This week the World Heritage Committee (WHC) called upon governments and oil companies to stop the proposed oil exploration in Virunga National Park in the DRC, during its annual meeting in St. Petersburg. But given the unresponsiveness of the DRC government to earlier calls, our hopes are not high for change.
I was working in the independent NGO forum where WWF explained the threats posed by oil exploration to Virunga, and we sent out a clear message to the WHC meeting. This was the first time ever that civil society had organised itself and come up with firm recommendations for the WHC. Greenpeace Russia took the lead, and more than 100 people from 24 countries joined to discuss concerns on World Heritage Sites around the world. This was incredibly important because these areas have outstanding natural and cultural values that must be preserved for future generations.
Virunga National Park was one of the hot topics besides the threatened Russian World Heritage sites and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Greenpeace rang the alarm about the fate of Virunga earlier this year when the DRC government gave oil exploration permits to British oil and gas company SOCO in the National Park. Tens of thousands of people depend on the park for their livelihoods, from fishing to ecotourism, and the park is also home to approximately 480 endangered mountain gorillas.
The Virunga case clearly shows the unscrupulousness of companies that are eager to start drilling in a conservation area of outstanding environmental value. The DRC government is contradicting its own laws as well as breaching the World Heritage Convention which does not permit oil exploration and exploitation in the park.
The WHC wants the exploration permits revoked, and calls upon the countries where oil companies are headquartered, including the British and French governments in the cases of SOCO and Total, to ensure they do not damage the World Heritage properties. Last but not least, they urge the oil companies to pledge to stay out of all World Heritage Sites.