was killed and several others badly injured when they were ambushed during a crackdown on illegal charcoal trading, a $35 million-a-year business.

The M23, one of two dozen armed groups battling for turf in the region, moved into the park in the spring of 2012, forcing the park’s closure. In November the rebels agreed to negotiate a peace agreement with the government, paving the way for the park’s reopening.  

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Virunga is a bumpy two-hour drive from Goma, the hub of eastern Congo, and park rangers stationed at strategic points along the dirt road, toting AK-47s and two-way radios, greet visitors to the newly reopened park.

Park rangers stationed on Mt. Mikeno are the front line in the battle to protect the endangered mountain gorillas living in Virunga National Park.
Evelyn Iritani

“This is low-volume tourism, so we can put a lot of effort into looking after people,” said de Merode. “We put safety above all else.”

He is pushing the Congolese government to pursue a full strategic environmental assessment before allowing oil exploration to move forward in the park. But he knows that in the “arms race for the most jobs and the best-quality jobs,” it is up to him to prove that the Virunga Alliance offers the Congolese people a better future.

“We manage a park that’s in one of the most violent places on earth, and the vast majority of the people live on less than $30 a month,” he said. “There are 4 million of them who live less than a day’s walk from the park’s boundary. Unless we’re able to turn this park around and ensure it’s an asset for them … then the park won’t survive.”

This is the second in a two-part look at Virunga National Park. The first part, which appeared Monday, broadly examined the park’s reopening and preparation for tourism.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Evelyn Iritani’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.